As the definition of UX becomes more and more holistic, there is an increasing opportunity to merge market and user research activities into an integrated process. However, there is no one-size-fits-all answer for whether this is a good or bad practice; it depends on the individual project context and goals.
Merging the two methods helps create a complete story for the product, but doing so requires a good understanding of what the disciplines accomplish on their own, and when one research type is needed over the other throughout the product lifecycle.
For user research professionals, it is important to understand the strengths of market research and what kinds of insights it brings to the table. This will help user researchers see how their field complements market research so they can determine when to use market research insights to further plan user research activities. Furthermore, being aware of prior market research studies within a company and utilizing insights from them can help user researchers narrate a more comprehensive story of user behaviors, needs, and motivations.
An important fact to keep in mind is that neither method is better than the other: They are complementary approaches. They are not and should not be competing with each other from either a content or political perspective.
It does not make business sense to launch a well-designed product to a market that has no use for the function or service it provides. Nor does it make sense to launch a badly designed product into a market for which the user needs have not been thoroughly validated in advance.
Market research helps answer the questions what and who—what will people buy, and who or which groups of people will buy it?
Market research provides insights to help solve marketing challenges. Business questions regarding market segmentation (identifying groups within a population), product differentiation (how is this product different from my competitors’), product positioning, and industry trends are impossible to answer without market research data.
Typical business questions that market research helps answer include:
- Identifying a potential market for a product/service
- Determining the acceptance criteria of the product/service, including pricing
- Determining buying patterns—what population will buy a product/service based on different variables like age, gender, income level, location, etc.
- Identifying who the competitors are and what their key success factors are.
Market research broadly splits into two types: primary and secondary.
Primary research compiles insights based on research conducted in-house or by hiring a market research firm.
Primary research helps you investigate specific business questions, such as demand for a particular product/service your company has in mind or the reaction to how a particular product/service should be packaged or priced.
Secondary research uses insights compiled by outside sources such as government agencies, industry and trade associations, and media sources. This is easy to find, and much of it is available for free or at low cost. Secondary research helps you keep up with changing industry trends and how a large section of the population both behaves and spends money. The downside of secondary research is that it is not specific to the business problem your company is trying to solve. For example, secondary market research will tell you how much money consumers spent buying electronic gadgets last year. It won’t tell you how much they are willing to pay for the new electronic gadget your company is planning to invent.
Both kinds of research are important for any business. Secondary research lays the foundation and primary research helps you fill in the gaps specific to your business-planning process. For example, the owner of a restaurant would want to know all about a neighborhood before opening his restaurant. Secondary research will give him or her the needed demographic information, income data, and spending patterns of that particular neighborhood. The owner can then fill in the gaps by conducting primary research to find out how often the households in that neighborhood are willing to go to the kind of restaurant he or she plans to open. This will further inform their business plan to more specifically fit the location demographics.
User research helps answer the questions why and how—why is the user doing this and not some other thing? What is the overall context that this design will fit into? How does the user go about accomplishing the goals?
It focuses on understanding user behaviors, needs, and pain points through observation, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies.
User research focuses on employing techniques and methodologies to create and improve user experience at the individual consumer level.
Typical user research questions include:
- What goals are the users trying to accomplish?
- Do any of the concepts, functions, and designs being presented in the product fail to meet the users’ expectations?
- Does this design allow the user to accomplish their goals/tasks effectively and efficiently?
- Do the use cases and scenarios considered in the design need to be modified?
- Who are the primary and secondary personas for this product?
- What are the critical success points for each task?
User research helps validate assumptions and hypotheses, analyze competition, understand user goals, and develop user stories and scenarios in the analysis phase of product development. During the design phase, user research validates interaction design, information architecture, and task analysis. Finally, when the product is deployed, user research conducts benchmark studies to evaluate the product against those of competitors and establish a usability baseline to compare with further releases.
What do they have in Common?
The most common misconception about market research is that it is always quantitative and that it requires large sample sizes. Like user research, market research utilizes qualitative methodologies that can be conducted on a sample size of 10 or less. While both disciplines can practice similar qualitative methodologies, what they uncover can be radically different and/or complementary.
Contextual inquiry (or ethnographic study) is an example of a qualitative methodology that both disciplines employ. This methodology is used to observe actual user behavior. It is a hybrid form of research that involves interviewing the subjects as well as just observing them work (or play) in their natural environment.
Market research conducts ethnographic studies in the very early stages of product development, the opportunity/needs discovery phase, and the product-definition phase. The focus of the study is exploration of individual motivations and attitudinal aspects underlying the consumers’ actions. The insights uncovered help reveal the consumer attitudes and behavior relevant to the new product development. They also help with the decision of whether to invest in the product space at all.
