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Understanding the differences between UX research and market research

Clock icon 3 minutes reading time

You say ‘to-may-to’, I say ‘to-mah-to’

You often hear user research and market research used interchangeably within companies – product teams often debate the differences between the disciplines. They both contain the word research, and their main aim is to understand the user or the consumer – so, what is the difference?

At best, people try to distinguish them by the data they work with, assuming that user researchers are the qualitative guys and market researchers are the quantitative guys. However, this stereotype is incorrect and can be damaging. Any valuable UX research agency and market research agency will use a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods.

A group of research participants talking.

Where does the uncertainty stem from?

Besides the fact both disciplines are research-based, they share a vast amount of additional parallels:
  • Methodologies (ethnography, interviews, surveys, co-creation etc.).
  • A wide array of stakeholders (Product owners/managers, marketing teams, insight teams, board members).
  • A goal of understating the user or the consumer.
  • Validating concepts and ideas before releasing them to the mass market.
  • Distilling evidence to produce insight that limits the impact on the user/consumer and the wider business.

What is the difference?

Market research traditionally aims to improve communications by gathering self-reported data. This data allows teams to understand the who and what of the consumer landscape, informing decision-making around branding, sales, and marketing.

Whereas UX research aims to improve user engagement and interactions with your business by understanding user needs. Achieved by observing users engage naturally with a given product, allowing informed and user-centric decision-making around the user experience.

What does this mean for the research approach?

Market Research

UX Research

Improve communications by understanding what people will buy and who will buy it. Improve interactions with an organisation by improving the user experience.
Traditionally relies on self-reporting (surveys, focus groups).
  • A focus on consumer attitudes and perceptions of a brand or product.
Grounded in observing natural human behaviour rather than claimed behaviour.
  • A focus on the first-hand (observed) experience of a product.
Wide and top-level
  • A statistical snapshot of what is trending, or what the market is doing, here and now.
  • Provides insight on claimed usage and attitudes of consumers.
Narrow and deep
  • Rich nuances in behaviours between a small group of representative people (how people use an app over what app they use).
  • Provides the why to attitudinal data.

Gathers consumer feedback to drive business decisions based on branding, sales, and marketing.

Gathers user feedback to drive product decisions based on features, journeys and the experience of using the product.

 Aids in the how-to of marketing the   product.

 Aids in the how-to of designing or tweaking   a product.

Validates the mass market appeal of a concept design. Validates the usability of a concept design.

Although the traditional market research domain is deeply rooted in understanding who will buy what, the industry has moved towards understanding the consumer – understanding them as people and their behaviours to help improve whatever the subject matter is (i.e. product design, conversion, marketing). As we know from the UX design industry, however usable these products are, they still need to be desirable and profitable.

The two disciplines co-exist on a moving scale, often overlapping rather than existing as two polarising variables. Therefore, choosing a method should ultimately be driven by the research needs over a desired discipline (as market and UX research employ many research methods).

What does this mean for the outcome of the research?

Given that UX research favours a more behavioural, qualitative approach, the key differentiator is often the objective or proactive insights gained by observing users and uncovering unknowns. The richest insights come from observation rather than spoken word and provide detail users cannot often articulate or are not even aware they are thinking.

When taking a more attitudinal approach, unclear or contradicting insight can lead us down the wrong path or into a sense of false security. “I’ve done the research” is not always good enough if the questions and methodologies are not fit. Attitudinal research often relies on wider context and trends, whereas behavioural research eliminates this need. Considering the bigger picture and total ecosystem is incredibly valuable, but understanding when it is required continues to be important.

The danger lies in confusing the objectives of the research and using either disciple as a catch-all, resulting in diluted insight. The need to classify should come secondary to understanding the research objectives and choosing the right methodology to answer the brief.

The product lifecycle can be improved by understanding when the correct method, rather than discipline, is needed. Teams need to work collaboratively to ensure that not only is the product built right, but the right product is built.

Given the shared similarities and cross-over in methodologies, it is more than possible that the insights gathered will have significant overlap and help teams from multiple angles. These insights highlight the importance of teams not working in silos or, even worse, in opposition.

Finally, and most importantly, research of any kind (if designed and executed correctly) gives a voice to the user/customer, ensuring their needs are at the centre of product design.

To learn more about the processes of user research, check out our page on implementing a human-centred design.