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Resources: UPA 2005 Idea Markets

What is a usability professional's role in conducting traditional market research?

Activator: Stephanie Brawner, Sage Software

The Activator's Initial Questions

  • How do you define “market research”? Compare that with “user research”.
  • Do you see them as distinct disciplines or have the lines between them become blurred?
  • What types of market research and user research activities are you doing?
  • How do we communicate our value as usability professionals for non-user interface research activities?
  • Do the clients you serve (internal or external) know the difference between different types of research?
  • Do they know what they are asking you for or do you determine the best research method?

Comparing the two types of research

Our group first discussed the following distinctions between “market” and “user” research.

Market research

User research

Evaluates what larger samples say

Evaluates what smaller samples do

Asks people about concepts, opinions and values

Observes people's behaviors

Asks a market what they will buy

Asks a market if they will use

Focuses on selling and marketing the product

Focuses on requirements of the design

Many in our group agreed that the disciplines have different approaches and their own strengths and weaknesses, but sometimes share common goals and inform one another. Which method to use and when to use it depends on what problem you are trying to solve. Our experiences have shown us that both types of research may inform customer segmentation (while this has historically been seen as only a marketing role). Marketing research may start this effort with demographic data, while user researchers sometimes find information that challenges and updates the segmentation. Both types of research have a role in innovation; both can find gaps that may drive new product ideas.

Types of research we are doing

The lines between the two types of research are becoming more blurred in our profession, as many in the discussion group practice a hybrid of both types of research at their companies. In addition to doing usability tests and contextual inquiries, we are doing focus groups, helping to write surveys, and conducting competitive research. Not surprisingly, time and money usually constricts many of our efforts to use hybrid approaches more often.

Several people mentioned they have had success combining a usability test and focus group using the same participants. They let users complete task scenarios alone then invite back all participants to discuss their experience.

“Voice of the Customer” and “Six Sigma”

We discussed that corporate changes are making it easier for marketing departments and user-research groups to share data with one another. One reason for this is that many companies are focusing on customer experience from a corporate level (v. driven from one department). Corporate initiatives called “Voice of the Customer” are common. More companies are embracing “Six Sigma”, a process that focuses on quality and developing and delivering near-perfect products and services. Corporate initiatives such as these necessitate that any departments investigating customer experience work together rather than compete.

However, some larger companies still may have up three different departments doing “customer research”. They can become territorial when another group uses a method that their department would traditionally service. Sometimes it is not competition that prevents our departments from working together; it is that the sheer size of companies makes it hard to know what other departments are doing so you can know when your projects and goals may benefit from sharing.

Communicating our value for non-user interface research

We briefly discussed how to communicate our value as usability professionals for non-user interface research activities. Consultants (in our group) seemed to run into this challenge more often. Some of us inside companies with “Voice of Customer” and “Six Sigma” programs do not find this to be as much of a challenge, since it becomes everyone’s responsibility to use tools that drive quality, no matter what those tools are.

Usability professionals inside companies AND consultants regret that we continue to have to educate clients on which research method to use when. We still spend time working to prevent our clients from “self-diagnosing” (e.g. “I need a usability test!”) and advise them on getting to the right way to solve their problem.

Time and money seem to be the biggest reasons we have trouble communicating our value for doing various research. The only solution we could come up with is to get involved in your project as soon as possible, so you can see when marketing research may best fit into the product lifecycle. Being called in at the end of a project when a client is trying to get a product out the door does not put us in a good place to suggest doing more exploratory, conceptual types of marketing research. Some consultants said that sometimes they have to use the research method clients scream for, just to get a foot in the door to discuss other future approaches.

Language change

The word “usability” has both helped us and failed us. The good news is that it has called us out as a distinct discipline; our clients know we are an important part of developing quality products. The bad news is that it has called us out as a distinct discipline; our clients may not know that our skill sets naturally include other non-UI research methods as well. We discussed that one reaction to this in our discipline has been a gradual language change in our department and professional titles – “customer experience”, “user experience”, rather than “usability” which connotes “usability test” to many of our clients.



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