What’s the difference between UX research and market research?

Why product decisions shouldn't rely solely on existing market research.

Companies sometimes want to rely on existing market research rather than new user research to inform product decisions. Hey – both involve customers, right?

As much as I applaud these folks for wanting to incorporate user feedback (yeah!), it unfortunately doesn’t work that way. User research, or UX research, is its own domain beyond market research.

Even if a company’s market research game is strong, they won’t be able to uncover some insights without UX research, and vice versa.

How are market research and user research different?

Market research targets information related to the sales of a product. According to the American Marketing Association, this research helps a company “identify and define marketing opportunities and problems; generate, refine, and evaluate marketing actions; monitor marketing performance; and improve understanding of marketing as a process.”

For example, if your product is a fitness tracker app, market researchers want to know how the branding feels. They want to know what other fitness trackers are on the market and how this app compares.

Market researchers also want to know how people react to and rate the app, and how likely they are to spend money on it.

UX research identifies information about how a product fits people’s wants, needs, and abilities. (I am using the term ‘UX research’ instead of ‘user research’ to include research with non-users, but they refer to the same thing.)

UX researchers collect and synthesize information about user behavior in a context that includes the use environment, potential barriers to use and cultural factors.

For our fitness tracker app example, UX researchers would want to know what kind of problems people run into when trying to track their workouts using other apps or methods.

UX researchers also want to observe what happens when people interact with the app — are they making mistakes that can be designed away? Does the app meet their requirements for what they need a fitness tracker to do? Who is the app for and how are their needs covered – is it useful for only physically fit people, or can it be helpful for people in physical therapy, for example?

Analyzing Attitudes vs. Analyzing Behavior

Market research techniques are often attitudinal — meaning they measure what people openly report about what they think, feel, and do.

Attitudinal measures are useful for learning things like what people are likely to buy or not, but the problem with collecting only attitudinal measures is that humans often have a hard time expressing opinions.

We don’t always know why we think or do things. We sometimes naturally give biased information if we want to impress or please the researcher, or if we happen to be in a good or bad mood. People are funny that way.

To look beyond attitudinal measures (although we like them just fine), UX researchers uncover insights by understanding actual behavior. We listen to what people say, but we also observe what they do when they interact with a product.

And when we ask questions, we narrow in on specific behaviors – how many hours per week do people use their fitness tracker app? How often do they forget to track things? Do people take their phone and the app with them during a workout, or do they log workouts afterward? What specific information do people want to track for their fitness goals and how can we present information in a way that is motivating and easy to understand?

Focus Groups vs. Interviews

The style of interacting with research participants is also often different depending on whether the context is market research or UX research.

Market researchers often use methods like focus groups and surveys to gather information about opinions. Focus groups and surveys are useful methods because they enable researchers to collect a lot of data quickly and inexpensively. If you want to gather general information for how people respond to something or want to collect numerical ratings, focus groups and surveys are the way to go!

But as a UX researcher, I rarely schedule focus groups and I use surveys typically early in a discovery phase, but not much after that. I know that focus groups are swayed by dominant personalities and conversations easily get carried away.

I also know that interviews are better than focus groups and surveys for getting honest information and personal stories to dive deeply into what users want and need. One-on-one interviews and product testing are opportunities to learn how users will interact with a product in a natural setting.

So, both market research and UX research are important, but they do require different approaches and methods.

Here are a few more resources if you want to dive a little deeper into this topic:

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