Market Research vs. User Research — Are they the Same?

They’re both important — but not in the same way.

We are always talking about the importance of user experience (UX) research here at Reassemble, so this is something we love hearing from potential clients:

“Oh yes! We’ve done some of our own research! Do you want to take a look?”

Of course we do! For one, it could mean we already have a direction, so we can dig quicker and deeper into user needs and problems. It gives us a valuable perspective from the client. It also shows that the client already knows research is something worth doing.

When we get to look at the insights, though, we often realise that the research is heavily marketing-focused. The insights might revolve around why a product is awesome for the customers, and how to reach those customers. There might be data on which website visitors have the best conversion rates, and which product appeals most to that demographic.

We smile awkwardly and say we’ll need to do something different for user research. And that’s when the question comes.

“Why do you need more research? Isn’t this research all the same?”

Well… not really, no.

Before we continue, I just want to make two points. Market research and user research are not the same, but:

  1. This doesn’t mean either one is unimportant. Knowing your market, and knowing your users, are both very important for a successful product.
  2. This doesn’t mean they are completely divergent either. Market and user research are complementary — they inform and guide each other.

With that in mind, here are some differences between market research and user research that this post will explore.

Difference 1: A Question of Scale

In one of our first client meetings someone hit us with this question:

“Why are you only asking ten people? I mean, why not ask 1,000 people?”

This points to one of the most obvious differences between market research and user research — they work on different scales. Market research is quantitative, centred around numbers: visitor numbers, conversion rates, market size. These are (hopefully) all going to be big numbers. For market research, doing just 10 surveys is not particularly helpful.

Compared to those, user research often looks tiny because of its qualitative nature. UX is centred around feedback — how people use things, what makes them frustrated, how they try to deal with problems.

To get these insights from 1,000 people would cost too much time and money, which is why the research group tends to be small. For example, Jakob Nielsen — a pioneer of user research techniques — estimates that testing a website with just 5 people can bring out about 80% of the website’s usability issues.

Difference 2: Different Questions

Marketing research is all about what people want — and therefore, whether you’re selling something that people want to buy.

User research is not quite like that; it answers a separate question: what is useful to people.

These questions are not quite the same, as this case study shows.

In the mid-20th century, as air travel became more affordable, the market for luggage expanded dramatically. Manufacturers of travel cases therefore spent a lot on marketing research to figure out this new market.

The results were clear: travellers wanted something that was lighter. And so companies fought to make cases that were, in themselves, light. But the complaints never stopped. It was as if the cases could never be light enough.

Eventually, the breakthrough came from user research — in this case, good old observation of users. A luggage company sent people to airports to see how people actually used their suitcases. Carrying a full suitcase along long corridors was a nightmare. But dragging the suitcase along was impossible, and would damage the case too.

This is an important insight. The fact is, when people say they want ‘lighter’ luggage, weight itself was not the problem; convenience was the problem. What was really useful was a way to take their luggage along, effortlessly, when they were running to catch a flight.

What was really useful was a wheeled suitcase. And 30 years later, wheeled suitcases completely dominate the luggage market.

It takes market research to identify something that people want — in this case, better suitcases as a product. But it takes the deep insights of user research, and UX design, to understand what a better suitcase really is.

Difference 3: How you Slice it

Segmentation is a key technique in both market and user research, but in different ways. Remember that market research is about what people want, while UX is about what is useful.

For instance, assume you are someone who sells software that helps business management, from accounting to scheduling meetings. And let’s say your software goes for around $7,000.

With that in mind, consider these two people: Jack and Jill. Are they very different to each other?

From the marketing perspective, they might be pretty similar.

  1. Their budgets are pretty similar. Your product is in their spending range.
  2. They belong to the right market segment: they both own businesses that might need management software.
  3. They both seem excited about digital products, like yours.
  4. Their demographics — in terms of education and age — are pretty similar.

So that’s great. As far as we can tell, they’re both people we can sell to.

Let’s say, however, that we then carry out a round of user interviews with both Jack and Jill. And these are some of our findings:

We find out about their behaviour — what business they run, how they run it — and suddenly the two don’t seem quite so similar. Their problems — and therefore the things your product needs to do — can be dramatically different.

Assuming Jack wants to buy your software, how is he going to ensure continuity in his accounting? After all, his accounts right now are in a bunch of books. So, just to raise a few questions:

  1. Does he need to enter everything by hand?
  2. Do you have some sort of OCR scanner that can make this process easier?
  3. If you do have an OCR, does he get to review the results and change them?

Jill, on the other hand, won’t have these problems. Maybe she’s using an Excel spreadsheet, so she can probably just import her accounts. But she has problems of her own.

  1. If she has a few business management products, how do they speak with your product?
  2. Isn’t it difficult for Jill to use so many specialised products? Can your versatile product integrate them and make life easier for her?

As you can see, this not only means that marketing research and user research aren’t the same; It also means they inform different areas of a product process. If you did your user research a month before launch, and realised Jack and Jill and their needs, you wouldn’t be able to do much about that. Your app either has those functions or it doesn’t; you’ll just have to sell those functions right.

Conclusion

Market research is valuable because it shows us broad information; user research is valuable because it gives us deep insights. Sometimes a business needs one (to draw up a business model); sometimes it might need the other (when deciding which features are prioritised).

What is clear, though, is that both kinds of research are important. Without the directions that they give, a product will be steered blindly. And successful products are never steered blindly.


At Reassemble, discovering user needs is our bread and butter. Find out more about what we do on our website, or get in touch through LinkedIn and Facebook. .