Why marketers need to understand the value of UX research

5 min read David Renwick

We’ve said it once and we’ll certainly say it again: user research is a critical part of the design process. By applying the right research methods to the problems you’re trying to solve, you can pull out fantastic insights which you can use to build products and services that meet the needs of your users.

This won’t be news to any user researchers or designers reading this article – but for those on the marketing side of the organizational fence, it’s time to sit up, take notice, and learn just how valuable user research is. Hint: It’s quite valuable!

Now, thanks to the wealth of information about UX research that’s available online, not to mention the array of tools available, marketers can easily take advantage of powerful research methods to supercharge their marketing campaigns and their user insights.

But, I hear you ask, isn’t ‘user research’ just another term for ‘market research’? Well, not exactly. That’s why we’ll start this article off by exploring the difference between the two.

What’s the difference between market research and user research?

Regardless of organization, profession or field, market research and user research are terms often mixed up or used interchangeably. This comes down mostly to the fact that both terms contain the word ‘research’, but there’s a little more to it.Both market research and user research overlap (check out the diagram below), with a shared focus on things like personas, analytics and competitor analysis. More broadly, user research is seen as a more qualitative approach, whereas market research is typically seen as quantitative. In practice, however, both user researchers and market researchers – at least those doing their jobs correctly – will use a combination of both research approaches.

Looked at another way, market research is typically used to inform sales and marketing (Who will buy what), whereas user research is used to drive product decisions by understanding user needs (What do our users want).

What does this mean for marketers (and researchers?)

Market research, broadly speaking, has always been tied to the bottom line of an organization, and using research as a way to improve revenue lines through an understanding of an organization’s users. Market research seeks the answers to questions such as:

  • Who will buy what
  • When will they buy it
  • What do they look for when buying X product
  • Why do they buy X product and not Y product

But this is starting to change. As we’ve seen in the world of design, market research has also undertaken a user-centered shift to try and actually understand the user as opposed to just their intent. There is still a way to go, however. The ESOMAR Global Report from 2017 found that just 15 percent of worldwide spend on market research was qualitative.

As SimpleUsability explains: “The two disciplines co-exist on a moving scale, often overlapping, rather than existing as two polarising variables”.

For marketers (and user researchers to an extent), this really means one thing: focus on the method, not the overarching label. Marketers should take a deep dive into the world of user research and explore all of the methods that researchers utilize on a daily basis:

  • Card sorting can show you how your users sort and categorize information, which makes the process of building effective website structures quite simple.
  • Diary studies help you to understand long-term user behaviour. Users self-report over a long period of time, keeping a diary about the activity you’re studying.  
  • Contextual inquiries let you observe your users in their natural environment, and allow you to ask questions while they go about their business.
  • Tree testing lets you test the bare bones structure of your website or mobile app, iterate on the structure, and then test it again.

These are just a few of the methods popular among user researchers – but there are many, many more. Check out the chart below from Christian Rohrer (via Nielsen Norman Group).

An image of a landscape of user research methods, sourced from Nielsen Norman Group.
Source: Nielsen Norman Group
A landscape of user research methods

How can marketers get started with user research?

Any journey into the world of UX research really needs to start with a holistic understanding of the different methods available and an understanding of what each method can tell you. If you haven’t read it before, we highly recommend the Intro to UX guide on our blog. Then, you can dive into detail by reading about different types of testing and research.

What comes next? The world of user research is a very different place now than what it was even 10 years ago. In the past few years, there’s been a surge in the number of powerful remote UX research tools available, with options available for every method and approach. There are card sorting and tree testing tools, tools for contextual inquiries and even tools for running remote user interviews over the internet. Exploring the different options available to you and playing around with different combinations of tools will put you in the best position to run your own research projects – which brings us to our final recommendation.

With an idea of the methods you can use and the tools available online, you’ll want to put together a UX research plan to build up all of the information you currently have as well as the questions you need to answer.

So here we are. The line between user research and market research continues to blur with every passing day as both sides of the organizational fence rally around a common point: Figuring out their users.

User researchers understand the value of leveraging the various methods available to them. The only question is, will you?

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