Market research methods

You can find out more about the customers you are trying to reach if you use market research effectively. You have a choice of different methods, depending on what your product or service is and how much time and money you are able to spend.

When conducting market research, you may be trying to study:

  • Attitudes — how a respondent thinks or feels about something
  • Behaviours — what actions the respondent has taken or plans to take
  • Demographics — such as age, income level, and gender
  • Firmographics — the characteristics of an organization

Here is a list of some popular approaches, with information on when and how to use each most effectively.

Table of Contents


    Surveys involve asking a series of questions to a sample of the target population that is large enough to be statistically valid. Surveys generally offer primarily closed-ended questions, although some open-ended questions may be included. Surveys can be administered by mail, telephone, email, Internet or in person.

    Best uses

    • Develop a profile of your users:
      • Identify client segments
      • Determine client characteristics
    • Validate or prioritize customer needs
    • Assess client satisfaction
    • Gauge customer awareness:
      • General awareness about your business
      • Post-advertising campaign awareness
    • Track changes in attitudes and opinions


    • Ensure that your sample size and composition are appropriate:
      • Be clear about whether you are sampling the public, your target audience or clients, or a sub-segment of any of these.
    • Use one or more qualifying questions to ensure participants fit the target audience profile for your survey.
    • Always pre-test the questionnaire with a selection of users to ensure that the questions are clear and do not take too long to complete.
    • Specific considerations for online surveys:
      • Online surveys should take only five minutes (ideal) to fifteen minutes (maximum) to complete.
      • Users self-select; so, you may wish to have a question that categorizes them and removes the results from those that do not fit your sample. For example, if you want to gauge the information needs of clients who have used your products, but 25% of survey respondents have never used your product, it may be appropriate to exclude the results of the non-users from your survey results.
      • If you are using an online survey, enable an invitation to participate in the survey. This can include a link on your website or an “intercept” that interrupts website visitors and invites them to take the survey. Note that you should invite users to take the survey when they have finished visiting your website, not when they start.
      • Put measures in place to ensure that the survey is live, functioning and capturing the data.
    • Specific considerations for telephone surveys:
      • Telephone surveys should be limited to a maximum of 15 to 20 minutes.
      • Ensure you have adequate systems/software for capturing data.

    Focus groups

    Focus groups are moderated group interviews and brainstorming sessions that provide information on users' needs and behaviours.

    Best uses

    Focus groups can be useful for the following types of discussions:

    • Exploratory — Obtain information on general attitudes, understand the circumstances under which customers might require your product or service (triggers), understand their desired outcomes, and so on.
    • Feature prioritization — If trade-offs have to be made among various customer needs, focus groups can be helpful in prioritizing them.
    • Comparative analysis — Understand where else customers go to get similar information, services or products and what attracts them to those sources.
    • Trend explanation — If you notice a trend in the way that customers use your website (for example, they always use the search function rather than navigating through the structured product list), then focus groups can be used to better understand why this is happening.


    • Limit the length of the session to between 90 and 120 minutes.
    • Generally, conduct focus groups with 8 to 10 participants per group (recruit 10 to 12 participants to ensure that 8 to 10 show up).
    • Use a knowledgeable moderator who can manage group dynamics, probe skilfully to obtain deeper understanding of issues and capture a broad spectrum of opinions.
    • Use a semi-structured or open-format discussion.
    • Strive for uniformity in the group's composition. For example, it may not be advisable to have business customers and retail customers in the same focus group, if their needs are very different.
    • If you feel that group influence is likely to be a strong factor (participants will be influenced greatly by what others are saying), then personal interviews or smaller groups may be an option to consider.

    Personal interviews

    Personal interviews are semi-structured discussions with an individual. They include open-ended questions where the interviewer can probe further to understand underlying perceptions and behaviours.

    Best uses

    Personal interviews are a more expensive alternative to focus groups and are generally used in the following situations:

    • The topic is too personal or sensitive to be discussed in a group, or confidentiality of the participant is required.
    • A person's opinion may easily be influenced by others in the group.
    • It is as important to learn as much about what people don't know about a subject, as what they do know. In a group setting, knowledgeable participants may inhibit less knowledgeable ones from participating.
    • Logistic problems may make groups impractical. For example, if participants are geographically dispersed, travel time and costs may be prohibitive.
    • The interview subjects are executives from competing firms who would be reluctant to open up in a group situation.
    • The interview subjects are busy and it is difficult to schedule group sessions, or it is important to visit interview subjects individually at their convenience.


    • It can be helpful to use a list of mostly open-ended questions to be asked in person or by telephone.
    • An in-depth interview gives participants the opportunity to express their views.
    • Interviews typically last from 15 to 40 minutes, but they can last longer, depending on the participant's interest in the topic.
    • This technique allows the interviewer to get detailed descriptions of individual experiences.

    Task analysis

    Task analysis seeks to understand the thought process and actions of participants in order to improve the design of a website or tool. The participant is given a specific task to perform, and the interviewer observes and notes where the participant runs into problems and where he or she is successful. It is different from usability testing, as it is not testing the usability of a website.

    Best uses

    Task analysis can be helpful in understanding how people currently use your website (or other websites). Using this approach, the participant is given a specific task to perform. For example, buy a particular product or find the location of a nearby store that sells your product.


    • This process is more specific than contextual inquiry in that it directs the participant to use a specific website for the task.
    • The interviewer can observe the participants as they try to find things and note where they run into problems or are successful.
    • Some of the things that the interviewer should observe or ask include the following:
      • What do participants see as options at any point in the task?
      • How do participants choose one option over another?
      • Do participants go back and change directions? If so, why?
      • What problems are encountered and how are they handled or corrected?
      • What do participants need to know to be able to complete the task?
      • What do participants get at the end of the task? Does this meet their expectations?
      • What is the sequence of steps that participants take in order to complete the task?
      • Do all participants take the same approach to completing the task?
    • Another approach involves recording five key elements for every action taken by the participant. These are:
      • Purpose of the action
      • Cues — What prompted the participant to take that step?
      • Objects used in the action — Which documents or tools were accessed to complete the action?
      • Method — What is the action?
      • Options — What other actions were available to the participant at that point and how did this action get chosen?

    All of this information can be used to draw process diagrams and illustrate the processes and approaches used by participants. You may find that several common approaches were used.

    Usability testing

    Usability tests are structured interviews that focus on the usability of specific features of a website or other user interface.

    Best uses

    Usability testing is best used to evaluate prototypes of planned websites or planned changes to an existing website. It is used to evaluate the interface and to note any problems faced by users, in order to give feedback to developers.


    • Decide when to test:
      • In order to be as effective as possible, usability testing should be an iterative process that is integrated into the development process.
      • Developers can create a prototype which is tested with users. User feedback is incorporated and the next version is tested. This continues until users are able to use the functionality with ease.
      • The testing cycle can begin with very rudimentary prototypes (for example, paper diagrams) and advance throughout the development process to get closer to a fully functional prototype. This iterative process should save development time, because issues can be resolved on paper before any coding takes place.
    • Create tasks that represent typical user activities and ask the user to complete the task.
    • Observe the approach that the users take, the problems they face, whether they are successful in completing the task, and how long it took to complete the task.
    • Ask users to talk through their thought process as they make decisions or run into problems.
    • If possible, usability sessions should be videotaped to allow developers to review the sessions later to further analyze problems that the user faced.
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