Market Research Is NOT User Research

Con­fus­ing mar­ket research for user research can have dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences to your design.

Larry Marine By Larry Marine from Intuitive Design. Join the discussion » 0 comments

With the increas­ing adop­tion of UX prac­tices by more and more com­pa­nies, there is a grow­ing con­fu­sion over the dif­fer­ences between mar­ket research and user research. Part of this con­fu­sion stems from sim­i­lar­i­ties between the two process­es; lead­ing many peo­ple to think the two process­es are syn­ony­mous. Even though they share sim­i­lar steps, each focus­es on very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and answers dif­fer­ent ques­tions.

Giv­en that UX design relies so heav­i­ly on accu­rate user research, con­fus­ing mar­ket research for user research can have dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences on your UX design efforts.

What Is Market Research?

Mar­ket research is a sys­tem­at­ic process of col­lect­ing and ana­lyz­ing tar­get cus­tomer data, the com­pe­ti­tion, and the tar­get mar­ket envi­ron­ment to aid in mak­ing mar­ket­ing, brand­ing, mes­sag­ing, posi­tion­ing, and pric­ing deci­sions. The pri­ma­ry goal is to under­stand what peo­ple will buy and how to incite them to buy your prod­uct.

Mar­ket research relies on large, sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant sam­ple sets, which often lim­its the research to those meth­ods that can be applied to larg­er groups. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, such research relies large­ly on self-report­ing meth­ods that iden­ti­fy what peo­ple say, rather than what they do, and can take months.

Mar­ket research typ­i­cal­ly relies on sub­jec­tive, self-report­ed data, which has its lim­i­ta­tions. Mar­ket research is good for get­ting user reac­tions to an exist­ing prod­uct, but isn’t very use­ful in iden­ti­fy­ing inno­va­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties. At best, mar­ket research only uncov­ers incre­men­tal improve­ments of an exist­ing solu­tion.

What Is User Research?

User research, on the oth­er hand, focus­es on under­stand­ing the behav­ioral aspects of the users and more accu­rate­ly iden­ti­fies their needs. This research dri­ves spe­cif­ic design deci­sions by deter­min­ing how peo­ple will use a prod­uct and how to con­trol user inter­ac­tions via the inter­face design.

User expe­ri­ence design is based on the notion that users always have a reac­tion or expe­ri­ence with every inter­face, whether you design for it or not, so it is bet­ter to design for a desired expe­ri­ence. User research focus­es on under­stand­ing the knowl­edge base and behav­ioral aspects of users with­in the giv­en domain. It also serves to more accu­rate­ly iden­ti­fy the trig­gers, expect­ed tasks, and desired out­comes of the intend­ed users.

Since user research is used pri­mar­i­ly to dri­ve design deci­sions, it doesn’t require large sam­ple sets. His­tor­i­cal­ly, 3–5 users can iden­ti­fy about 80 per­cent of the design issues with a prod­uct in about a day. One advan­tage of rely­ing on small­er sam­ple sizes is the abil­i­ty to col­lect more objec­tive, observ­able data, and to con­duct iter­a­tive research to fur­ther refine the results.

What peo­ple say and do are always very dif­fer­ent things. Obser­va­tion­al research is much more objec­tive and more accu­rate­ly defines the need users have, even if they don’t know what that need tru­ly is. As Hen­ry Ford is (mis)quoted as say­ing, “If I had asked my cus­tomers what they want­ed, they would have said faster hors­es.”

Case In Point

Years ago, the trav­el lug­gage indus­try was stag­nat­ing and mar­ket researchers heard cus­tomers com­plain that they want­ed lighter lug­gage. For years, lug­gage com­pa­nies focused on mak­ing lighter lug­gage.

Then one com­pa­ny sent researchers out to observe trav­el­ers in air­ports, to watch peo­ple use trav­el lug­gage. They not­ed how cum­ber­some the lug­gage was to car­ry, espe­cial­ly when tra­vers­ing the long cor­ri­dors of air­port ter­mi­nals. So, instead of focus­ing on mak­ing lug­gage lighter, the com­pa­ny decid­ed to add wheels to the lug­gage, and a design rev­o­lu­tion began.

You Can’t Get There From Here

When ask­ing for direc­tions in Maine, you some­times hear “You can’t get there from here.” This usu­al­ly means that the path to a desired objec­tive is so con­vo­lut­ed that it’s too dif­fi­cult to describe.

User reac­tions to an exist­ing design are usu­al­ly lim­it­ed to the users’ under­stand­ing of the cur­rent solu­tion and pro­vide only incre­men­tal improve­ments over an exist­ing design, not tru­ly inno­v­a­tive insights.

Users aren’t very good at think­ing out­side the box. Giv­en that your team is more knowl­edge­able about your prod­uct domain than your users, they are more like­ly to iden­ti­fy inno­v­a­tive oppor­tu­ni­ties by observ­ing the users than they are by ask­ing users for ideas.

Mar­ket research pro­vides a gen­er­al direc­tion to inves­ti­gate, but user research more accu­rate­ly dri­ves UX design deci­sions.

Market Research vs. User Research

  • Wants vs. Needs
  • Reac­tive vs. Proac­tive
  • Sta­tis­ti­cal Sig­nif­i­cance vs. Good Enough
  • Incre­men­tal vs. Inno­v­a­tive
  • Time Con­sum­ing vs. Quick
  • Infre­quent vs. Iter­a­tive
  • Sub­jec­tive vs. Objec­tive
  • Direc­tion vs. Design

I can tell in just a glance what kind of research was done when I look at a design. If it looks pret­ty much like every oth­er design in that domain, it’s like­ly based on mar­ket research. But if it unique­ly solves a spe­cif­ic user prob­lem, then it was like­ly based on real user research. More­over, it will also be the mar­ket leader because it solves a real user prob­lem.

Both research meth­ods have their uses, but you must avoid rely­ing on mar­ket research to dri­ve your UX design effort. UX design requires dif­fer­ent infor­ma­tion than what you get from con­duct­ing mar­ket research. The result­ing dif­fer­ence becomes glar­ing­ly obvi­ous once you’ve con­duct­ed actu­al user research.

Larry Marine

Written by Larry Marine

Director, UX Design, Intuitive Design

Larry Marine earned his degree in User Experience/User Centered Design from the father of UX, Dr. Don Norman. A UX Consultant for 25 years, Larry has created some of the most successful designs on the web, including Proflowers, FedEx Print, and others. His success comes from looking at web interactions very differently, from the user's perspective. His talks, though infrequent, are often some of the most well-attended and reviewed at various conferences. His depth and breadth of experience and knowledge puts him in that rare breed often referred to as a true UX expert.

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