Editor’s note: Ross C. Teague, Ph.D., is Senior Human Factors Psychologist at HumanCentric Technologies, Inc.With improvements in the economy clamoring at our doorsteps, many companies are working to bring new products to market. Understanding your customer base in order to gain the bulk of your market is as challenging as ever. Proper utilization of customer research is vital to a successful product launch. To accomplish this, savvy companies learn to distinguish between market and design research techniques.

Traditionally, market research meant large sample sizes, quantitative measures, and studies of the demographics of a population or sub-population conducted to understand beliefs, purchasing habits, trends, and related factors.

The quiet, yet robust, twin brother to market research is design research, also known as user research.

Design research indicates smaller sample sizes, qualitative measures of individuals and small groups, and compares the “how and why” versus the “who and what”.

Say vs. do

Focusing on “say” versus “do” is one way of distinguishing between market and design research. What people say, compared to how they actually behave, often changes significantly. Relying on an individual’s ability to self-report their beliefs can often be misleading for market researchers. People are seldom intentionally misleading, however they are frequently unable to articulate what they want and, in turn, relaying their behaviors. No matter how large your sample size is, if you are collecting inaccurate data, your findings will be useless. Properly conducted design research focuses on actions, via observations, interviews, and interactions. This type of research can be lengthy and as a result, is often done with smaller samples than traditional market research projects. While it is harder to make generalizations about a population from a small sample, design research project data is more likely to yield rich, accurate information that can improve your business, products, and services.

Market research is still useful for planning sales and distribution strategies. Design research is useful for creating products that people need and want. The historical problem in most organizations originates from the fact that engineers, designers, and developers must interpret market research data in order to understand their target users. Design research findings complement market research, thus yielding critical information to the development team, decreasing workloads, and increasing productivity.

Market researchers wish their work could lead to the same compelling stories and narratives as design researchers, while design researchers would love to have more quantitative evidence of their findings. The fact is that both research types have a powerful, compelling message to convey.

In the ongoing battle for attention and recognition, the inclusion of both types of research can enhance product development and sales planning. The idea of product development can be reduced to the creation of positive experiences for the consumer. If customer satisfaction (which leads to increased sales, customer retention, and maximized market share) is the goal why not ascertain everything that you can from your customer base?

Needed: Experience in both areas

The most effective way to integrate both research types is to have trained, experienced professionals, supporting your organization. Companies retaining both market and design research skill sets, experience recurring successes.

You might also combine activities from each field of research into your existing product development organization. An example would be to apply design research activities to support online surveys. When you create a survey without understanding what you want to know, your survey respondents and the language and jargon they employ, you begin to make assumptions and taint the data you collect. It only takes a handful of respondent observations and interviews to increase the likelihood that your survey will collect valid, useful data.

Design researchers should look for available topical market research literature to educate themselves on relevant items and concerns.

The line between market research and design research is blurring within many firms. There are companies with “market research” groups that apply more qualitative than quantitative research methods. There are “people and practices” groups that apply equal amounts of macro level market analysis. These companies retain their competitive advantage against their rivals.

The bottom line is to focus on the purpose of your research, then expand the means by which you learn about your customer base.

Ross C. Teague received his doctorate in Applied Cognition and Human Factors from George Mason University. He is a Senior Human Factors Psychologist and Program Manager for HumanCentric Technologies, with a focus in design research. Dr. Teague brings user and product insight to life. Dr. Teague can be reached at 919-481-0565 or rteague@humancentrictech.com.