Know Your Customers: How to Mesh Market and Design Research

 In Medical Product Design, User Insights & Design Research

People at medical device companies ask us all the time, “How do I find out what my customer really wants?”  It’s usually out of frustration because what they’re doing isn’t meeting their customers’ expectations.

We’ve seen it all — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Years of designing medical devices for all types of healthcare companies has given us a unique view into the variety of ways user insights are gathered. Simply put, some companies just do it better than others.

The most successful ones have marketing and design teams that collaborate closely to define customer needs. Research conducted by each team fits together like puzzle pieces to reveal the bigger picture — an accurate representation of user needs.

Getting to the truth of customer needs and expectations allows your team to make fact-based decisions that have the most potential for success. Without knowing the truth, two problems can emerge. The first and most obvious is key decision-making based on hunches or assumptions because of incomplete research.

The second problem is mistaking marketing research for design research. This is actually a bigger problem than the first because most are unaware of it until too late. Sometime after launch, product development team members begin asking themselves, “Why are people getting so frustrated with our product? We thought we knew our market!” As it turns out, they often did know their market however they did not know the actual people using their product.

People Use Your Product Not Markets

On a recent project, we caught this problem early enough to rectify the situation. As the project was just getting underway, we recommended ascertaining how individual users felt about their existing product and those of competitors. Our client wanted to use their standard customer survey, based upon a 1-to-10 likability scale, to guide us in moving toward a next-generation product.

While the marketing survey was fantastic for gathering high level opinions, it wasn’t the right tool for the job. To discover the truth, we felt it necessary to probe people’s unmet needs as a catalyst for innovation. Design research resembles an archaeological dig more than an interview. We needed picks, shovels and magnifying glasses, much more than a questionnaire.  We realized after further discussion that when MPE (Formerly Mindflow) was saying design research our client was hearing “voice of the customer.”  VOC is a common business term for a process used by marketing teams to capture customer needs and expectations.

As consummate user advocates, we applaud the corporate world for adopting a process to keep their customers’ needs front and center.  All too often, however, we see organizations develop a false sense of confidence by relying upon marketing tools that neglect to unearth the deepest user insights.

The negative impact of this approach varies but can range from a lack of innovation, or competitive edge, to a failed business.

Market & Design Research Play Two Different But Important Roles

Market and design research are two useful but different tools in the product development toolkit. Their combined insights create the foundation necessary to make the most important business and design decisions. One is not better than the other, and they even share many things in common.

Market research is intended to assess the viability and resonance of a product or solution among consumer segments. Business focused, it is typically used by business teams.

Think of marketing research as the bookends of your product development process. At the beginning, it finds, defines, and proves that there is a market to pursue, informing your business case. It tells your design research team where to unpack, set up camp and get to work. Then, at the end, it validates market acceptance, drives messaging and informs a unique and defensible position against competition.

The Finer Points of Differentiating  Market vs. Design Research 

Design research is intended to evaluate the usability and user experience of a product among representative user groups. Design and engineering focused, it is generally used by development teams.

Market research focuses on how consumer segments respond to a given product, service, or solution from a purchasing standpoint. Design research captures end-user interaction of products, services or solutions from a needs standpoint.

Most medical products are not used by the people who purchase them, which adds to the confusion. For example, a knee brace may be purchased and stocked by hospital procurement, prescribed by a physician, fit to the patient by a technician, and finally used by the patient in daily life. Here, market and design research must be used in just the right combination to meet the needs of all four stakeholders.

Another key point is that market research looks at users macroscopically where they are thought of as segments or groups. Design research looks at users microscopically where they are people with unique and specific needs.

Understanding the difference between market and design research is important to the success of any product development program. These are a few of the most important differences. If you’d like to learn more, please download our Market vs. Design Research 20-point Quick-guide here.

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