User Research vs. Market Research

Cat cuddling with a dog

User research and market research do a lot of similar things but come from different backgrounds. The differences are nuanced but the topic comes up in conversation, so it’s worth understanding.

Research Goals and Mindsets

This is how design and market research consultant Brianna Sylver characterized the difference between design/UX and market research on a recent Aurelius podcast:

“A user experience researcher sees the value or role of an insight as a means to an end… they approach their entire work more from a solution-making perspective.”

By comparison, market researchers are more likely to treat insights as ends in themselves.

I suspect this relates to the disciplines’ different pedigrees. UX research has evolved to serve the needs of software product and design teams, which have relatively short iteration and release cycles. It isn’t unusual to see effects of our recommendations almost immediately.

Market research has its roots in industries like consumer packaged goods, where findings and recommendations require a lot more time, vetting and deliberation. Facebook constantly tweaks its products. For Nike or Procter & Gamble, a “tweak” could have massive ripple effects: factories might need to be retooled, retail displays redesigned, employees trained, ads shot, warehouses full of old inventory to be sold, etc.

The result is different cultures with different values: UX researchers who tend to prioritize actionability, collaboration, and agility; market researchers who tend to prioritize methodology, confidence, and polish.

Methodologies and Approaches

Any generalization here is going to be misleading. UX researchers and market researchers have different tendencies, but we still do and value a lot of the same things, at least sometimes.

The UX research community generally favours qualitative, behavioural studies (like contextual interviews or ethnography) over quantitative, attitudinal research (like large-sample studies asking people how they feel).

That doesn’t mean UX researchers are innumerate or that market researchers never leave the office.

We tend to gravitate toward qualitative methods because it’s easier to make specific, actionable recommendations when we’re absorbed in the experience we’re helping to design. It’s more viscerally impactful to watch 2 out of 5 usability test participants struggle and fail to use a key feature than it is to read on a slide that 40% of customers are unsatisfied with it.

Conclusion

There’s a lot we can learn from each other. The more methods we have at our disposal, the more able we are to deal with the full range of challenges and opportunities that might come up.

At the same time, there are benefits for treating UX research and market research as distinct disciplines — just as marketing and sales complement each other with skills and mindsets optimized for different perspectives.




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