Design Research vs Market Research

We explore the subtle differences between design vs market research.

Abstract illustration of a yellow square overlapping with a yellow circle

We hear the terms ‘design research’ and ‘market research’ used interchangeably within companies.

This means that we as practitioners end up debating the differences between the approaches with clients.

The confusion is caused by the fact that both methodologies contain the word ‘research’ and each looks to understand the ‘user’ or the ‘consumer.’

Typically, research which informs the marketing of products or services and research which informs design are held as distinct. But are they really? What if we stopped thinking about market research and design research as separate things?

The core research assumption is incorrect

Raise your hand if you heard this:

 “Design research is qualitative and market research is quantitative.”

This is incorrect and creates the aforementioned confusion.

As any valuable design research partner will use a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, so will a market research agency.

At Foolproof, we strongly believe that research provides insights which inform design decisions. The key is choosing the right type of research with the right questions at the right time to meet the requirements. Looked at in this way it’s not just about market research vs design research – they become mutually reinforcing.

Market research aims to improve business profitability by gathering self-reported data

This provides an understanding of the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of the consumer landscape.

It helps companies inform decision making around branding, sales and marketing through to tactical actions – such as a printed advertising campaign.

It offers a broad view and looks at if there is an appeal and gauges the reaction to what a brand is communicating or looking to introduce.

Design research improves a business's bottom line through understanding user needs, behaviours and attitudes towards a given product or service – such as a new banking application.

This gives companies insight into the experience users want and expect, which means insight-led design changes can be implemented with confidence.

Simply put, market research goes wide to understand “who” and “what”. Design research goes deep to get clarity on “why” and “how”.

Macro to micro

Where the methods differ is in their scale; market research provides lots of data fast, whereas design research typically has a smaller yet deeper sample size. This is because the research objectives are different meaning the research scales differently.

The volume of market research provides is met by doing surveys with larger sample sizes, whereas qualitative feedback patterns come through in-depth user interviews.

Diagram showing different research methodologies and where they sit on a quantitative vs qualitative spectrum

Design research vs market research

The two methodologies co-exist on a moving scale that offers a macro to micro view. They are not polarising variables but rather overlapping perspectives that form a more complete picture.

Orchestrating both research methods across a project life cycle is advantageous. For making the best decisions about when to use both market research and design research in tandem, determine the depth of understanding that is required and establish if it needs to inform a design decision or a business/tactical action.

How does this drive business value?

Start with market research to uncover business insights on market size, trends and competition. This will identify product/service areas that interest people.

Then shift gear to identify useful insights for building an innovative product: understanding specific pain points, validating design decisions, deriving features and testing ideas.

Then shift back to market research to evaluate which of those ideas is most likely to be successful.

Build on this with further rounds of design research to understand why it succeeded or failed to meet user needs and expectations.

By layering market research findings with design research insight, we iteratively become clearer about both who will buy and how to satisfy their needs – creating precise and compelling propositions.

This drives better results for your product/service because the right research methodology is applied to the right level of decision intelligence.

Three reasons why this makes sense…

In our experience, taking this kind of approach works - here’s why:

1. No duplicate efforts

When you start planning design research, involve someone from marketing. Other than creating shared understanding, it can help avoid redoing previous research that this department has done before. This also helps to ease tension or conflict around what you address in the design research. 

2. Shared insights across departments

Because both methodologies cover the responsibilities of people in strategy, communications, brand and product, the mix of market and design research means you need to share your findings with more stakeholders. More opportunities to take them on the journey with you will come from this - getting it right can get you better buy-in.

3. Clarity in decisions

Remember that market research is about what people want, while design research is about what people find useful and meaningful. Segmentation is key in both market and design research but in different ways. Where using a market research lens may have a group of people appear as the same, design research will surface important differences in their behaviours.

So what?

Used together, design research and market research inform better decision making this means you can create a robust strategic roadmap for your products and services.

This is a plea to stop driving a wedge between market research and design research and start using both together to enhance experiences.

Related articles