Summary: Many organizations and individuals continue to use market research, equating it to, or substituting it for usability research. UX and marketing or brand insights, are completely different and should be considered as such. UX research is behavior-driven, while market research is opinion-driven. Therefore, market research is not appropriate as a way to gain insight into user behavior.
Why not all research is the same...
Research produces different outcomes based on how it is done, what the intent is and the methodology. Most market research we know started as product or opinion research just before World War II. in 1935, George H. Gallup (yep, Gallup- the poll people) founded the American Institute of Public Opinion, the precursor to Gallup, and popularized the survey methodology--think holding a clipboard and talking to a real person. It is interesting to note that Gallup scientists realized that, how you ask the question, can introduce or remove bias. Focus groups, too were launched in the 1950's as a way for manufacturers to learn what emotional factors should be used in advertising products like washing machines and breakfast cereals. Robert Merton, a sociologist first invented them in 1946 as a way to understand mass communications on public opinion (then called propaganda, or public relations).
Also see: What's wrong with focus groups and how to fix them...
Advertisers and marketers that live on the edge of innovation, like Ogilvy Interactive, started using user research methods in the early 2000's when they realized that opinion was less powerful than behavior, especially if your trying to influence behavior. However, many people are not aware of the distinction being made between market research and user research, or they blend them together as if they are all the same thing. They are not.
Since usability and UX work derives from social, cognitive and behavioral sciences, the main focus is on behavior. Behavior watching derives from an area of Anthropology called Ethnography.
The grandmother of the field, Margaret Mead, famously reminded us that what people do, not what they say they do, or think they do, is the most important thing.
Seasoned UX practitioners are generally in agreement that focus groups, surveys and brand insights are inappropriate and reckless as substitutes for UX research. This should be common knowledge, but sadly it's not. A couple of examples:
A client who has been involved in many UX projects recently said: "We would like you to conduct some market research for us, so we can improve our user experience". Comment: Market research firms do that, UX firms do user research. Make the distinction!
An academic presenting a case study at a recent CHI conference (a practitioner and academic gathering) said: "We validated our product prototypes using focus group workshops". Comment: This is sloppy and completely bogus-- there is no such thing as a focus group workshop in usability methodology. Inventing techniques then not realizing they have no foundational grounding, is worrying. Clients we can forgive, but academics ought to know better! (Note: a usability test would have been the standard methodology to gain validation).
To be clear, market research is great and valuable, but it's not usability research. Note: Market research comes before UX typically and is critical to product management and business plans. UX research comes from behavioral science. It gains insight into consumer behavior with tricks from anthropology and cognitive science. Market research is used to build a business model, validate target markets and inform the skeleton of business requirements. User research validates the likelihood of behaviors by examining user habits, tasks, capabilities, intentions and familiarity with a domain, task or experience.
Who's making this basic mistake and why?
Unfortunately, there is a whole ecosystem of key players that perpetuate the "research is research" problem.
- Interactive or digital agencies: These firms come at UX/UI projects from a marketing and advertising background and are comfortable with lumping UX and market research into the same category. Their research is typically watered-down or wonky, judging by the fact Experience Dynamics keeps getting called in to re-do "research" that's typically a focus group posing as a usability test. One leading branding agency had the client CEO attend the focus group to provide "valuable product feedback". You can't cheat any more than that in research.
- Market research firms: Market research is their specialty but paradoxically because they understand market research, they tend to know the difference. Though, we would never recommend using market research firms for UX research. Sorry, we find the competency is just not there and deliverables are weak.
- UX agencies: They should know better-- but sadly many UX firms tend to make their money from full stack Web Development, often including the marketing and PR for a website or app. Most UX agencies are still weak in user research skills and experience. Many contract research to a 'hired gun' with an unverifiable process and experience. You know who you are.
- Internal company research groups: Many enterprise organizations have a brand insights or marketing team that generates research, even for UX projects. Many teams are forced to use or leverage this research. This is a mistake. Brand or market research insights have a different agenda, a different methodology and their intention is not to understand how to get users to adopt, convert, engage etc. Note that those three words are behaviors, not opinions or feelings about the brand.
How UX research is different to Market Research
The three keys are how it is conducted; why it is conducted and what the intended application of the data will be. Let's break these down...and end the confusion once and for all.
How the research is conducted
Market research: Bring them to your facility or survey, then: Ask the audience, offer surveys and samples, gain reactions and bounce ideas off the group (if focus grouping). Probe and try to avoid closed-ended questions (surveys) or group dynamics (focus groups). Carefully figure out how they think about some topic or problem you are trying to solve.
User research: Go to their home or workspace, then: Observe the users, their surrounding experience and listen to their stories. Learn about their issues, values, goals, tasks, cultural, social or emotional aspects of the problems they try to solve based on their actual habits and routines.
Why it's conducted
Market research: To figure out how an audience will react, respond or what they think or feel about a topic, feature or idea, for example.
User research: To learn about what they do, how they do it, why they do, when and where they do it. To bring these insights into the literal design strategy, in order to make an interface or service experience more easy, efficient or fun, for example.
What is the intended application?
Market research: Influence the audience in terms of how to package/present something to them, or how they buy the product or service.
User research: Shape how users will actually use, interact or engage with a product or service.
Conclusion: In UX, not all research is the same. It's careless to mix market research and usability research. Why? What you learn and how you learn it can completely change the decisions you make from the data you get. As they say, "Garbage in..."
To change behavior, such as customer conversion, adoption, onboarding or engagement, conduct research that will give you tangible insight into behavior. Know when and where market research fits e.g. to inform bigger picture business, product or market direction. Know when and where UX research fits e.g. to validate that market research will apply to behavioral adoption, to gain UX strategy insights or UI/ service design direction or to validate your design or service prototype.
Also, never use a survey as a substitute for user research insights...