How Different Research Lenses Can Result in Different Outcomes

When examining a business problem or new product idea, what are the advantages or disadvantages of hiring a UX researcher (UXR) vs. market researcher (MR)? How are these disciplines different? How are they the same?

I frequently see a lot of misconceptions about these 2 research disciplines… Here are just a few that I found within minutes of searching posts and comments on LinkedIn:

  • MRs reveal what people say. UXRs reveal what people do. (False!)
  • MRs use quantitative methods. UXRs use qualitative methods. (False!)
  • MRs focus on existing products. UXRs focus on new products. (False!)

How Are Market Researchers and UX Researchers the Same? How Are They Different?

I think about different research disciplines in much the same way I think about designers. 

Graphic designers, fashion designers, and interior designers are all experts in color theory, negative space, symmetry, scale, contrast, etc. Their education and design knowledge is uncannily similar.

While many fashion designers are likely capable of designing a modern and chic kitchen in your home, it’s probably not the most efficient use of their talents.

The same is true for MRs and UXRs. Like siblings, they share a lot of the same DNA—but were raised in different households and each have their own special traits.

How Are MRs and UXRs the Same?

MRs and UXRs share many of the same research methods (though they don’t always use the same labels). Here are just a few of the methodologies they have in common: IDIs/user interviews, shop-alongs/contextual inquiries, surveys, prototype testing, ethnography, eye-tracking, virtual reality research, data analysis, secondary research, competitive analyses.

MRs and UXRs both seek to understand people’s behaviors, emotions, mental models, usage, and the desirability of new concepts and features.

MRs and UXRs both deliver insights about products and services.

They also both follow the same research process, work hard to build rapport and remove bias, use a rigorous and ethical approach to data collection, and leverage the same soft skills (e.g., storytelling, empathy, creativity).

How Are MRs and UXRs Different?

UX research and market research are both rooted in psychology, but independently came into existance. 

As the field of psychology matured in the early 1900s, psychologists spread out into many different fields. Some went into advertising and invented consumer research (e.g., John Watson). Others went into industrial fields and invented human factors research; a sub-discipline of I/O psychology (e.g., Hugo Munsterberg). Some consider UX a sub-discipline of human factors, others believe the terms can be used interchangeably.

The early days of market research included door-to-door canvassing, polling, and focus groups. The earliest known survey took place in 1834 in England to identify people’s occupations. The earliest known focus group was in 1926, and then became more widely used in the 1940s to study the effects of World War II propaganda.

One of the earliest known human factors/UX research studies took place in the 1930s to reveal how real people drove automobiles. After World War II, psychologists Alphonse Chapanis and Paul Fitts coined the term “designer error” when they saw the inside of a cockpit and declared it was airplane designers’ poor design choices that were crashing planes—not the pilots. In the 1950s, Bell Labs conducted research to identify which push-button phone design resulted in the fastest dial with the best accuracy.

Sometimes it’s easier to define something by what it’s not. UXRs and MRs have a lot in common… but there are lots of areas where MRs are unique:

  • Marketing research – uncovering insights about advertising effectiveness
  • Social marketing research – uncovering insights about social causes
  • Blind taste tests – testing a new or improved product, or tracking preferences over time
  • Segmentation research – identifying potential markets based on demographics, psychographics, technographics, etc.
  • Pricing research – identifying price sensitivity
  • And many more sub-disclipines

Places where human factors researchers / UXRs are unique:

  • Usability research – uncovering insights about ease of use of software, websites, apps, kiosks, machines, analog interfaces, etc.
  • Accessibility research – testing whether products and services are accessible to everyone
  • Ergonomics research – testing conditions (e.g., light, sound, distance) for physical strain
  • Haptics research – studying sensory experiences between people and machines (e.g., game controller knobs)
  • And many more sub-disclipines

There are a number of research methods that are exclusive to each discipline (e.g., Van Westendorp for MR, Kano for UXR), however, I think the bigger difference is the lens they each bring to a research problem.

Good or bad, different lenses can result in wildly different solutions—with signficantly different levels of impact.

Different Research Disciplines Bring Different Lenses

First, what do I mean by “lens”? I’m using this word to encapsulate an individual researcher’s education, training, experience, area of focus, and skillset. Consider the fashion designer vs. interior design example from earlier—similar knowledge and skills, different experiences and areas of focus.

To further illustrate what I mean, let’s take a look at the problem of litter and what insights are needed to reduce litter in your city. 

Which hypothetical researcher would you hire? 

The Marketing Researcher Lens

A marketing researcher might test multiple versions of an ad campaign with focus groups—to identify the right combination of messages and visuals that evokes the desired emotional impact. Remember the ultrafamous ad campaign from the 1980s where a Native American stood over a landscape cluttered with garbage? It worked. It tapped into people’s emotions and resulted in a significant reduction of litter. (Sad fact: To deflect from the world’s true biggest polluters, this campaign was masterminded by the manufacturing industry.) 

The UX Researcher Lens

A UX researcher might go out into your city to observe when, where, and why people litter—observing that trash receptacles are not located in the right places based on foot traffic patterns, too difficult to use for some populations, or that signage is not clearly marked.

The Data Analyst Lens

A data analyst might calculate the total cost to clean up your city’s litter problem—and then calculate the minimum fine to offset that cost.

The Cultural Anthropologist Lens

A cultural anthropologist might first dig into the data to discover white males 16-24 who drive pick-up trucks are responsible for 80% of roadside litter (true story)—and then observe what moves and motivates them. (Fun fact: This research project led to the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign—one of the most successful anti-litter campaigns ever.)

The Design Researcher Lens

Finally, a design researcher might bypass talking to or observing consumers altogether—and instead look into how to create (or influence the use of) compostable packaging.

Final Thoughts

The point of this exercise isn’t to say that one research discipline is better than the others—each one is valid and the decision to hire one over another is highly dependent on knowing other factors like scope, objective, and budget. 

The relationship between researchers and clients depends on a high degree of trust, as it’s impossible for any one researcher to be skilled in every research discipline. We need clients to trust researchers to choose the right research methodology for the objective and desired outcome, and clients need researchers to be honest about where their strengths are best leveraged.

If you’re a research buyer or user, I hope this broadened your understanding of different research disciplines. If you’re a research practitioner, I hope it helps you better frame your unique value.

Author: Kristine Remer

Kristine Remer is a CX / UX researcher and strategist in Minneapolis. She helps drive significant business outcomes by finding and solving customer problems. When she's not creating customer journey maps and conducting diary studies, Kristine is either kayaking, trying new recipes, or acting silly with her house full of boys.