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Market Research vs. User Research

Andi Galpern

There’s often confusion about the difference between market research and user research.  They are both very important in their own unique ways, but use different methodologies to uncover insights for a business.  In this article, I’ll explain the difference between market research and user research, so you have a clear understanding of the application and benefits of each.

Market Research

ACorp, a fictional billion dollar technology corporation, wants to create a virtual assistant for the healthcare industry.  The company wants to make sure it’s a good investment before creating a new product.  They hire a market research firm to study the industry, collect data, analyze competition, and create a report.  They investigate questions including:

  • What is the market size?
  • What is the market forecast?
  • Which countries drive the most demand?  
  • What are opportunities?  
  • What are challenges?
  • What are price points?
  • Who are the main competitors?
  • What type of revenue do these products bring in?
  • How fast are is the industry growing?

After the research is complete, ACorp reviews a brief provided by the market research firm.  They discover that healthcare virtual assistants are valued at 1.5 billion dollars by 2024. They also learned that Microsoft recently launched a virtual assistant in clinics and hospitals. After examining the findings, ACorp decides to move forward to create a product.  

User Research

Sarah, A User Researcher for ACorp, receives the creative brief to create a virtual assistant to improve patient care at busy hospitals.  She is assigned to research the day-to-day lives of doctors, nurses and patients, and wants to find out where their communication breaks down.

Sarah lists out the goals and the timeline of the project.  A local hospital agrees to let her run in-house ethnographic studies to interview nurses, physicians, hospital workers and patients.  She spends a few weeks at the hospital and becomes familiar with the day-to-day activities.  She learns how people work in the hospital, their pain points, and where communication breaks between patient and caregiver.  Sarah digs into to examine the behavior to accurately identify the wants and needs of the hospital workers.  She asks questions about how they feel about the current technology and processes. She wants to know where it can be improved.  After the research is complete, Sarah summarizes her findings and shares it with her team.  With a clear understanding of how doctors and nurses currently work, ACorp can now create a product specifically for their audience.

Market Research & User Research are Different

As you see, market research and user research occurs at different stages of creating a product.  Market Researchers work in the early stages of the product development cycle and investigates the potential to make money.  They deliver business insights on market needs, size, competition and pricing.  They use quantitative methods, meaning they focus on numbers. They look at large sample sets to understand the average age of potential users, their income level, and other general characteristics.  A Market Researcher is more general than user research. Market researchers study consumer behavior and identify their needs.  They uncover demographic, economic, and statistical information about a specific industry.

On the opposite end, User Researchers work with product teams to create features for a particular person. User research is often qualitative. It zooms into a small subset of people to learn about who they are and what they want.  As a result, product teams can create products specifically for their user.  User Researchers run usability tests, 1-1 qualitative surveys, focus groups, and ethnographic studies. They intend to understand what someone thinks about an existing product and where it can be improved.  

Both Market Researchers and User Researchers use data to inform better decisions.  When applied correctly, they minimize business risks, and provide a clear roadmap for stakeholders to create successful products.  Overall, companies are encouraged to follow both practices to achieve success.  

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