How market research failed the 2020 decade

Arguably one of the most promising fields in the knowledge space, market research, has disappointed in its failure to stay relevant in the digital age. Largely ignored by technology companies, and increasingly marginalised by service companies, market research is quickly losing its edge in user understanding for new age businesses. And that’s a loss not just to the industry, but to businesses at large, which can benefit tremendously from a user driven approach.

The story goes back decades, to how market research was structured to support marketing. And why its toolkit is designed to understand consumption and purchase. To speak to the brand. Which is why market research doesn’t have a clue how to address product development, strategy or design. Even when it claims to do so, it looks at insights from the eyes of a marketer. Which is frustrating for designers and developers, working with insights that don’t speak to them.

Heres 3 reasons why digital thinking trumps market research in 2020:

1. It’s not about what users tell us, nor is it about brand benefits

Yes, this is old news. To study user behaviour through observation and not through written surveys has already been embraced by qualitative research. Because as the famous automotive saying goes, “If I had asked users I would have made a faster horse”. But while researchers have been quick to adopt Henry Ford’s famous quote, we’ve missed the point entirely by (again) focusing on subconscious needs, and reporting outcomes around the need-benefit axis that marketing expects.

In the meantime, developers are waiting in frustration, for the translation from brand to product. Instead, digital thinking takes behavioural insights and ties it to the use of product and technology. Making a clear case on what to do next.

2. Researchers need to study experience, not unmet needs

Truth be told, researchers don’t really get this. It’s like they missed the 2012 explanation of how unmet needs are not user experiences. By failing to embrace technology, the community has lost the opportunity to explore and fully understand the relationship that humans have with technology.

Studying experiences is so much more than just blindly reporting behaviour. Digital thinking uses special tools from cognitive ergonomics and behavioural psychology, that explain how and why people interact with technology. It measures behaviour, and explains how it tries to meet user intent. Outlining moments where products fail, and how technology could be redesigned to meet user expectations. To create seamless moments, strung along to create first ever, awesome experiences.

3. Research needs to behave like “tech”

Researchers probably hate this, but we really aren’t collaborative at all. Quite the contrary, we are used to taking a brief, then disappearing for weeks to do our magic, and coming back triumphantly with a clear report on what users want. But 2020 development is agile, working in days not months. And its both immersive and collaborative. Researchers working with designers, developers, marketers. Rooted in the overlap of users, technology, and context. Which begs a totally different research toolbox, and a much more open working culture, something Digital Thinking has been designed around.

The opportunity for qualitative market research is still wide open. By embracing technology, data science, even ux design, we can make a brilliant comeback and reclaim the space of user insighting. But for that we must start afresh. Be willing to ditch the portentous, brand verbiage and replace it with the factual dialect of users working with technology. Only then can we rightfully claim our place of user driven decisions in the new age.


Geetika Kambli is an engineer, mba and researcher, who is building connections between technology, markets and users. At the Centre for Behavioural Research, Future Factory.

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