User experience research vs. market research for product design and development – a blurring line?

March 22, 2018 9:48 am

User experience research vs. market research for product design and development – a blurring line?

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

You often hear the terms ‘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’s the difference?

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

This article sets out to explore the blurring line between the two disciplines, their shared similarities, their differences, and ultimately understand if there is a need for a hard classification. All that matters is the user, right?

Where does the uncertainty stem from?

Besides the fact both disciplines are research-based, they share a vast amount of additional parallels so people could be forgiven for mistaking the two.

They share:

  • 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 to the mass market
  • Distilling evidence to produce insight that limits the impact to the user/consumer and therefore the wider business
  • Most importantly, they are both, more often than not, involved too late in the design process

So, what is the difference?

In summary, market research traditionally aims to improve a business’s bottom by gathering self-reported data. This data allows teams to understand the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of the consumer landscape, informing decision making around branding, sales, and marketing. Whereas UX research sets out to improve a business’s bottom line through understanding user needs. More often than not, this is 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
End goal to improve bottom line, by understanding what people will buy, and who will buy it End goal to improve bottom line, by improving the user experience
Traditionally relies on self-reporting (surveys, focus groups)

  • A focus on consumers attitudes, and perceptions of a brand, or product
Grounded in observing natural human behaviour, rather than claimed behaviour

  • A focus on users 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 a read on consumers claimed usage and attitudes
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 around branding, sales and marketing
Aids in the ‘how to’ of marketing the product
Gathers user feedback to drive product decisions based around features, journeys and ultimately the experience of using the product
Aids in the ‘how to’ of designing or tweaking a product
Helps to validate the mass market appeal of a concept design Helps to validate the usability of a concept design

Although the traditional market research domain is deeply rooted in improving the bottom line by understanding ‘who will buy what’, the industry has seen a shift towards understanding the consumer; more importantly, understanding them as ‘people’, and their behaviours to help improve whatever the subject matter is (i.e. product design, conversion, marketing). Much like the ‘user-centred’ shift in the design world. And, as we know from the UX design industry, however usable these products are, they still need to be desirable and profitable.

Despite this shift towards a more ethnographic style within market research the latest ESOMAR Global Report (2017) shows that only 15% of worldwide spend on Market Research is qualitative. In comparison, 80% of UX research projects consist of qualitative usability testing (UXPA salary survey, 2016).

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 many of the research methods are employed by both market and UX research.

Image: Smashing Magazine –

What does this mean for the outcome of the research?

Given the fact UX research favours a more behavioural, qualitative approach, the key differentiator is often the objective or proactive insights gained by observing users, and uncovering ‘unknown, unknowns’. The richest insights are observed rather than spoken, and provide detail users can’t often articulate, or don’t even know they are thinking.

When taking a more attitudinal approach, we are often left with unclear or contradicting insight that 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 wrong questions or methodology have been used. Attitudinal research often relies on wider context and trends, where behavioural research eliminates the need for this. Having sight of the wider picture and total ecosystem is often incredibly valuable, but again, it is knowing when which is needed.

Wrapping up

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 the preferred discipline should come secondary to understanding the research objectives, and choosing the right methodology to gain the evidence needed to answer the brief.

The product lifecycle can be improved by understanding when the correct method is needed, rather than the correct discipline. 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 insights gathered will have significant overlap and help teams from multiple angles. This highlights 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 and ensures their needs are ingrained into the product and not designed on a hunch.