Research plays a vital role in UX, as we need to understand our users and their motivations in order to design products which meet their needs. Market research is all about finding out what people do and why. But how many companies have combined market research and UX teams? I’m going to outline what it’s like to work in this kind of team and share how my background in market research led to a passion for UX.
UX and Market Research: Why Can’t We All Be Friends?
There are a lot of similarities between UX and market research. David Kozatch noted many of them in an article he wrote in 2008 about breaking down the barriers between UX practitioners and market researchers. Earlier this year Richard Anderson wrote about the labels applied to user research and gave the example of Yahoo combining their UX research and market research teams. He argues that ‘it is important to understand that great benefit can be achieved when the two work together’.
I’m not aware of any well known UXers who started out in market research (or at least, who openly admit it!) but I’ve seen many talk or blog about techniques frequently used in market research such as Whitney Hess on user interviews. At the recent dConstruct conference, Kelly Goto’s talk was about the importance of understanding the emotional context in which people are using products through ethnography and other research techniques.
Doing Market Research
Few people actively plan to work in market research and my career planning was, in retrospect, a bit haphazard! I went to a talk at university which described market research as being a suitable profession for those who were nosy interested in people. There may also have been a prize draw involving champagne, and with that I was sold. More seriously I had always had an interest in psychology, communication and analysis so I thought this might be the right path to follow.
Having graduated with a degree in English, I started my career working for a large market research agency in the continuous consumer panel division. This involved analysing a large set of data about people’s purchasing habits in order to provide insights for clients. Many hours were spent trying to be creative in PowerPoint! I then moved to another agency which focused on ad hoc consumer research. My role there involved managing the whole research process from taking a brief, working out how the sample should be structured, designing a questionnaire, analysing results and presenting them to clients. The purpose of much of the research we conducted was new product development; clients wanted to gain a deep understanding of customer behaviour and attitudes in order to develop appropriate products and test them out with real prospective customers before launch. Often we tested different mock ups of concepts and packaging to see which resonated best with the target audience. Although I didn’t know it at the time, there were some similarities with UX research.
As is common in large research companies, the interviewing was done by a specialised fieldwork division so I wasn’t actually speaking to users very often. I began looking for a new challenge.
How I moved into UX
I started in my current role as a member of the research team for a b2b media company 4 years ago. We conduct surveys and interviews with professionals in different sectors in order to provide insights to shape the development and marketing strategy for a range of magazines and websites. As the delivery of information digitally has become increasingly important to the company, the focus of our team expanded to include UX. We’d been conducting usability testing for several years, seeing it as a natural extension of qualitative research like depth interviews, but it was the emergence of User-Centred design that really struck a chord. It just made sense and seemed to sum up things we’d been trying to communicate in all our work. Now we build personas, conduct UX reviews and user testing on wireframes, prototypes and live sites, alongside more traditional market research activities. I became so interested in UX that I’ve been completing a part time MSc in User Interaction Design over the past 2 years to really get up to speed with the theory.
What I Bring to UX From It
During my research agency days I learnt how to distil large amounts of data about people’s attitudes and behaviour down to the most relevant insights, which I think is very important in UX roles. I’ve also had a lot of experience giving presentations to different stakeholders and fully understand the value of simple and clear communication, which has also helped me in my current role.
A thorough grounding in research methods is really useful for UXers too, as you need to know when to use a survey compared to a depth interview, and how not to ask leading questions. Representing the voice of the user also comes naturally as I feel I’ve spent my career aiming to do that.
What I’ve Had to Work On
As you might guess from my background, I’m not naturally a very technical person. Since I’ve been working in UX I’ve become much more interested in technology which has resulted in significant investment in Apple products. But I recognise a better knowledge of how websites work would help me communicate with developers. I have very little knowledge of coding, so this is something I’m working on. I’m also not trained in graphic design so at the moment my recommendations go as far as basic wireframes and sketches using tools like Balsamiq. I have picked up some best practice design guidelines but I’m still learning.
Tips for Those Making the Move
I’d advise anyone working in market research who is considering making the move to UX to go for it! You have a lot of transferable skills and if you’re interested in how people interact with technology, it could be for you. Try to immerse yourself and read as many of the books and blogs as you can. There are a lot of great free and useful events you can go to such as UX book club and UPA meetings. These are excellent ways of meeting other UXers and learning about the field. There are also training courses and conferences (for example, UX London) if you can find the funding to go. One of the best things about UX is that its practitioners are from a wide variety of backgrounds and are generally very willing to share their knowledge and experiences.
One of the best things about UX is that its practitioners are from a wide variety of backgrounds and are generally very willing to share their knowledge and experiences.
What I’ve Found About Moving Into UX
I’m happy to have found my way into UX as it has opened up a new set of opportunities. People’s behaviour and needs change as technology moves forward, so the challenge of designing products to offer great experiences is always fresh. It is a growing field and there is a vibrant UX community to learn from. I hope that sharing how I made the move helps others to join us.
Image CC by bixentro