Breaking Down the Silos: Usability Practitioners Meet Marketing Researchers

May 19, 2008

Being a consultant with experience in both traditional marketing research and user experience and usability gives me a unique perspective on a broad range of issues relating to customer experience. Not only do I have a good idea of what the other discipline does, I am a practitioner of the other discipline. However, in attempting to play both roles at once, I often find that client companies keep these two disciplines locked up in separate silos—usability research within IT and marketing research within the Marketing Services department. This can have a serious impact on the sharing of information relating to customer experience.

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To help demonstrate my point, here is a brief quiz for UX professionals and other members of your product team:

  1. When building personas for use in your UI evaluations what role did your Marketing or Marketing Research department play in helping you build those personas?
  2. When was the last time you or your CIO read the results of a customer marketing research or branding study that your marketing team conducted?
  3. If you wanted to get your hands on such a study, how easy would it be?
  4. Your company’s ad agency has spent numerous billable hours writing a detailed advertising and communications plan for your product, service, or brand. Tell me some details about these four key components: ad strategy, brand definition, brand positioning, and intended customer communications take-aways.
  5. When was the last time you attended a meeting in which someone from senior management or marketing discussed goals for satisfying customer experiences—both online and offline—across a broad range of communications channels?

If you had trouble answering the above questions, you are not alone.

According to Forrester Research, 82% of senior management in the major companies they polled believe customer experience plays a “critical” or “very important” role in their business, yet a full 57% admit to an “undisciplined approach” to customer experience. (Source: Forrester’s Q4 2006 Customer Experience Peer Research Panel Survey)

Why is this happening? As the Web and other interactive media have evolved from being a supplemental communications channel to being central to the way a company does business, many firms have not realigned their internal customer intelligence structures to meet the needs of this new paradigm. They are treating customer experience as a function that may reside within disparate departments rather than as a core competency that should be woven into the fabric of the entire organization.

Marketing managers expect their company Web site to be both usable and persuasive, but often treat these two important goals as if they were unrelated. If the goal is to optimize the customer experience, you can’t have one team working on usability and another on the elements of persuasion without their talking to one other.

“One of the biggest challenges in larger organizations is communication and usability,” claims a Director of Usability in a business services firm I spoke to recently. “Usability is part of corporate, and then we have four large business units, each with their own marketing and development teams. Usability gets a lot of lip service, but it’s often sorry, we don’t have the budget.” This is a firm in which virtually every one of their services has an integrated online component.

I once proposed to a financial services client that I present the results of a recent user experience evaluation to the broader marketing team and the Web teams of other divisions whose sites were tackling similar UI challenges. “No one is going to show up to that meeting,” he replied. “I can send them the report, but they won’t read it.” Not only did the product marketing team not care what was going on in usability, the sister site’s Web division didn’t care about issues that were directly relevant to the overall design and presentation of similar content on their site!

One problem companies have in getting these two competencies together may be the assumption that usability testing and marketing research are just too different. Take a look at Table 1, and you’ll see what I mean. They aren’t even close!

Table 1—Differences
  User Experience Practitioners Marketing Researchers

Brain hemisphere



Poke their stick at…



Get excited about…

Practical, measurable actions and responses—“Can you find the login?”

Emotional responses—“How do you feel?

Want their Web site to…

“Achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use”—as defined by ISO 9241-11.

Deliver a brand message, or promise, that leads to a sale

Filter learning through these disciplines…

Human factors / HCI

Information design


Computer science





Are always yammering on about…*

User flows

Information architecture

Interaction design

Navigational frameworks


Hierarchical task analyses

Interview bias
Order bias

Conjoint analysis

Multivariate techniques

Sequential monadic studies

Projective techniques

Perceptual mapping

Make key assumptions about their target audience via…




Market segmentation

Measure short-term results by…

Task completion

Greater insights into the voice of the customer

Are responsible for an ongoing understanding of…

How users relate to proprietary technology

Customer needs and desires as they relate to brand

* To decode the marketing-researcher speak, see this helpful glossary. For an equally compelling list of UX terms, check out this glossary.

