I’ve been really interested recently in the divergence of two fields that are very similar – ‘market research’ and ‘user or design’ research.

To be honest, this has all taken me by surprise.  In about 2005, I sat through a presentation by a UX company.  It was horrible.  It was on the usability of a website the client was planning on launching.  It was dry, uninsightful and really, really boring. It was at that point that my 25-year-old self wrote-off user experience research as lame and didn’t pay much more attention to it.  Clearly, qualitative researchers in the market / consumer research industry could add a lot more value than that.  UX research was not really worth bothering with.

THAT was a mistake.

Either I saw an extremely poor example of user experience research of the time OR user experience research itself has come a long way in the intervening decade (probably both) – but either way, user experience research and the broader design research has ridden the wave of technological innovation to become extremely relevant and valuable to modern businesses.

In contrast, the world of market research is shrinking. I think this is partly due to arrogance (somewhat similar to the arrogance I expressed two paragraphs before).  We researchers like to keep the insights pure.  We’re very focused on methodological accuracy and excellence.  In a world where the phrase “good enough” has gained currency, our industry has stuck to our guns and demanded perfect.

To obtain perfect, we like to keep people at arms length – buyers, stakeholders, respondents. We keep our analysis processes shrouded in mystery, and often fill our reports with chart after chart of complex ‘proof’, rather than focusing on meaning and outcomes.  The industry is changing, but this still is the case more often that not.

In contrast, design and user research are firmly ‘part of the team’ in the new world in which we live.  They are the people who bring the end user to the people designing for them.  They break down barriers between designer and end user.  Rather than focusing on methodological purity, they focus on getting things done. “Good enough” is better than nothing. Words like Guerilla, Agile, Nimble are all part of the lexicon in this brave new world. They serve to bring people together, rather than building distance and mystery.

I find it interesting that often those in a UX or design field are often unaware of qualitative researchers
(believing that market research is all about quantitative). I think this speaks to the risk our industry now faces by holding on to our quest for purity. The fact that there is a whole industry of people trained in how to best speak to end users, and these skills have largely not been leveraged by people who want to speak to end users as part of their process is concerning.

Consumer researchers need to act to break down these barriers, or risk the value of our industry decreasing even further. But how do we do that?

Some of the ways I think we can break down the walls include:

  • Let go of our quest for purity – there’s always the ‘best’ way, but how can we get to the answer in a more agile, quicker and rougher way.  What would provide ‘good enough’?
  • Break down the walls – work with the client teams and involve them in the research.  Train up your clients as researchers as well, involve them in the fieldwork in an active way – either in face-to-face contextual research or even online qualitative platforms.  Breakdown the walls in the analysis process as well – if your clients and stakeholders are involved in the primary research, then involve them in the analysis process as well!  Design thinking has many great approaches to workshopping and ideating – we can learn a lot from this (and client stakeholders can get a lot out of this process)
  • Stop emphasising the mystery – rather than being the holders of the ‘mystery’, be the conduit of this fantastic knowledge.  Rather than protecting the industry, and stopping others from participating, encourage others to be excited about research.  Embrace collaboration with UX or Service designers, rather than act as if we’re in competition.  I believe that we all could gain a lot of value through this type of partnership.

What do you think?  Do you believe that market researchers are too focussed on perfect and not enough on collaboration?  Or has your experience been different?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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