Design vs. Market Research


I was curious how different people define design research and how it differentiates from market research. Do they differ in methodology or is it more in the way the information is applied. Someone asked me this the other day and I had a hard time explaining it in a language that would be clear to someone who is not in the field. I would love to hear any thoughts on this.


Market research typically handles quantifyable info, basically numbers. how many people wnat this, how much will they pay for it etc.

Design research deals with qualifyable data, fuzzy stuff. what are the tasks. how can they be addressed etc.

People are really good at working around a problem. you can interview a user, and s/he will tell you that there is nothing wrong with the design, but if you watch them work and ask why do you do it that way, you find out they have some klugeed (SP?) work around that they are not even aware of. also typical users often cannot tell you they need something if they don’t know it can be done! People do things the way they have always been done, sometimes not even asking is ther a better way?

This is becomming less true with technically savvy consumers though.

So are you saying that the main difference is that Market Research deals with quant and Design Research deals with qual? Can’t Market Research deal with qual as well? It seems that they have to differ in more than just that… Maybe part of the diffrence lies in the purpose of discovering the information?

No, it’s more than qual vs. quant.

Market research is just what it sounds like: research about “the market” for marketers.

“Design Research” focuses on individuals within that market for designers. The rubber-hits-the-road stuff.

Yeah, that makes sense. I guess thats pretty clearly stated when market researchers focus on the “consumer” and design researchers focus on the “user.”

Lots that could be said here; I’ll throw out that I think of design research being less focused on a search for “truth” (even subjective truth) but to get the information that will inspire, inform, and provoke the creation of the right design solutions to a problem or need.

Note that in MR (i.e., market research) “qual” often means “focus groups” specifically.

I define market research as the umbrella term that covers the product/service and the people who use the product/service. I then divide market research into three areas - exploratory, directional and confirmational.

Exploratory is used when there is only an idea that needs more definition, i.e. I have a new technology for tesing for heart failure, what patient is it for and what physician will order it.

Directional is when you need to define the requirements of the product/service and customer. The heart test will be used in the emergency department and ordered by the ED docs and nurses. What type of patient will receive the test, who will run the test, how long will it take, what other things are done in the ED that are similar, etc.

Confirmation research is when you have the idea finalized and you want to make sure it is correct. The heart test is used on patients if there are other indicators of heart failure (instead of indigestion), its a 15 minute test and will be administered by the nurse.

You can get information about the product/service and customer from any of these stages of research. They can be qualitative or quantitative or both. The research can be about the product/service or customer or both. Since the relationship between the product/service and customer is so intertwined, I think you you can get information about both no matter how the research is slanted.

Design research would then be a subset of market research and can be conducted in any of the three stages (as with segmentation research, requirements research, positioning research, etc.)

Any good design research books out there that lay out process?
I like Karen Holtzblatt’s “Contextual Design.”

This seems to capture design research from an academic perspective.

“The Journal of Design Research is an interdisciplinary journal, emphasizing human aspects as a central issue of design through integrative studies of social sciences and design disciplines.”

So, if market research seeks to define and describe a market, then would design research seek to identify and describe how a design (execution) or a component of design relates to a component (segment) of that market?

It also seems as though design research can focus on other aspects besides human, such as exploring materials to determine viability.


My interpretation, which is demonstrated in this journal, is that design research is concerned with issues in which the end result is the creation of a service or object that has somebody using it. And so there are various techniques that you can perform that can help figure out what the physical porperties are of the resulting service or object, and in my opinion, the data gathered for design research is more focused what exactly is going to be in that service or object.

Marketing research gives you the group of people, or category of objects in which the end service or objects will exist.