User Research is NOT Market Research

The term “research” is not new to the business world, yet its meaning varies along a wide scale. In some companies, research is identified with genius engineers pushing technology capabilities in Research & Development departments. In other realms, interns proudly present their team leaders with research findings gathered from the numerous corners of the internet (thank you Google!).

The masses reside between these two extremes and that is where things get muddy. Many stakeholders identify “research” with market research activities and results. However, in the technology space where identifying user needs, product requirements and design strategy are critical, user (not market) research provides the best insights. To business stakeholders, the lines between the two may not be clear; hence, we clarify the differences below.

Market Research

The focus of market research is on the consumer in the market economy; specifically, his or her demographics and purchasing behavior. Here, research uncovers which buckets customers fall into as it pertains to their gender, ethnicity, income and education levels, areas of residence and work, shopping preferences, social media engagement, and so on.

The outcome of such an inquiry results in Target or Buyer Personas which are used to inform business decisions about what might make this Persona receptive to a product or service, what return on investment might be expected, and how to best market to this customer.

However, because market research is focused on current patterns of consumer behavior and does not delve deep into reasons behind them, these Personas lack detail for defining design requirements, product functionality, and prioritizing features.

User Research

Unlike marketing research, user research places the focus on the user as a whole entity in the context of his or her environment. Researchers answer questions like “what does a day in her life look like?”, “what activities does he engage in?”, “what motivates and frustrates her?” (which is also in buyer personas) by utilizing ethnographic research, interviews, surveys, usability tests, A/B tests, analytics of daily behavior, diary studies, and other methods.

This multi-faceted approach to understanding the user uncovers various pain points and needs, even those that users cannot verbalize themselves. Such insights are key to driving innovation in business. User needs communicated in User Profiles present direct design requirements, product or service functionality, or convey novel problems to solve.

Side by Side

Market research reveals what has happened up to now, especially as it relates to buying behaviors and patterns, but does not indicate where a business should go next. User research, on the other hand, reveals not only what, but also why users are currently experiencing something. When frustration or pain points are discovered, they open doors for business opportunities to address those user needs.

For example, if the business objective is to engage with mothers of middle-school athletes, market research will reveal the best avenues for advertising to these Personas and for connecting with them. User research, additionally, might reveal that these mothers struggle juggling multiple athletic event schedules and constantly transporting their kids to various activities. Addressing this user pain point through a service or a product could become a profitable line of business.

Clearly, both market and user research have their purpose. For ground-breaking innovation in the business space, market research only scratches the surface of users’ lives. For greater insights, user research is a must.

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