What I’ve actually done in outlining these differences is to encourage you to think about where you stand. Didn’t the UX professionals out there read some of the items in that right-hand column and say to yourselves: “I can be right-brained, dammit. I care about those other things, too!” (Well, maybe excepting all the marketing research geek-speak.)

Although their journeys may be different, UX professionals and marketing researchers both want the same thing in the end: to create a world in which the people your company cares about—whether you call them users, prospects, customers, shareholders, or whatever—have satisfying experiences that result in their really, really liking you—the you being your brand.

Besides your shared goals, you and your marketing research counterparts are actually using some similar tools and techniques. So, in the spirit of kinship, let’s look at the common ground in Table 2.

Table 2—Common ground
  User Experience Practitioners Marketing Researchers




Direct observation

Problem solving—that Aha! moment when it all makes sense



Direct observation


Use these tools…

Contextual explorations

In-depth UI interviews

Remote usability testing


Co-discovery methods

Pluralistic walkthroughs

And on and on…

Focus groups

In-depth interviews (IDIs)

Remote interviews


Dyads, triads

Structured visioning sessions

And so on…

Think they are…

The most important person on the Web team

The most misunderstood person on the Web team

The most important person on the Marketing team

The most misunderstood person on the Marketing team


To provide the best possible user experience across all customer touch points

This quotation from someone who knows and cares deeply about improving user experiences shows you just how close we really are in our thinking about user experiences:

“Usability is about human behavior. It recognizes that humans are lazy, get emotional, are not interested in putting a lot of effort into, say, getting a credit card, and generally prefer things that are easy to do versus those that are hard to do.”—David McQuillen, in “Taking Usability Offline,” Darwin Magazine, June 2003

Any marketing researcher worth his or her salt would have told you the same thing, replacing the word usability with purchase behavior.

As these two specialties evolve, I have a suggestion for getting started on the process of breaking down the silos: If you aren’t yet acquainted with your marketing research staff—and visa versa—please extend a hand—or at least write a brief IM or email. Find out what those other guys are up to. Propose working on something together.

And, you have to let your senior managers know you’re both really in the same game and offer some shared experiences. Here are some additional suggestions for moving the process forward:

  • It’s the competition, stupid! In making the case to senior managers for a cross-disciplinary approach to customer experience, mentioning that competitors may have an advantage in this area can be a real motivator. Hey boss, don’t you want to be in that disciplined-approach minority?
  • Sharing is caring. Make all research available between departments via the company intranet, and publish monthly or quarterly updates on completed projects for both departments.
  • Provide training. Training marketing researchers and UX professionals on the basic techniques and nomenclature of each other’s disciplines can foster further learning and understanding.
  • Make customer experience a core competency. If your organization feels it is ready, create a Chief Experience Officer position with responsibility for staff and information relating to all touch points of the customer experience—both online and offline. This could include everything from the look and feel of your wireless interfaces, to packaging design, to the training of the truck drivers who deliver your products.

If senior managers are slow to take a more disciplined approach to using information that can help enhance customer experiences, it will be up to the combined efforts of those with the greatest insight—marketing researchers and UX practitioners—to make the first move. The continued success of your business may depend on it. 

Principal at DIG

New York, New York, USA

David KozatchDavid Kozatch brings over 20 years experience in marketing research and customer user experience to his work as an interviewer and strategic consultant. As principal of DIG, which he founded in 1989, he has conducted literally thousands of focus groups and in-depth interviews in the areas of financial/business services, software, hardware, Web/interactive services, and telecommunications. Since 1996, David has been a leading thinker in helping companies gain a deeper understanding of the ways people use the Web and mobile communications. His company’s user experience research was integral to successful launches on the Web for Google, HBO, Verizon, and Absolut Vodka. And, more recently, his work for clients like, FedEx, and Cablevision has helped these companies build better brands online.  Read More

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