To many, user research and customer research are synonymous, which is why so many organizations only do customer research. Why are these distinct kinds of research considered to be the same?
In both customer and user research we use feedback from people to inform the design and development of our products, websites, mobile apps, etc. While this is true at a high level of description like this, customer and user research are, in fact, different. Each seeks to answer different questions and so requires the use of different methodologies. Also, sometimes the people from whom we gather feedback are customers but not actually users.
Think of a parent whose son or daughter insists they need an iPhone. The parent asks what’s so special about an iPhone, and, after enduring an ode to Apple, learns about the specific features the son or daughter has to have on their smartphone. That parent then looks online at all kinds of smartphones, compares feature lists, tries to figure out where the best deal can be found, what different data plans offer and if anyone is offering a free phone in exchange for some kind of fixed contract. Then the parent buys the iPhone. They are making their decision to buy based on their perception of the best value, the features available and the terms of the contract offered (not to mention their desire to keep the peace at home.) The parent is the customer here. Then they give the phone to their son or daughter who unboxes it, sets it up, adds their contacts and their music, creates their playlists and starts texting with their friends. The son or daughter is the user here.
In customer research the key question we need answered is: why will customers buy? And before we start designing and building we also need to answer questions like: what do they want, what are their preferences for look and feel, how much will they spend?
Customer research asks questions based on perception – or AIO in marketing speak – attitude, interest, and opinion. We get answers to these perception-based questions through methods like: focus groups, concept testing, large-scale surveys and other marketing methods.
In user research the key question we need answered is: how will users use? We also need answers to questions like: where will they use, when will they use and how often will they use?
User research asks questions based on behaviour, usage and usefulness. We get answers to behaviour-based questions through observational methods like: ethnography, contextual inquiry, usability or cognitive walkthroughs and usability testing and usage/usefulness answers come through one-on-one or small user group interviews that we can validate quantitatively through a usage survey.
If we don’t conduct both customer and user research, we’re designing and developing with only half the answers – which is risky. It also leads me to the final similarity between customer and user research: the answers we get are only as good as the questions we ask – and whether it’s a customer or a user who’s answering.
Cindy Beggs, MLS, is Vice President at Akendi, a firm dedicated to creating intentional experiences through end-to-end experience design. To learn more about Akendi or user experience design, visit www.Akendi.com.
Akendi is a product strategy, user experience design and usability research firm. We are passionate about the creation of intentional experiences – whether those involve digital products, physical products, mobile, service or bricks-and-mortar interactions. We work shoulder-to-shoulder to optimize the experiences you deliver. Akendi Corporate Overview (PDF).
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