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Finding the Intersection Between Market Research & User Research

Similarities between user research and market research can often be the cause of conflict, but harnessing the differences of each department can actually be the key to a fruitful relationship.

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Danbee Kim

At the most recent SparkSummit 2021 conference, I was on a panel about the highly debated intersection of user research and market research. After working in many different sized and structured companies, I knew this would be a hot topic.

Market research and user research generally get tied together or pitted against one another. Similar to the qualitative versus quantitative data debate, questions arise on how to utilize them in the workplace: Should one person be doing both? What are the differences and similarities? How can these two seemingly similar practices be used together? Or should they?

These questions can cause teams to question each other's methods, sample sizes, projects, and approaches, deeming one role more effective than the next. If left for too long, these discussions can break down teamwork and lead to arguments about which team should take particular projects.

As a user researcher, I have had several different experiences with market research teams, some more productive than others. I believe, whenever possible, bringing user research and market research together can be an excellent partnership. We should strive to use the advantages of both specialties to create an even more holistic understanding of customers and non-customers.

Let's start with defining the two

Instead of highlighting the differences between these two practices, it helps to define each one and then identify any potential for overlap—so what is user research and market research?

User research is the understanding and knowledge of human behavior, needs, pain points, goals, and motivations. User research can be used to learn about people's lives outside of a product, but we typically look at people's experiences with a product or service. The data in user research can be both qualitative and quantitative, depending on the methodologies used.

Market research is understanding human perceptions and behaviors and gathering information about specific audiences and segments. Through market research, we can determine the viability of product-market fit, the proper target market, and a large-scale comprehension of how people perceive a brand. Market research can be both qualitative and quantitative, depending on the approach and methods.

Although these are broad definitions, there is already significant overlap:

  1. Understanding human behavior and thought patterns
  2. Segmenting our users into helpful groups
  3. Identifying problems people are encountering
  4. Uncovering how a product/service can help a given population
  5. A mixture of qualitative and quantitative data

Of course, there are slight differences. If you think about a Venn Diagram with product, user, and business, market research tends to skew towards the business/user side. Meanwhile user research tends to skew more toward user/product.

While, in user research, we generally don't get enough participants to understand perception, market research does a great job of gauging the audience's perception of a brand, product, or service. In addition, market research generally looks at a larger scale than (qualitative) user research.

What business problems do each solve?

We can see the significant differences through the specific goals of each respective research. It is essential to understand that, while similar and complementary, these two specialties have different purposes.

The primary objectives of market research are:

  • Answering the what and who; what people will buy and who will buy it
  • Understanding purchasing patterns in specific audiences
  • Clarifying segments within the larger population
  • Identifying product-market fit
  • Determining competitors and what their unique value propositions are
  • Discovering the viability of a product/service within a population, including demand and pricing

User research primarily looks at:

  • Understanding pain points, goals, motivations, needs, and problems of users
  • Determining mental models of a problem space, both inside and outside of the product
  • Evaluating how people use and experience a product, specifically looking at usability
  • Identifying "unknown unknowns" through discovery research to improve or create innovative solutions
  • Helping product teams make next-step decisions about roadmap, features, or product improvements

There are still many ways to collaborate between user research and market research through their differences, ultimately enhancing our understanding of the most influential people: those who do (and might) buy our products/services.

Remember, we are on the same team

The main thing to keep in mind, through all role debates, is that we are all on the same team. As people within an organization, we strive to make the product work for our users and the business. We try to work together in ways that enhance our work and the work of other teams. We are all in it together.

However, we can confuse specific roles, causing tension between teams that are better when collaborating. This strain can especially happen in teams that are similar to each other or have overlapping responsibilities.

The biggest problems I have seen between user research and market research are:

  • Misunderstanding of each other's roles
  • Overlapping, blurred responsibilities
  • Teams going to both for the same goals
  • Unclear goals for a project
  • Lack of resources

Despite these difficulties, it is incredibly fruitful when user research and market research come together on a project. Furthermore, there are specific times when blending the two specialties can make for a comprehensive project:

  1. Persona enhancement. Yes, there is a massive difference between user personas and market personas, but combining the two can lead to a super-persona that provides a lot of decision-making power. In the past, I have combined my personas with market research data about purchasing patterns, brand affinity, and demand. The result meant that we understand human goals and pain points, perceptions, and product-market fit.
  2. Segmentation. A lot of the time, when we segment data, it can be through arbitrary demographics, such as age, income, or location. While these demographics can sometimes be beneficial, there are many other ways to segment audiences. Talking with market research teams can help you slice and dice data in a new way to bring new insights to light.
  3. Pricing. I find pricing projects terrifying. Whenever a team has asked me to work on pricing for a product or service, I immediately head toward the market research team. I have picked up techniques such as the Van Westendorp or Garbor-Granger pricing models through working with these teams. Since we tend to hit a small sample size, market researchers' power can help us through this type of research.
  4. Validating that problems are problems. Again, we could believe we built the best product or service to help solve problems, but what if it just solves problems for a small percentage of our audience? Market research can help us ensure we are looking at a problem big enough to warrant the time and effort.
  5. Saving time. There are some projects where a user researcher and market researcher can hop into the same session. For example, I once planned a study where we wanted to understand perception and usability. The market researcher took the first 45 minutes to gauge perceptions by letting participants describe the concept and explain their attitudes behind the brand. After that, I came in and conducted a usability test. The market research team then followed up with a survey to validate the qualitative insights they found. We not only saved time on the project, but we also learned quite a lot from each other.

Market research can give us those broad insights into our audience, while user research can dive deeper into specific problem areas. Without this widespread understanding, we wouldn't know where to look more closely, and without more in-depth knowledge, we can't say precisely how to help our audience. So both market research and user research are equally important for an organization, and we can harness them together.

How we can collaborate and learn from one another

One of the most important areas I have learned from market researchers is about business. We can build the prettiest and ingenious products or services, but it won't matter how innovative our products are if there is no product-market fit. Even if we believe we are solving a problem, that problem still needs to be felt by many people. Market research can help user researchers understand what the audience is thinking and doing. And user researchers can help market researchers with more specific mental models on user's needs, motivations, and pain points.

As a user researcher, the best thing you can do is collaborate with market researchers (and vice versa, of course). Here are some ways I have cultivated a relationship between the two teams:

  1. Educating market researchers on what user research is and the goals we strive to achieve
  2. Taking the time to understand what market research does, the team's objectives, and specifically how market research operates in the current organization
  3. Setting up bi-weekly meetings to discuss current work from both teams
  4. Quarterly reviews with the team to understand last quarter's work and where we could better collaborate in the future
  5. Open channels (ex: Slack, Gchat) to share insights and discuss incoming requests
  6. Sending relevant intake documents for the market research to review and determine potential collaboration
  7. Including market research in relevant kick-off meetings

When I have regular catch-ups with market research and constantly share our work, I see the best results. We can collaborate on studies, give teams more robust insights, choose the best method for the goal, and work together to provide the organization with a more holistic understanding of current and potential customers. Overall, without the direction of market research and user research, teams will lose critical information. The more information our teams and organizations have, the more likely we can build successful products that solve problems for many people.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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