user research

Market Research Is NOT User Research

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.