Market Research vs. User Research — Which Should I Use to Understand Customers?

We all want to collect customer feedback, right? Then you might have heard of market research and user research, methods that allow you to systematically gather and analyze customer feedback. But then again, you might be wondering, what’s the difference between the two?

For most of you, I guess, you couldn’t care less about the nomenclature as long as you get the customer insight you want. However, in the corporate world, these two functions do belong to separate departments and, as such, you do need to know which one you should turn to if you seek their help. Even if you hire independent consultants or do it by yourself, a basic understanding of the two approaches would help you get high quality customer feedback.

Market Research — Focusing on Monetization

With the exception of people working closely with UI designs and front-end development, market research probably is a far more familiar concept to us. It focuses on gathering customer feedback in driving business decisions related to branding, sales, and marketing and not so much on product design decisions. For example, market research encompasses areas such as customer segmentation, marketing messaging and advertising evaluation, evaluating product viability in the market place, tracking brand loyalty, figuring out what price is acceptable by customers for the product.

Goal: Improve bottom line by understanding your customers.

Focus: Customers’ attitude and perception toward your brand and products, socioeconomic statuses, and purchase decisions.

User Research — The Key to Developing Great User Experience

User research, on the other hand, specifically focuses on understanding user experience — experiences associated with actually interacting with a product. Therefore it focuses on evaluating usability, workflow, information architecture, and other elements related to product design.

Goal: Improve user experience, which in turn translates into improved bottom line, through understanding customers.

Focus: User interaction across all touchpoints with products, services, and brand.

Market Research vs. User Research — Who Cares!

Truth be told, despite the differences between them, much of the market research vs. user research debate is an artifact of political turf wars happening between the two research organizations living within large corporations. How do I know? Well, because I worked with both types of organizations as internal employees first and external independent consultant later.

For you guys who simply want to learn about user behavior and develop successful products, you can do better by not focusing on the nomenclature but the end results!

That’s because there’s a lot of overlap between these two disciplines. And because they can borrow ideas from each other to be truly effective in giving us valid and actionable consumer insight.

Whereas market research is expected to focus on how people make purchase decisions and how the business can benefit from such decision making, market researchers can be more effective by looking at the context or workflow in which customers make such decisions — that, traditionally, is a user research topic, focusing on the interaction between people and your products.

For example, when we helped with the UX design of the 4evercard app and Complaint app, at the earliest stage, we conducted informal market research interviews to understand if there’s a gap in the current market that these apps could fit it.

And, whereas user research focuses on improving user experience, in the end, you care about user experience because you want to make money, right? Therefore it makes total sense to align user research to business priorities. For example, you might find 10 UI design issues that undermine user experience, but there’re three that critically impact the bottom line (e.g., difficulty in checkout is almost always a top usability issue that matters a lot to the bottom line), and then you shall focus on these three to begin with. That mind set, traditionally associated with market research, is nevertheless important when you do your user research.

To learn more about this topic:

I gathered a list of customer feedback techniques, with no distinction between market research and user research techniques as I don’t believe that’s important to most of people, based on the business questions you want to answer.

Also read an article describing four elements of user experience, which paints a holistic picture of user experience and how it connects with business results.

By Frank Guo




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