by Katie McDonnell
A few years back I started working with a new team that included a group of design researchers. As a long time product developer, I asked the question, “Can you help me understand the difference between design research and marketing research?” This simple question took me down a path of discovery that included truths, mistruths, and everything in between!
SO, WHAT IS DESIGN RESEARCH?
Well, that is a good question. Even some of “the best purveyors of design thinking”1 have struggled to really define what it means. Design research, like marketing research, is often multi-disciplinary so it really depends on who you ask. I have yet to find a publically available definition on which the design research community has fully aligned, but I think there is enough information out there to suggest the following:
- Design research was developed in order to embed research into the process of design. Don Norman, cognitive psychologist and author, explains: “Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.” As a first rule, designers must “Use both knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head.”2
- Design research includes creative problem solving and innovation; as design became more participatory and user-centered, the role of design thinking emerged.
- Design research includes understanding through empirical observation, experience, and making by building continuous knowledge, discovery, and empathy that drives actionable user insights.3 Design researchers investigate human experiences and behavior by starting from the perspective of the user.
For the marketers reading this, you might be wondering how these things differ from marketing research objectives. After all, ethnography and observation are part of any good researcher’s toolkit, right? Moreover, marketing research also seeks to identify user needs, leverages co-creation techniques, and can be iterative in nature.
Wait. What? Marketing research isn’t just quantitative research? Many people (falsely) believe marketing research is only about surveying people to figure out the size of the prize, asking people what they prefer and if they are satisfied, and what consumers/buyers will pay for products and services. If you search for an answer to the difference between marketing research and design research, it would be easy to believe this because most results incorrectly define marketing research as market research.
Confused yet? It may help to define market research and marketing research first.
WHAT IS MARKET RESEARCH? WHAT IS MARKETING RESEARCH?
The American Marketing Association includes a lengthy overview, but in short:
- Marketing research is used to identify and define marketing opportunities and problems; generate, refine, and evaluate marketing actions; monitor marketing performance; and improve understanding of marketing as a process.4
- Marketing research leverages qualitative and quantitative techniques and studies people, processes, and environments to drive answers to marketing questions5 (the 4Ps) including, what experiences, products and services, to design and why.
- Market research is any organized effort to research the size, location, and makeup of a product market. Market research is a subset of marketing research.
OKAY THEN, IS DESIGN RESEARCH JUST A SUBSET OF MARKETING RESEARCH?
Hmm. Good question. Maybe?
Design research and marketing research share tools, techniques, and objectives and both study the user of products/services and seek to uncover opportunities, barriers, and unmet needs of these users. They both also explore the intersection between humans and solutions and attempt to solve for these opportunities/barriers/needs, albeit from different perspectives and often times different stages of the development process.
But marketing research does not always take the perspective of the user. Marketing research studies, interviews, surveys and co-creates with users – and leverages empathic approaches — but it also does not always start with the user in mind.
Therefore, it is this starting point – and to a lesser degree the focused perspective on the user/consumer/patient – that really differentiates design research from marketing research.
WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS REALLY MEAN?
Great research starts with understanding the research objectives and choosing the right methodology to address the opportunity at hand, not debating whether the task is called design research vs. marketing research.
Marketing research and design research overlap because they are both ways of thinking about – and solving for – a common problem.
At the end of the day, marketing research and design research are more alike than they are different. Marketing research and design research overlap because they are both ways of thinking about – and solving for – a common problem. Design research is most often practiced by (you guessed it) designers, whereas marketing research is more often commissioned by marketers. Our training, education, and experiences shape us though. Designers are more inclined towards building empathy, leveraging co-creation, and translating these inputs and artifacts into new experiences, whereas marketers tend to be more analytical in their approach to matching customers to their wants/needs and exploring the scale of these opportunities.
As an engineer turned marketer, product developer, and researcher, I believe the best experiences, whether it is products or services, come from collaboration between disciplines, not in functional silos.
I enjoy a good research challenge; let’s start the conversation. If you’d like to talk more, drop me an email or LinkedIn note!
As Sr. Account Executive, Katie McDonnell believes it is imperative to keep the objective and context in mind for research and that successful partnerships are always about finding the win/win.
- The Design of Everyday Things
- Essentials of Marketing Research, 3rd Edition, Hair, Jr., Wolfinbarger, Ortinau and Bush, McGraw-Hill Irwin, 2013.