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What is customer research?

Last updated

5 May 2024


Chloe Garnham

Reviewed by

Hugh Good

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Designing products that both delight customers and solve their problems is essential in a competitive landscape!

But how do you identify what your customers want and need, let alone who your customers really are?

Customer research enables you to learn more about your customers, understand their motivations, and get to grips with their behavior on a deeper level. You can use all this knowledge to create truly user-centric products.

What is customer research?

Customer research is how you understand your customers—their needs, pain points, and demographics.

It also allows you to dive into key aspects of customers’ motivations and behaviors. It’s about learning how customers act and what will encourage them to take certain actions.

This is important when developing products. Deeply understanding your customers helps you deliver products that are easy to use, satisfying, and better at solving problems.

You’ll keep designing products that fall short if you don’t know your customers well and can’t see things from their point of view.

What’s the difference between customer research, market research, and user research

You may have heard the terms customer research, market research, and user research. They might sound similar and have some related functions, but they are distinct types of research.

Market research is generally conducted in the early stages of product creation. Its role is to generate an understanding of the whole market, including what people need and want from products. This type of research typically identifies market readiness, size, competition, and demographics.

While market research is broad, customer research is more specific. It’s a process by which data and information collected during market research are analyzed, grouped, and evaluated. You can think of it as an extension of market research, though some organizations may perform these functions simultaneously.

User research drills down into a particular subset of people identified as users of a product or a particular aspect of a product. User research helps product designers and developers create truly user-centric products.

The focus of user research is generally on understanding what is and isn’t working with current products and where helpful innovation can occur.

Types of customer research

Primary and secondary research are some of the main types of customer research.

Quantitative and qualitative data are two types of data.

It’s helpful to know the difference between these groups to ensure you collect the right data and information for your project.

Primary vs. secondary research

Primary research is data collected directly by the organization from customers. It is obtained through research methods like surveys, focus groups, or analytics.

The advantage of primary research is having the power to obtain the data that’s most relevant for you. Knowing exactly what data has been collected and how to collate that information into meaningful insights is also more simple.

Secondary research is data collected by external sources, such as research groups, governments, and other companies. You can use it to discover more about customers.

Using data collected by other sources gives you less control, but it can save you money.

Ideally, a combination of both primary and secondary research will help you build a true picture of who your customers are.

Qualitative vs. quantitative data

You also need to understand which type of data will be most helpful for the relevant project.

Qualitative data is obtained directly from users, usually through methods such as in-depth interviews, focus groups, usability testing, and field studies.

This type of data can help designers understand why users do things and gain insights into how to solve their issues.

Quantitative data consists of numeral value measurements gained indirectly from users.

This type of data usually involves measurements like how much, how many, and how many times. Surveys, metrics, and user tests are some of the methods through which it can be collated.

The best customer research methods

The best customer research method will be the one that’s most relevant and useful for your project. So, what works for one product may not be the best match for another. 

Before deciding on a customer research method, asking the following questions can be helpful:

  • What do we most need to know about our customers?

  • What do we not know about our customers?

  • Are we satisfied that our product has a market?

  • Do we truly understand our competitors?

  • Do we deeply understand our target market?

  • Is our product solving a real-world issue for people? Do we have data to back that up?

  • Is this product the best possible solution for our customers?

These questions can act as a starting point to discover knowledge gaps. They can also help your team choose the research methods that can plug any of these holes.

Customer surveys

Surveys involve asking customers a series of targeted questions. They’re a popular research method because they can be conducted in several ways, such as with an online questionnaire, phone call, or email.

Surveys can help organizations quickly discover large amounts of useful information. They are also relatively inexpensive, as many free templates are available online.

Keep in mind that a survey is only as good as its questions. Ensure that you’re asking questions that will help you discover the most relevant and helpful data about your customers.

Surveys that follow best practices include the following:

  • Open-ended questions to get the most information from customers

  • Consistent ranking scales to avoid ambiguity

  • Questions that are relevant to the team’s end goal

  • A short series of questions to avoid overwhelming participants

Customer interviews

Interviewing customers is one of the most straightforward and helpful ways to discover their views, wants, and needs.

Customer interviews include a team member or neutral party having a discussion with a customer. They offer the chance to discover new insights that might not otherwise have been uncovered.

This technique won’t enable you to gather quantitative data, but you will gain new insights into how your customers think and perceive products.

Here are some best practices to follow when conducting customer interviews:

  • Clarify answers. If there’s any ambiguity in what a customer said, make sure you follow up with further questions to aid true understanding.

