If you ask 5 User Researchers and 5 Market Researchers what the difference is between the two areas, you will probably get 10 different answers. We know, we’ve tried! Coming up with a definitive answer is tricky because both use similar research techniques and both are focused on generating insights from data to inform better decision making.

Whilst its easy to know there’s a difference, it’s surprisingly difficult to put it into words.

We’ve been deliberating and discussing this topic at Userfy. We quickly realised it is a fruitless exercise to attempt to view these two areas of research as mutually exclusive. They both overlap and they both borrow tools and techniques from each other. Below, we have outlined our own thoughts on how you can distinguish between the two…

Market v User

The first clue is in the name. Although not always the case, Market Research is often deployed to better understand markets and is used to inform strategy, as well as product or service development.  Market Research can help to:

  • Understand market drivers and dynamics.
  • Define and quantify customer segments.
  • Establish opinions and attitudes.
  • Identify market opportunities.
  • Test concepts and ideas.

User Research on the other hand, is focused on the user (or potential user) of a product or service. User Research helps us understand the behaviours, needs, thoughts, feelings and motivations of someone in relation to a particular product or service. User Research can be used to:

  • Understand the needs of users and the problems they need solving
  • Discover how users interact with and respond to a product or service.
  • Learn how well a product or service is meeting the needs of its users.
  • Establish how a product or service can be improved to better meet the needs of users.

Qualitative v Quantitative  

Both User Researchers and Market Researchers utilise qualitative and quantitative research techniques. However, User Research leans more heavily towards qualitative research, and Market Research leans more heavily towards quantitative.

For a User Researcher, most of their toolkit is qualitative and focused on gathering detailed feedback from a small sample of users. At Userfy for example, our User Testing or Usability Testing is a purely qualitative approach, using a sample of only 5 or 6 target participants per round of testing. We investigate how people are using and interact with a product, identify user experience issues they encounter and learn where improvements need to be made.

The confusion starts once you consider the fact that Market Researchers also utilise qualitative research techniques.  For example, focus groups are routinely used to identify the feelings, perceptions and thoughts of target customers towards a new product. However, whilst qualitative data is gathered in these types of sessions, the depth and focus of the data is different to that which is gathered in User Research. User Research seeks to understand and explain the behaviour of users, rather than assess their reactions.

Market Research is therefore typically more focused on quantitative research. This usually involves sampling enough people (sometimes hundreds or even thousands) to be confident that any findings represent those of the entire market. Whilst a User Researcher may occasionally deploy a quantitative survey, this approach is used widely in Market Research.  A Market Researcher may survey hundreds of respondents to establish the percentage that use a certain product or hold a certain opinion.

The role of Digital

Whilst Market Research has existed in some form since the early 1900s, User Research is a relatively new and poorly understood area of research that only truly emerged in the last decade.

Many credit the introduction of the original iPhone in 2007 as the moment when the technology sector started thinking about the user experience of digital products. Smartphones, tablets, applications and software are all complex systems that rely on a user to immediately understand how to interact with them and use them successfully.

The new and complicated nature of digital products created a need for a form of research focused on understanding how people use these systems. Understanding the complexity associated with the ways in which a user can interact with a digital solution is not something that naturally fits within the remit of Market Research. This is how User Research was formed, making it something that sits almost exclusively within the technology sector.

Neither is a replacement for the other

There are some important differences between User Research and Market Research and both are required for creating a reliable strategy and designing successful products and services. Whilst similar research techniques are used in both, the subtle differences in the way in which they are deployed shift the focus for what a User Researcher and a Market Researcher are looking to uncover.

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Meet the author:
Dr. Sam Howard
Co-Founder and Director of Research at Userfy