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Market Research & UX Research: Two Sides of the Same Coin?
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Market Research & UX Research: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Market Research & UX Research: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Kritika Oberoi
April 18, 2024

Market Research vs UX Research: two sides of the same coin?

As a UX researcher, it's easy to look at Market Research with a hint of skepticism or even *gasp* disdain.

But here's the thing: Market Research and UX Research are more alike than you might think. Both aim to understand people and inform business decisions. And they even use similar methods: surveys, interviews, and observation, to gather insights about people.

There are of course, key differences—in goals, approaches (we may give focus groups and attitudinal questions the side eye 👀), and in how long we’ve been around.

But given what UX Research is going through today—whether you call it a “reckoning”, a “correction”, or some other synonym with your chosen level of catastrophe attached—we may have a few lessons to learn from a decades old (*cough*80 billion dollar*cough*) sister field. 

In this article, we'll dive deeper into the similarities, differences, and lessons that UXR can learn from Market Research. 

So buckle up—it's time to flip the coin and see what's on the other side! 🪙

What do market researchers even do?

So, what exactly do Market Researchers do? They're all about understanding the potential of a specific audience (aka a market). They want to know what this group of people care about, how many of them exist, and how much money can be made from it. Basically, they're the ultimate sidekick for businesses looking to score big. 💰

You might be surprised to learn that Market Research and UXR share a lot of the same methods. Surveys? Check. Interviews? Double check.

Market researchers even shadow customers on shopping trips to see how they make decisions in real-time, and use eye-tracking technology to study how people visually interact with products. They’re asking questions like, which packaging do customers prefer? What decision criteria are they thinking about when buying soap?

Sounds a lot like ethnographic field studies and concept testing for the analog age, right?

The Great Divide: UX Research vs Market Research 🍎🍊

Despite the similarities, there are some key differences between the two fields.

So how does a market researcher’s job at your company differ from your own?

What is the difference between market research and user research?

Quantitative versus Qualitative

Market Research tends to rely more on quantitative methods, like surveys and secondary research than UX Research does. While both fields employ quantitative and qualitative techniques, the balance often tilts more towards quantitative work in Market Research. This doesn’t mean they’re not running interviews—in fact qualitative research is a big part of Market Research as well.

Market Sizing and Segmentation

Market sizing and segmentation is a big question many market research studies focus on. Researchers dedicate substantial effort figuring  out the size of a market, growth rates, and consumer segments. 

The goal is to quantify the potential value of a market opportunity and identify distinct consumer groups with shared characteristics. Think of it like personas but with $ numbers and growth rates attached.

For example, when conducting research on the kids' cereal brand, a UX Researcher may stop at understanding the buyer personas and archetypes—using those to determine what the website user experience should look like.

Market Research starts a step earlier—asking, how many of these types of people are there really? Are they growing or shrinking as a group? Should we focus on the customers age 5-10, or 10-15? For new products and markets especially, this is a powerful approach to keep in mind.

Attitudinal versus Behavioral

In Market Research, attitudinal questions are commonly used to gather insights into consumers' opinions, preferences, and intentions.

What do we mean by attitudinal questions? Attitudinal questions aim to capture the customer’s opinions. Questions like…

“On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to recommend our brand to a friend or colleague?”

“What is your opinion of our customer service?”

“How important is price when considering purchasing our products/services?”

…will often make it into market research surveys or interviews.

In UX Research, we often prioritize behavioral observations instead (aka actions speak louder than words). We assume that there are limitations of self-reported data and focus on what users actually do rather than what they say they do. For example, instead of asking, “How likely are you to recommend a brand to a friend?”, a UX Researcher may ask, “When was the last time you recommended a brand to a friend?”.

This adds a layer of validity to your results that is otherwise missing. By observing the amount of time, money, or effort someone has actually spent trying to solve a problem, you can identify how important it is to them.

Focus Groups versus Individual Sessions

Focus groups are a popular tool in Market Research, as they allow researchers to gather diverse perspectives and facilitate group discussions. In UX Research, there’s often more caution and skepticism about the potential biases and group dynamics that can arise in focus group settings. To mitigate these concerns and ensure a more authentic and unbiased understanding of user experiences, UX Research often favors individual user sessions over focus groups.

If you don’t think people bias each others’ actions, look no further than Asch’s experiment to make you question everything you thought was real.

What can we learn from Market Researchers?✍️

Despite the differences between Market Research and UXR, there are valuable lessons that UX Researchers can learn from their Market Research counterparts.

👭 Audience Segmentation

Market researchers are really good at looking at the $ (and potential future $) associated with a group of people (aka a “market”). They can break down audiences into distinct segments based on demographic, psychographic, or behavioral characteristics and show you where the gaps lie.

Let’s take an example of what this $-based, top-down focus looks like. Let’s say a cereal company is thinking of launching a new kids brand. Before they do anything, the market researchers at the cereal company will ask—what’s the size of the market and where do gaps exist?

🧒 They’ll look at the 72.5 million children in the US

🥛They’ll take out the 10% who are lactose intolerant (no cereal, sorry!)

And then break down the remaining kids based on income groups, preferences, and other factors that’ll determine whether they’d pick Oreo O’s or All Bran for their breakfast.

Finally, they’ll look at if any of these groups is growing or shrinking really fast—is there a new emerging “persona” or category that doesn’t have a perfect cereal brand for them already?

At the end of the day, businesses care about money. And while research (whether market or UX research) is about delivering value to the customer, by starting from the beginning market research actually asks—which customer? Who are we solving for? And will this business survive if we focus on this group?

This builds a lot of trust between market researchers and their business counterparts (aka the decision makers) because they’re thinking with similar constraints and goals in mind. It also means market researchers are starting from the very beginning, even before the “user” has been defined!

💰 What does this mean for our business?

Even outside of segmentation and sizing, Market Researchers consistently tie their insights back to business outcomes and stakeholder needs. Research presentations include findings and what they mean for our business.

In UX Research we sometimes shy away from taking that step. We often leave it up to stakeholders to interpret findings because we don’t want to introduce bias, or maybe we don’t understand the business enough. In reality, this means that the insight is often not actioned on, there’s actually more bias brought in by stakeholders, or stakeholders don’t view researchers as an equal party that understands the business and its goals. None of these are good outcomes.

Joe Natoli, UX expert, has some great advice on how to think about and work with business stakeholders. If you feel like there’s friction between you and “the business”—read it!

📊 Mixed Methods triangulation

Market researchers often combine quantitative and qualitative data to paint a more comprehensive picture of the market. By triangulating survey results with focus group findings or secondary research, they provide a more robust understanding of customers and help stakeholders with questions on “sample size” accept results faster. 

In UX Research, we tend to focus on qualitative research (which is great) but we can often quickly triangulate our findings with quick in-product surveys, existing analytics data, or survey tickets. This multi-method approach strengthens the credibility and actionability of research findings.

If you don’t have access to analytics data in your company, get access to it now! You MUST be able to explore and analyze user behavior data that already exists—your stakeholders are already looking at it.

Better together?

Perhaps UX Research shouldn’t blindly adopt every technique from Market Research (focus groups, we're looking at you 👀). But by keeping an open mind and a willingness to learn, we can all become better researchers and better collaborators.

In the end, it’s all about understanding our customers, right?

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