Difference between User Research and Market Research

I’m having a tough time putting the difference of these two different forms of research into words. At least words that demonstrates in lay terms what the difference is.

The problem I tend to run into, especially when I talk to marketing-folk, is that they say…“well, that’s what we do”…when in reality it isn’t.

I’m speaking to the front end research that is meant to inform the product development process. The Ethnographic and other user experience research techniques being used in the design industry vs. Market Studies or Mktg. user group research.

I’d love to hear thoughts on this.

Market research: studying and analyzing what already exists to identify issues, opportunities and gaps. Typically retail visits, market sizing, retail data analysis and customer intercepts

User research: studying and analyzing human behavior to identify insights, unmet needs, and unidentified trends. Typically through immersive research sessions in situ with a targeted group of individuals.

Jon: I just finished a marketing research class. Actually, user research IS what marketing does. In fact, I think design has stolen a lot from marketing research in this regard.

Having said that, both of these concepts have fluid definitions. One of my old bosses thought that marketing research stopped at getting your competitor’s catalog. Most people seem to think that “research” is whatever they happen to use. If they haven’t done qualitative market research, it might not exist for them.

I don’t see too much distinction between these aside from that User Research may be more tight in scope and specific than Market Research. That being said, I think both are valuable to designers, and I often provide both aspects to clients in various forms.

If anything I think Market Research, is almost more valuable to a project as it defines the starting point, strategy and opportunity. It should be the foundation of any project, design brief or concept, no matter if done by Marketing or Design.

Maybe I’ve yet to work with a strong marketing department, but I typically find most marketing studies and marketing people (like sales) are too often focused on the past (what has been done), vs. the future (what could be done). In this way I believe that a proper strategic approach to design is key upfront to identify opportunity, and that most focus groups, “marketing reports” and the like are pretty much useless.


this is getting to the cruxt of my problem. When you’re talking to, primarily, quantitative thinking people. As in, engineering and numbers groups, they’re looking for an absolute. Something that “proves” it will work. The future will always have that element of qualitative/gut/subjective to it.

You can never prove the future, but most often all people are really looking for I find is some sort of logical proposition.

If you can get people to accept A and then show how A > B > C> > D you can get people on board. When I do my strategy presentations, there is no data, no charts, no pseudo science or “results” just a thoughtful analysis that breaks down some possibilities in the market and shows opportunities and the logical conclusion to following certain assumptions.

By taking a step by step approach I find it is a lot easier to convince people than the big jump of logic most designers find easy to understand.

Dunno if this makes any sense. Speaking in such generalities it’s hard to explain.


I have always tried to stress that qualitative data will generate the idea, quantitative data will confirm the idea.

I think that is a good way to frame it. I’ve seen people get in trouble when they try to do the opposite…



Maybe I’ve yet to work with a strong marketing department, but I typically find most marketing studies and marketing people (like sales) are too often focused on the past (what has been done), vs. the future (what could be done).

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. There are a lot of things that are not influenced by past results that people try to predict by past results. Here is an article about how many people are willing to pay for “tips” on flipping a coin.

The worst part is that it’s not just average chumps. I can’t find the stat now, but someone asked each US congressman what the chance of flipping heads was after 4 consecutive times the coin landing on heads was. Half the congressman stated a 1 in 16 chance.

Of all the “webinairs” and blog posts and TED talks…I would definitely pay to hear one talking about effective ways of getting this insight across to decision makers.

Great comments and summaries already. To those I’ll add:

User research is “steep and deep”: it is highly detailed and granular, and can be used to understand WHY people feel a certain way. Market research (which I define as using quantitative methods like surveys, and looking at large groups) will identify WHAT people feel, but does poorly at the WHY.

User research is directional - it can identify users/areas of interest or trends that are not statisically valid, yet can be used for subsequent statistical validation through market research. If you have the luxury of using both methods: user research identifies potential areas of interest in a specific user group, market research validates the occurance (i.e. “is it large enough to be of interest to us?”) of that user group.

And of course, highly qualitative, deep, observational/ethnographic research (“user research”) is the only research method that can identify unarticulated needs, unmet needs, and under-met needs. It’s almost impossible for quantitative methods (“market research”) to uncover opportunities or to evaluate innovation, because it is extremely difficult for people to evaluate or imagine/invent things that they’ve never seen or experienced.

Market research uses quantitative data (large numbers) and remote tools (surveys, demographic info, sales info, etc.). User research uses qualitative data (small numbers) and local tools (interviews, observation, etc). Both can be done well or poorly. Both can yield helpful information, but they are different methods, yield different information, and require different skills to plan, design and implement. They are complimentary in the best of cases.

