Market Research vs. User Research

50s-style drawing of women sitting around a table

Understanding How to Utilize User Voice

As a User Researcher, you’ll sometimes hear your clients ask,

“Where in the research do you ask about brand awareness and perception?”

And this is a question for a Market Researcher. Market research is not something many User Researchers do, as it’s a different approach and skill set. But it’s become a frequent request and consideration to “just throw in” to a user research scope of work.

“You’ll already be talking to users, so….?”

Fair enough, but the objectives of those research types are very different. To be fair, I can sometimes understand why this confusion occurs. Historically, market research has been around for much longer than user research, and they both share the value of user-generated feedback. But in the digital space, the two now feel diluted and, as a Researcher, I often need to defend my approach and methodology.

Wikipedia defines market research as:
To identify and analyze the needs of the market, market size and competition, mostly focused on maintaining competitiveness over competitors.

Whereas user research defined is:
Focusing on user behaviors, needs, and motivations specifically in relation to a product, specifically related to the design.

Keeping this in mind, the following are key areas of differentiation we use in the defense of user research.

Brand Experience vs. User Experience

“How users view the brand will be telling of their user experience, right?”

Right, but there is a difference between brand opinions and user findings. The thing to think through here is the scale needed to achieve viable feedback.

Generally, to get viable brand experience feedback, you’ll want to utilize quantitative research tactics. And depending on the organization, hundreds of participants need to be recruited for statistically valid findings. This tends to have a high cost in both time and money. If not carefully done, the feedback generated won’t be based on fact or knowledge, and only exist as judgments. Because people tend to be fickle and form opinions that are influenced by infinite and inconsistent personal feelings and standards.

User experience research can be qualitative, meaning research can be smaller in scale. You usually only need to test with five users since goals are aimed at understanding what users say in relation to what they actually do. When done well, this results in data that is reflective of the attitudes and behaviors of your entire audience. The result is lower-cost research with a high value.

Therefore, the difference here is the breadth of questions asked of the participants. The user experience can be understood with user research as it reveals user expectations, motivations, and goals. But user experience can’t be perceived by simply understanding a few opinions of a brand alone.

Market Demographics vs. Audience Information Need

Well-planned and strategic recruitment is key to effective and valid findings for both user and market research. However, recruitment is done very differently in both instances. Recruitment for market research relies heavily on a demographic spread and usually one or two defined user behaviors (e.g. participants will go to a museum on a rainy during). User research also looks to recruit a demographic spread but in consideration of the user’s information needs (e.g. participants seek to understand what exhibits are on display prior to visiting a museum on a rainy day). By defining the information needs before recruiting users, this ensures that you are collecting data from participants who reflect your users based on behaviors that drive decisions rather than focusing on attitudes defined by an outcome.

Diving deeper, a lot of considerations need to take place for user research recruitment to be effective. First, internal teams need to reflect and define audience types for the site/product (because designing for everybody means you’re designing for nobody). Audience types are categories of people who are prioritized and make up an entire sites/product user base. These categories work to provide a clear and true representation of people who will actively be using a site or product. For example, for a site like NYU, their audience types could be, “high school senior research campuses,” “graduate students,” “guidance counselor”, etc. User research would look to get representation from all audience types.

Circling back to market research recruitment, this focuses on a group of people who were selected based on their attitudes regarding an outcome. The problem here is the outcome was likely prioritized by internal teams. This is only a singular view from potentially one of your user groups rather than thinking of the entire audience as a whole. This targeted approach tends to bias research from the start since participants were likely qualified for the study based on a specific parameter deemed “most important” by internal teams. Additionally, these qualifications are usually decided upon from a reactionary standpoint. It’s reactionary in the respect that, targets are picked because they’re likely a set of people who’ve responded negatively to a product or site. Narrowing feedback this way deviates away from understanding users holistically. By deprioritizing other audience types, this could potentially solve a problem for one group of people while creating a problem for another (quite the vicious cycle).

User Opinions vs. User Observation

What’s the difference? Let’s take a market research method (focus group) and a user research method (prototype design testing):

In a focus group, feedback will come in the form of hearing a group of people feed off of each other’s answers. To see if opinions are valid, you’ll need to gather feedback from a considerable amount of people.

Individual usability shows serendipitous movement and authentic problem areas. Participant answers are their own and patterns between users indicate how overall audiences are likely to feel.

As a User Researcher, I will never recommend any form of focus group testing for website feedback. Focus groups are an interactive discussion group where the statement of one participant can generate comments by others. Findings quickly become diluted with a few voices reigning over the group, teaching participants how to use a product, and overshadowing other use cases.

Market research sometimes comes from an angle that tries to present a solution rather than finding a value. Gathering user opinions about whether they think something is useful is like asking, “doesn’t this make your life easier?” but fails to ask user research-based questions like, “how would this be useful to you?”
The biggest difference in approach here is looking at the broader information needs of the users. Market research generally focuses primarily on attitudes where user research focuses on attitudes and behaviors in parallel.

At the end of the day, having a team that is excited to pursue user feedback in any form already puts you in good shape. It’s hard to reshape the way people think, so the best thing you can do is arm yourself with the knowledge to build a foundation of how you’ll work and what value your methods will bring to the project. Overall, there is of course value to market research. However, user research presents itself as a low-cost high-value approach. It advocates for all users as opposed to a few and utilizes the user voice in a magnitude of ways pointing teams in an evidence-based path for current and future work.