A feature of many of the chemical systems plausibly involved in the origins of terrestrial life is that they are complex and messy-producing a wide range of compounds via a wide range of mechanisms. However, the fundamental behaviour of such systems is currently not well understood; we do not have the tools to make statistical predictions about such complex chemical networks. This is, in part, due to a lack of quantitative data from which such a theory could be built; specifically, functional measurements of messy chemical systems. Here, we propose that the pantheon of experimental approaches to the origins of life should be expanded to include the study of `functional measurements'-the direct study of bulk properties of chemical systems and their interactions with other compounds, the formation of structures and other behaviours, even in cases where the precise composition and mechanisms are unknown. This article is part of the themed issue 'Reconceptualizing the origins of life'.