What’s the Difference between Design Research and Market Research?

From Marymoore’s MiniGuide to Design Research for Startups

Hi! I'm a design researcher. Oh! Soooo.... you're a market researcher?

Um…. Well, no… Though sometimes I do a bit of scrappy market research.

I get asked this question, or some version of it, quite a bit. So I’m starting this mini guide by talking about one of the things design research isn’t (and that it often gets confused with).

People (me, for example) can argue about semantics for hours. It’s more useful here, though, to focus on 1) what the research is trying to accomplish, as it’s applied in new product development, and 2) when it best matches the startup’s business need.

Both approaches use a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, and they borrow methods from each other, which can blur the lines. Both are needed for successful, sustainable businesses. And whatever you call it, use whatever method is going to get you to your learning goal.

In general, market research focuses on strategies for maximizing product purchases. Traditionally, it’s more about averages and the middle of the bell curve—large demographic, geographic, or behavioral groups that offer opportunities for new products. It’s generally more quantitative. It’s changing with digitalization of everything, as marketing itself becomes less sales (push) and more conversation (pull). In larger companies, market researchers often reside within business strategy or marketing communication groups.

Design research focuses on how people use and experience the product. Especially in the early stages, it looks at the extreme ends of the bell curve of a user group, where the needs unmet by existing products are most apparent. It explores patterns in how people are currently working around those unmet needs, looking for both opportunities and success strategies that can be borrowed for experience design. This is why it’s generally more qualitative. Though it might explore existing mental models about pricing, it’s not trying to predict sales potential. It’s trying to understand the rules of the game. Design researchers generally reside in product or design teams. (In San Francisco these days, most of them are called UX researchers, because their research directly informs interaction experience design for web and mobile products.)

Let’s look at an example. If startup partners Qiunan and Jacqueline want to create a service that helps garage bands get more paying gigs by connecting them to local festivals and parties that need live music, they might first start with some market research to size the market potential. How many garage bands are there in the area? What percentage of those might need and want more live gigs? How many of those might they hope to win as customers? They’d do the same research for the other side of their marketplace, the festival and party planners. Then they would make an educated guess about how much they might hope to make per connection, multiply that by the market size, and see if they could make enough money to support themselves and their families.

If they decide to go for it (spoiler: they probably will), they then switch gears to decide exactly what they want to make, or even if they have the problem framed correctly. They quickly realize that they’ve made some huge assumptions:

  • Do garage bands really want to play at festivals and parties rather than bars?
  • Will they use or be willing to pay for third-party help with this?
  • Do these musicians expect to be paid or are they doing it as a hobby?
  • How are they getting gigs now?
  • Do festival and party planners want garage bands for their events, or would they rather have DJ’s (or something else)?
  • How do planners find musicians now?
  • What is the biggest need planners have now, and why might they resist bringing in a mediator?

Secondary market research can help with some of these questions, as can surveys and other quantitative tools, but none of this is as powerful at this point in the process as a deep dive into design research. Qiunan and Jacqueline head out into the native habitats of garage bands and event planners. They go to some festivals and observe. They pull people aside and ask if they can chat about their work, either on-the-spot or more in-depth later. They do long (1- to 2-hour) interviews with individuals, preferably in context where they practice or plan. They interview 6 to 8 people in each user segment, and then review each interview, hunting for habits, workarounds, unmet needs, and unusual success strategies. Patterns quickly start to emerge, and these form the structure that they will design their product around.

Market research and design research work in tandem this way throughout the whole journey from idea to product. However, there are some situations where one works better than the other. Here are four scenarios:

  1. Sometimes people know a market really well and want to introduce a new type of product that no one has thought of for that market.
  2. Sometimes they are experts in their product area and want to introduce it to a new kind of market where it doesn’t exist yet.
  3. Sometimes they know both, and their new product is primarily a better, faster, or cheaper (or some combination thereof) version.
  4. Sometimes they know neither, and their biggest risk as that no one will buy it or even understand what it is.

Which scenario do you think Quinan and Jacqueline are in? Which type of research do you think will work best for each scenario?

Let me know, or check out my next post to see what I think.

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