If you’ve been in the customer insights business for very long, you’ve probably run into a common point of confusion among stakeholders: thinking market research and user research are essentially the same thing. They are not, of course—each is distinct—but it’s easy to see how the misunderstanding persists. They often use the same methods and target the same audiences. Moreover, each can produce insights that are relevant to the other.
At the same time, market research and user research address completely different questions. They can sometimes work effectively in tandem, but neither is a substitute for the other, no matter how eager stakeholders might be to minimize what they misunderstand as duplication of effort. Knowing when to integrate them and when to deploy them separately will ensure you leverage each one to the max.
What’s the difference?
If they draw on the same methods and target the same respondents, then how are user research and market research different? The distinction lies in the questions each poses: what and who versus how and why. Market research focused on what people will buy and who those people are. User research is all about how the user engages with a product and why she uses it in that way.
The fundamental queries embodied in user research—often called UX or user experience research—have been around for centuries. There is evidence the ancient Greeks employed principles of ergonomics and even earlier, the Chinese practiced Feng Shui to achieve the same end goal UX designers strive for today: an intuitive, user-friendly experience. It finally got a name when Don Norman, a cognitive scientist hired by Apple in the early 1990s as their User Experience Architect, coined the phrase “user experience design.”
Essentially, user research looks at how a customer interacts with a product, specifically how well real-life use cases align with the product team’s understanding. What is the user trying to do? How well does the product work? What doesn’t work so well? Which needs does the product meet and how does it fall short?
User research is typically conducted by means of in-depth engagements with relatively small samples of people. The toolkit is qualitative: focus groups, IDIs, diary studies, ethnography, and usability testing.
Like user research, market research focuses on customers but through a different lens, addressing different questions. How do they perceive product features? Pricing? Brands? What factors drive their purchase behaviors? What can demographic and psychographic variables tell us about how customers will respond to a particular product offering or marketing message?
Market research also encompasses broader inquiries such as the competitive landscape, industry trends and outlooks.
The market research toolkit includes both qualitative and quantitative methods and techniques which may be deployed separately or combination, depending on the project objectives.
Compliment, don’t compete
Neither user research nor market research alone can tell the whole story. Each is important and each can be appropriate at multiple points during a product lifecycle, sometimes at the same time. Because they use many of the same methodological tools and target the same customer audiences, tension can develop around ownership of projects and/or access to resources. As in so many other contexts, transparency and communication are key. Understanding the potential and the limitations of each one enables teams to collaborate effectively, sharing insights as well as research outings.
Know your neighbors
We all know silos are counterproductive but sometimes they emerge organically anyway unless we take intentional steps to prevent it. Are your user research and market research teams familiar with the other’s mission? The organization thrives, as do individual teams, when everyone has access to knowledge others have built. Each team needs a basic understanding of the research the other team conducts, so everybody recognizes opportunities to collaborate when they arise. And of course, cross-team consultation should be a given when it can be useful.
The single most effective way to keep silos from forming is regular, routine communication. Keeping each other briefed on new insights and emerging questions makes encourages collaboration and cultivates trust.
Integrate, don’t duplicate
As we noted earlier, it can be all too easy for non-researchers to see similarities in methods, timing, and target audiences and think they’re witnessing duplicated efforts. For this reason, it’s important to always keep stakeholders clearly apprised of the distinctions between user research and market research. That said, the two can overlap in ways that invite integrated project design.
When the stars line up on timing, technique, and the target audience, don’t be afraid to collaborate and devise a blended project design that can achieve both sets of objectives—user insights and market insights.