User Research and Market Research: A Tale of Two Awkward Cousins

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Often when we talk to our clients about conducting user research to inform design, we get blank stares. “Why do we need to do more research? We have an entire marketing department that does all sorts of market research. Can’t we just use that?” they often say. It’s true that market research can be used to inform design and user research can be used to inform marketing, so what gives?  You just want to know what your users think, right? In reality, there are some very real differences that make market and user research both distinct and complementary fields to each other. Let’s discuss.

First, Let’s Break this Down

User research brings together methods and theories from psychology, sociology, human factors, and human-computer interaction to understand user behaviors and use contexts in support of design. It asks questions like: What is the user context that this design will go into? Why is a user doing that? Why aren’t they doing this other thing? What happens when this user interacts with the product in a group? What about when they are on-the-go? According to, usability focuses on “understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through observation techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies”

User research can happen before, during, and/or after design. The results of user research studies are data that inform new design concepts or ideas, and changes or tweaks made to a design to enhance the likelihood, efficiency, and enjoyment of use.

Market research, on the other hand, can help a business to reduce risk, spot trends, and enhance sales. It asks questions like: What are the current trends among teens for social media use? To what extent can product X expand into the market to encompass new offerings? According to the Small Business Administration, market research is “the process of analyzing data to help you understand which products and services are in demand, and how to be competitive.”  The results from market research are used to inform when and where you would introduce a product or create a campaign to target a new sector of the market, or when a current product offering should be modified.

It’s pretty clear from that comparison how the two fields complement each other: conducting user research ensures that you introduce the best possible version of a product to your potential users, while market research tells you if it is worth your time to introduce a product to a certain market at all.

Next, Let’s Take this a Little Farther

Both user research and market research use a wide variety of methods to collect and analyze data, many of which overlap. They pull from the same toolbox, so to speak. They both use interviews, surveys, focus groups, web analytics, competitive analysis, and observations to acquire data about people.

In addition, user research methods also include card sorting, contextual inquiries, heuristic assessments, personas, prototyping, and usability testing.

Sample size

Sample size is an issue where there are often the most significant differences between user research and market research. In general, user research can use much smaller sample sizes than market research, because you engage in user research more frequently throughout the design of a product. You don’t need that many people to fail at using your product before you realize you need to go back and change things – and then test it out again.  For market research, however, to truly feel comfortable that a market will accept (or reject) your product, you would want a statistically generalizable sample size for any survey or comparison you conduct. We’re talking hundreds of participants for surveys or dozens of focus groups.

User research, and in particular usability studies, are often conducted on samples with just 8-12 users. Some even go as small as 5. While there are good arguments for and against using a sample size this small (we suggest seeking out Jeff Sauro’s write up for the nitty gritty details), it is statistically true that you will uncover some of a design’s most frequent usability issues with only five people. The key is that you need to check in with your users early and often rather than just at the beginning and end.

Which is better?

We hope by now you’ll agree that there isn’t a “better”. User research and market research are different, but they are complementary approaches, cousins if you will. They are not competitive.

Would it make sense to introduce a non-functional product to the perfect market?

Would it make sense to introduce a highly functional product to the wrong market?

No. It would not. Use both. Love them both.

We have now covered some of the key differences and similarities between user research and market research. We have highlighted that these approaches should be viewed as complementary and we discussed specific purposes each one has in the life of a product offering. Please feel free to reply to the authors of this post if you have any feedback or would like to discuss this topic further. Now let’s go do some research!

The author

Image of Jes Koepfler

Jes Koepfler

Chief UX Researcher

Prepared by Intuitive Company before it joined Ernst & Young LLP.