If you’ve only got time or budget for one type, the decision of which type depends on

  1. newness of the product space
  2. amount of information known about the potential users
  3. comfort of the development team (and execs) with ambiguity
  4. where that ambiguity lies (for instance: the development or manufacturing process vs. potential market vs. ability to merchandise/assort/distribute vs. validity of user need, etcetera)

As I understand it…

User research example:
P&G works with dozens-hundreds of men to understand more about razor use, preferences, habits, etc. This informs the design team and goes into the brief.

*is this technically ethnography?

Market research example:
They then design razors, produce a low-volume batch, and tests them with hundreds to thousands of users. I actually heard they had stations on the highway where commuters could try razors out (for a quick $). This validates the design before millions are made.

I see things differently than Jacob and Travis put it.

Market research would be to analyze the market, competitors, business opportunities, etc. and determine there is a niche available for new razor that combines the ease of use of a disposable razor, but provides an upmarket, luxury experience that focuses on design and references traditional shaving methods.

User research would be to see how people use their razors, how often they shave, where they shave, where they buy razors and what kinds of products they buy that are commodities or luxuries.

The result of both in my hypothetical situation might be something like this-



I think it’s grey enough that there’s a lot of avenues to getting information, insights, and identifying opportunities. To your point, Richard, I definitely believe it’s possible to come up with successful products using market research methodologies: market research can uncover under-served “white spaces”, like those you might see in areas like price point identification, or specific feature set arrangements that appeal to specific user groups.

The opportunities or white spaces that user research methodologies would identify are more around things that you can’t find out by remotely talking to users through surveys. For instance, that could be in identifying the gap between what people do, and what they say they do. Do and say are almost always different - not because people lie, but because it’s difficult or impossible for someone to describe specific step-by-step physical actions and their accompanying cues, like body language, facial expressions, or being sarcastic. Those things can tell a lot about user experience but would almost certainly be lost in a remote reporting scenario, such as a survey.

I look at user research and market research as being on a continuum of information generation. They’re different, but there’s some overlap (or at least adjacencies) in methods, and certainly in goals.

Jon - did you get any relief out of this thread, or did we just muck it up for you further? Happy to (attempt) more . . .

Oh, it definitely has helped. Where it sits more than anything is that I have yet to come across the audience that doesn’t believe their system is the “right” system. In other words, Most I’ve spoken with here in Vancouver seem to consider the qualitative “market” approach to be the only approach.

I know they exist, or the people I’m talking with and I are just using different terminology. So that’s what I was hoping to gleen from the thread.

And as it turns out…at least using this thread as a qualitative assessment, we’re all struggling with the messaging on this one.

Jon, I think it’s a generational problem. Even in marketing, they talk about this. I’m sure that we could find an internet forum with marketers around our age complaining about their management not listening to their qualitative market research. We’ll just have to wait for these people to retire and then we’ll get to force our “old” ideas onto the next generation.

I see the change all over the place now. I see this struggle as part of a larger social change. I think 20 years ago, people generally thought that everything could be reduced down to an easy spreadsheet. Absolute predictions could be made for everything. I think September 11 (and the varied crisis since then) cracked that open. Academics are shifting to studying things that can be roughly predicted, but never absolutely. This kind of mind set is dripping over into popular media and it will seed the next generation of management.

Sadly, I can not give you an absolute date when one of those managers more open to qualitative user or marketing research will call you.

It’s the classic do-the-thing-you’re-most-familiar-with, a.k.a “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.
The methods chosen for generating information (and using it) have a lot to do with what the personal or institutional comfort level is with ambiguity.

I asked one of our research team… her 5 min take was that user research was a subset of market research, and that many of the different research subsets could be applied to both marketing or to design

Market Research = Overview of Category
Market research is done through some agency. It might be useful for designer to be a part of the process.
It provides an overview of the product category. It gives some view about which product is doing well in comparison with others.
It defines important parameters, features, success & failures, trends.
Basically, it tries to connect the sell figure to its appropriateness or probable reason (Why answer?). This gives a guideline for the important factors/parameters that should be considered while designing the product. It can also give some information for a strategic design.

User Research = User & (User-Product-Environment )
I have done a few projects, which went for the good depth.
It is collecting info about users who are/will be associated with the product.
There are various methods to understand the User-Product-Environment relationship & their interactions.
It gives details about the insights, their wants & needs, pain points & opportunities.