User researchers conduct ethnographic studies after the product concept is solidified but before the design process starts. The aim of the study at this point in time is to gain insights into the consumers’ goals and tasks, and the influence that social, technical, and physical environments have on consumer goals. The insights help clarify the users’ roles and responsibilities, primary and secondary tasks, as well as workspace social dynamics, all of which influence the product design itself.
User interviews (in-depth interviews) are another example of a qualitative methodology used by both disciplines. This consists of one-on-one interviews conducted in person or through remote technology (phone or video). The format is usually an unstructured interview in which the researcher has a skeleton outline to make sure all the key points are covered.
Market researchers conduct user interviews as a precursor to a quantitative survey to investigate motivations and feelings, usually in the opportunity discovery phase. These are typically conducted when there is insufficient knowledge about a target population. These early interviews provide a preliminary idea of what’s going on. In turn, they are used to design quantitative surveys that will follow. Market researchers also use this methodology to dig deeper, to understand the motivations behind the acceptance or rejection of a product or service concept.
User researchers conduct user interviews to get a deeper understanding of the target users identified via market research. The focus of this activity is to investigate their feelings around needs and pain points, and the perception of the end-to-end experience with the product. This methodology can be used as a precursor to a deeper contextual inquiry, or to other user research-only methods.
Other qualitative methodologies such as focus groups and diary studies also blur the lines between market and user research. In this case, the main differences are the specific phase of product development in which the activities are conducted and the focus of the research. Market research activities are conducted during the audience definition, opportunity/needs discovery, and product concept phases. The focus of market research studies is on perception and attitudinal aspects. User research activities are mostly in the pre-design and post-design phase, and center on how work is actually done. However, with changing roles and a better understanding of what user research can do, in many companies user research teams have also been conducting studies earlier, during the opportunity/needs discovery and product concept phases.
Neither method is better than the other: They are complementary approaches. They are not and should not be competing with each other from either a content or political perspective.
Due to the overlap in the product phase, when both disciplines conduct their activities, it is possible that insights gathered from both disciplines have a significant overlap. This makes it all the more important that the two disciplines collaborate on research activities to ensure that you both “build the right product” and “build the product right.” In cases where it matters, it also makes sense to blend both activities so one research activity can be designed based on the findings of the other.
Blending Research Activities
Time crunch and budget constraints are the two factors that work in favor of blending market and research activities into one activity.
At Move Inc., a subsidiary of News Corp (www.realtor.com), the product team was in a time crunch to deploy a product that would enhance the experience of home search for the buyers. The interaction and visual designs were completed and ready to go. There was no time to conduct a comprehensive market research study followed by a usability study. The tight timeline provided a chance for both disciplines to come together in one study.
The market research team and I planned a study combining both activities. Each session started with 30 minutes dedicated to a market researcher introducing the concept and probing on perception and attitudes. The market researcher also uncovered the perceptions of homebuyers toward Move Inc. offering the product in question. Here are some of the questions asked by the market researcher:
- Describe the concept in your own words.
- If this type of information were available to you, would it be useful? Why or why not?
- When would you use it in your home search process?
- Does it matter to you to be able to get this type of information?
- How do you feel about realtor.com offering this information?
The next 60 minutes were dedicated to a user researcher discussing the usability of the design. The result of this combined study helped inform the product team about brand perceptions around the product, the attitude around the product concept, and the utility of the product features. It also helped inform the UX design team on how to improve the interaction and information architecture of the product.
Apart from saving time and being able to provide a quick detailed research report, blending the two activities also saved a considerable amount of money. The total cost of the project ended up being 1.5x as opposed to being 3x; 1x for user research plus 2x for market research.
The most important takeaway from this case study was that we could uncover both the perceived value of the product (by presenting the concept first) and the actual value (by investigating the usability of the product) in a single study. This provided the product team with solid context regarding what to fix in the product as well as how to fix it.
Going forward, at Move Inc., we established a process for small product enhancements and product releases with time crunch to combine qualitative market and user research in a single study. The value for the product and design teams has been immense, since they have been getting both attitudinal and behavioral insights from the same study. It’s become easier to make the leap from making changes to the product definition to making changes to the design of the product.
Pallavi Kutty is the director of the user research team at Move Inc., a subsidiary of News Corp. She has over 12 years’ experience conducting research in both the enterprise and consumer industries. firstname.lastname@example.org
©2015 ACM 1072-5220/15/05 $15.00
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