  • Challenge your assumptions. Don’t bring any assumptions to the table. Instead, ask customers how they really think and feel. Having a neutral moderator can help remove any bias the team may bring.

  • Keep things open. Asking open-ended questions and offering a safe space to share answers are essential steps. Doing so will help you gain real thoughts, not hear what participants think they should say.


The benefit of real data should never be overlooked when it comes to customers. People might say they act in certain ways, but their behavior can show otherwise.

Analytics (in a product dashboard or other data collection method, for example) will reveal a great deal of information about customer behavior. It can help streamline your business, remove areas of friction, and improve the overall customer experience.

Metrics like heat maps, time spent, click tracking, and number of sessions can help you build a picture of your customer’s behavior.

Are customers failing to complete their payment information? Are people landing on your page and immediately clicking away? Is a particular aspect of your experience retaining your customers’ attention? These are just a few useful questions you can ask as you go through your analytics.

Focus groups

Focus groups are a well-known and popular research method. They help teams discover a large amount of information in a short time period.

In a focus group, a small number of people—usually eight or fewer—gather together to discuss products, pain points, preferences, and how they might engage with products.

Focus groups are run by a moderator or a person from the organization who can act neutrally. The moderator will set out a series of questions or topics for the group to discuss.

The benefits of focus groups include the following:

  • Gaining insights into how users perceive your product

  • Spontaneous responses you may not have discovered otherwise

  • Information about key problems and pain points

  • An understanding of what your users want from a solution

However, focus groups also present some challenges. Louder voices in a group may sway others to agree with the consensus rather than share their real opinions. To combat this, offer all members of the group a safe space to share their thoughts. Encourage varying responses.

Competitor analysis

Competitor analysis helps you dive into what the market is currently offering. It shows what competitors are doing well and what could be done better. This helps you create new products that solve your customers’ problems more effectively.

The following are best practices for conducting competitor analysis

  • Be clear on who your competitors are

  • Identify your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses

  • Clarify who holds the largest market share and why

  • Analyze online presence, reviews, and product information

  • Speak to competitors’ customers

Competitor analysis isn’t just about discovering information about your competitors; another goal is to turn information into action. You’ll ideally want to improve on what a competitor currently offers and provide a product that’s more satisfying for customers.

How to conduct customer research

The following key steps will enable you to conduct useful customer research.

Set clear objectives

There’s a broad range of data and information that can be collected with customer research. However, not all of it will be relevant to your specific project. 

That’s why setting clear objectives from the outset is critical. All methods and data should lead back to these objectives.

Use multiple methods

One research method is unlikely to gather enough information for your project. And no one method is perfect.

Conducting multiple forms of research ensures you discover more about your customers and that your team gathers enough helpful data.

Find the right people

Your research won’t be effective if you’re talking to the wrong customer group. But how do you find the right people?

If you already have a product, it would be enormously beneficial to speak to your current customers. They have proven that they’re in your target audience.

Forums, advertising, local groups, and organizations are good ways to identify potential customers to participate.

Let’s say you’re designing a dog-sitting app. In this case, you’ll need to speak to dog owners who would like more flexibility to travel. You could find these people in online groups, through a local meeting, or even at a park that’s popular for dog walking.

Consider incentives

It’s also worth considering incentives. These can encourage the right people to get on board. For example, you might offer participants the chance to win a voucher or give them a small amount of cash to participate.

Ensure any incentives are meaningful for your target audience.

Develop meaningful insights

Collecting a range of data and information from multiple methods is helpful. However, it’s ultimately meaningless if that data isn’t collated into useful insights.

Ensure that data is accurately grouped and represented clearly and concisely so that the entire business can benefit from the learnings. You might need to hire a data analyst.

Surprise and delight your customers

Keeping customers at the center of what you do is the only way to create products that are helpful for people.

All products should help customers, whether that’s by solving a problem, making their life a little bit easier, or entertaining them in some way. Customers should want to use your product and enjoy the process.

By researching your customers, you can truly understand how they feel, where their pain points are, how they behave in real-life situations, and what solutions would please them. Ultimately, all this helps you better serve your customers.

Should you be using a customer insights hub?

Do you want to discover previous customer research faster?

Do you share your customer research findings with others?

Do you analyze customer research data?

Start for free today, add your research, and get to key insights faster

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User experience (UX)Product developmentMarket researchPatient experienceSurveysResearch methodsEmployee experience

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