UX research vs market research: What's the difference?

Published 25 Apr 2022 6 minute read

Market Research
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First things first. Let's be really clear about what we mean by UX research and market research, as there can be some confusion. Then we can start to talk about the differences and similarities, and compare and contrast what you can get from both.

What do we mean by UX research?

UX stands for user experience. When we talk about UX research we mean the user experience research that is typically carried out within or for UX departments, by user researchers, and is focused on improving the experiences that people have when interacting with products or services.

In a pure sense, the definition of UX research includes design research to answer questions such as 'how easy do people find it to operate this cheese grater without grating their knuckles?'

However, when we are exploring the difference between UX and market research it is more helpful to consider UX research as focusing on digital experiences. By digital experiences we mean what it is like for customers when they interact with brands, products or services via digital interfaces such as websites, apps or software.

What do we mean by market research?

There are any number of definitions of the term 'market research'. The industry body ESOMAR defines it as follows:

"Market research, which includes social and opinion research, is the systematic gathering and interpretation of information about individuals or organisations using the statistical and analytical methods and techniques of the applied sciences to gain insight or support decision making."

And the Market Research Society defines research like this:

"Research is the collection, use, or analysis of information about individuals or organisations intended to establish facts, acquire knowledge or reach conclusions. It uses techniques of the applied social, behavioural and data sciences, statistical principles and theory, to generate insights and support decision-making by providers of goods and services, governments, non-profit organisations and the general public."

Overall, we - and probably many market researchers - would emphasis that gaining insights and supporting decisions are the key elements of both definitions and very much the purpose of market research.

What is the difference between UX research and market research?

Strictly speaking, and according to the definitions above, we could argue that UX research is a subset of market research. However, the reality is that they are thought of separately and differently by brands, agencies and UX and market researchers themselves.

Many corporate organisations have both a market research and a UX research department and they employ researchers with distinct skill sets.

The two disciplines also tend to be applied at different stages of the marketing and product lifecycle.

From our perspective, some of the (many) differences between UX research and market research are as follows:

  • UX research is focused on digital experiences, and on the interface between user and brand, product or service whereas market research can address any issue.
  • UX researchers tend to be focused on the user of the brand, product or service whereas market research can address users and buyers of the product or service, non-users, lapsed or former users, potential users, users of competitors' products, influencers, experts or a wide variety of other stakeholders.
  • UX research is more tactical and seeks to address narrow, specific questions whereas market research can be tactical or more strategic and address questions at any level
  • UX research is typically part of a product design process and, as such, is characterised by fast turnaround agile research methods. Market research has traditionally been more involved and painstaking - however many market researchers are now embracing agile methodologies.
  • UX research tends to be more qualitative - although some UX also relies on data such as web analytics and quantitative methods such as A/B studies. Market research uses a range of methods, both qualitative and quantitative, such as online surveys, focus groups, interviews and ethnographic studies.
  • UX research tends to employ observational research methods to look at user behaviours. These can include some of the same methods used by market researchers to look at user behaviour such as online qualitative techniques.
  • Although market research can also be focused on consumer behaviour, it can also have other research objectives such as gathering market research insights into attitudinal data, customer pain points, potential market size, or competitive analysis.
  • UX research is typically used as part of the product development cycle whereas market research can be used at any stage of the product or service lifecycle.
  • UX researchers often create product prototypes or build mock-ups of apps or websites to test with research participants, so they can observe how they behave. Market researchers don't always use stimulus materials, but when they do, they can be less realistic and more conceptual, such as story-boards. They typically use direct questioning as well as observational techniques.

To add to the confusion...

The confusion continues when we throw the term 'user research' into the mix. Sometimes this is used interchangeably with UX research and this is where it can get even more complicated.

User research can also be used as an umbrella term meaning 'all research conducted with users' which, of course, then has a crossover with market research.

And don't get us started on the terms 'user testing' or 'usability testing'. In short, we would probably not use the term user testing at all, and we would define usability testing as one of the methods that UX researchers use when assessing the overall user experience with the digital interface.

And to add to all of this, designers would probably also make a distinction between UX design and UI - user interface - design. But we won't get into that here.

So, for the purposes of this article, we will continue to use the term 'UX research' when we mean research into the digital experience and the user interface and to use the term 'market research' when we mean all other research that is used to help with decision making.

Advantages and disadvantages of UX and market research

We could argue that this is a moot point as the type of user research insights you need will dictate the type of user researchers you will employ and the approach you will choose.

However, in a practical sense, the lines between what is the responsibility of the UX researcher and what should be handled by the market researchers can be blurred - meaning it is worth looking at some of the pros and cons of each approach.

One key differentiator is more about reputation than reality.

Traditionally, market research tends to seen as a rigourous, scientific discipline that is highly focused on process. This has tended to mean that whilst you can rely on market research for methodological excellence and statistical validity, it can be seen as a bit slow and bureaucratic when compared to the approach taken by UX researchers.

In contrast, and because UX researchers tend to work as part of design teams, user research methods can be more agile and deliver quicker results. As such, they can be seen as being more in tune with the needs of the UX designer.

However, the reality is that today's market research departments are becoming more used to agile processes and to working more closely with stakeholder teams.

Which should I choose?

Great question. It depends on the main focus of your project and where you are in the product development cycle or the marketing process.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does the research relate to a tactical improvement to product or service design?
  2. Are my internal customers part of a design solutions team?
  3. Will the product teams need a fast turnaround and an iterative, agile approach?
  4. Do I need to create a prototype or mock-up for my research participants to use?

If the answer is 'yes' to any of these questions, it is likely that you will be using UX research.

In many cases, it will be obvious which you need to use. For example, if you are trying to understand more about the lives of a particular target group of customers or potential users in order to come up with new product concepts for that group, you will need exploratory market research such as ethnographic studies or online qualitative research methods.  To learn more about our online qualitative platform, Together™ head over to our platform page.

Alternatively, if you are trying to understand whether the ordering process on your new website is easy and intuitive for customers to use, you are most likely to work with your UX researcher team and ask research participants to try out different tasks and scenarios, and observe them online, or in a lab environment. You may also use research methods such as eye-tracking or screen recording to understand more about how customers interact with your site.

Can I use both UX and market research together?

Also a great question. We've seen that it shouldn't really be a case of market research vs UX as both have so much in common and have similar objectives: understand user behaviour, improve the customer experience, create successful products, develop business insights and help companies to make great decisions.

There's a great debate on exactly this topic, based on a panel discussion between market researchers and UX researchers, here.

Often, the tools and methods that UX teams and market research teams use to gather user insights will be the same - whether that is online qualitative methods or in-context observation.

The risk comes when companies have separate UX and market research teams and use both approaches without good communications, and don't integrate the results.

The most effective approach is to recognise the strengths of each discipline and to align the objectives of both teams so that each builds on the insights gained by the other.

If these teams sit in silos and each champions its own approach, the company will lose out overall. Instead, each should be seen as part of the overall insights ecosystem that the product teams, marketing people and other internal stakeholders can draw upon to explore, test and learn. That's how you get better products, services and user experiences.

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