User research vs. market research: the lowdown

User research vs. market research

What is design research?

A collection of activities that seek insight into user behaviour, goals and needs. The end goal is resolving these through design.

Know your blindspots

User centred design is greatly explored terrain, and companies will travel far and wide, searching high and low to fully understand their customers’ experience. Businesses depend on knowing the topography of customers’ needs and wants. And yet, there are major assumptions and innate biases in the process of collecting customer insights. To avoid being blindsided by something you’ve overlooked when designing a solution to what you think is a customer problem, but actually isn’t, the first step is understanding the difference between design research and market research.

design research vs market research

Lose your focus

Market research is designed to confirm what you’re looking for, meaning it has the potential to be inherently flawed. For example, you can thoroughly prepare a product for market thinking that you’ve done exhaustive research, only to find you’ve left out a key element of the customer journey simply by not asking the right questions. When it’s done right, design research allows the researcher to discover the gold nuggets of information that they may otherwise have missed. It’s about being open to other forms of knowledge, and diving deep into a user experience.

Leave aside the expected outcome

Go on a tangent. The deeper you dive into user research, the more sunken treasures you find. By unlearning the preconceived ideas you have about a subject, you can avoid leading a user in a specific direction. Ever watched a lawyer steer a witness toward the answer they want by asking precise questions that lead only to that one answer? That’s what you don’t want to do. User-centred design helps you take off the blinders to see what’s in your peripheral vision and ask new questions that might even feel off topic, such as whether they sleep with a teddy bear, sing in the shower, or wear slippers in bed. Nailing that “right question” is not as obvious as you might think, but when you find it, it is truly an “ah-ha!” moment. The point is, the benefits of having an extensive conversation far outweigh mass polling with generic questions.

Different forms of research lead to different results.jpeg

Find the answer underneath the question

If you search beyond what people say and think, you discover their needs at a level that even they can’t explain themselves. Humans are famous for saying one thing, and doing another. Throw feelings into the mix, and gaining valuable information about what drives their behaviour on a subconscious level is like collecting intel on the logic of cats…from cats. Despite how messy or murky this information gathering might be, it is where you gain the greatest insights. (Here’s a tool you can use to identify which insights should be taken forward.) Unfortunately, this type of user research is almost never carried out to the extent it should. Rather, companies refer to a fixed set of questions, drawing conclusions only from what they record from interviews that many customers don’t want to be giving. Think the inconvenient “courtesy call” at dinner time to find out how a company can improve. That.

What do we know? User research.jpeg

Unknow the known

It’s the Russian doll of questions: You know what you know, you know what you don’t know, but then there is what you don’t know that you don’t know. The last conundrum is what user research tackles to get to the bottom of something. Once this pandora’s box is open, you discover ignorance and assumptions you didn’t even think you had. How humbling! To a design thinker, this knowledge is freeing, not something to fear. The next step is getting comfortable with the knowledge that you are completely ignorant about the unknown, while examining a customer journey map. If that still seems scary, give us a call and we’ll come in to help.

Free template to map your customer journey

Probably the most famous design thinking tool, a customer journey map allows to reconsider the interaction with your products or services from the customer's perspective.

Why Customer Journeys matter

  • Build understanding about how a customer navigates within their context.
  • It helps you to think in terms of customer’s needs 
and aspirations, rather than features and specs.
  • Helps to validate assumptions and hypotheses about 
your understanding of the customer. 


I’m Lucas Tamboryn, business designer at Board of Innovation. Spreading innovation culture is in our DNA – if you liked the read, contribute to our mission by sharing this article.

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