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Mar 20, 2023

If you build it will they come?

Why market research matters for public services.

Problems in the public sector are hard. As Darius often says “public organisations get handed the wicked problems no-one else wants to solve”. Over the last 10 years, the public sector has taken learnings from commercial UX and synthesised it into a unique brand of research that takes into account the complexities of trying to build highly inclusive, highly accessible services that meet both user needs and policy intent.

But if there is one area where the public sector still lacks the sophistication of private sector research, it’s in market research, particularly for ‘discretionary’ services. For many policy objectives (e.g. public health outcomes, retraining for a changing job market), users don’t have an obligation – or sometimes even an intrinsic need – to do anything. We have to find out what will make them want to interact with government if we’re going to design policy, services or legislation that work.

The standard set of research techniques that we use in government for product development often don’t work for these kinds of services, especially in a ‘Discovery’ context. If your goal is to understand the appeal of a proposition or a policy intent, market research is the best approach.

At the core of user research is understanding the relationship between users and a product or service, in the context of users’ circumstances. It is, typically, a narrower, deeper slice of knowledge, compared to market research, with more emphasis on behaviour, motivations and pain points. 

Market research focuses on perceptions and behaviors within specific audiences and segments. Through market research, we can better assess the size of opportunity, establish likely product-market fit or gauge public sentiment.

Market research can give us broad insights into our audience, while user research can dive deeper into specific problem areas.

When it comes to deciding how to approach the research phase, I like starting my planning with these two questions:

  1. What answers do I need to move forward? and
  2. Which methods are the most likely to give me these answers?

To narrow it down, I would consider:

Does the product or service need to exist?

When looking at a new product or service, you will want to learn as much as possible about the people who will be using it and their environment. If your goal is to understand the appeal of a proposition or a policy intent, market research is the best approach.

Once you understand the landscape, you can supplement your knowledge with user research focusing on finding out:

  • What are your users, or likely users, trying to achieve?
  • How do they currently do it?
  • What challenges and pain points do they face whilst doing it?

What level of insight are we looking for?

Using market research methods will produce a broad picture, so that you can achieve high-level understanding of a specific topic. This is well suited for assessing the size of a problem or opportunity and understanding viability of product-market fit.

User research, typically, won’t tell you how many people have a particular challenge. Generally, it cannot research with enough participants to make confident conclusions about perceptions or awareness.

However, user research will uncover deeper insights and can provide an intimate understanding of frustrations, goals, workarounds and ways people interact with a product or service, resulting in developments that help more people get the right outcome. But it often won’t tell you whether your new product or service is a good idea in the first place.


What do people actually need?

If you are designing products or services in the public sector you will always start by learning about the people who will use it. You will be less interested in what people say they want and much more concerned with discovering what they actually need. Therefore, user research is likely the better approach.


What other work are we feeding into?

Market research aims to provide insights that can inform business, marketing and communication strategies. If you are trying to understand how a group of people will react, or how they feel about a topic or specific communication, market research can give you this understanding.

On the other hand, user research, because it focuses on the relationship between the user and a product or service, is more suited to directly input into a product strategy. Both disciplines should be considered when working on a strategic roadmap.

Mixing methods 

There is no doubt that market research and user research can complement each other. In many cases, a combination of both may be essential for success. It is important to foster positive and productive relationships between people who do user and market research, whilst maintaining a sharp focus on the goal – finding the best method of answering questions that will move us forward.

Bringing research teams together can produce a great partnership and an effective research roadmap. As a stakeholder, a leader or a member of either of those teams, you can invest time into fostering these relationships and show that both domains are equally valued. 

So, keep user research and marketing people, internal or external, in the loop of what you are doing. Break down barriers between user research and market research teams to widen your organisation’s knowledge, remove duplication and help teams learn more for an overall smaller cost.