Market Research Shortcut: Fake Users Creating Fake Data

July 10, 2024

Market research can be complex and time consuming. It would save so much time if one could consolidate thousands of potential respondents into one model. A young AI firm offers exactly that, we learn from Nielsen Norman Group’s article, “Synthetic Users: If, When, and How to Use AI Generated ‘Research.’

But are the results accurate? Not so much, according to writers Maria Rosala and Kate Moran. The pair tested fake users from the young firm Synthetic Users and ones they created using ChatGPT. They compared responses to sample questions from both real and fake humans. Each group gave markedly different responses. The write-up notes:

“The large discrepancy between what real and synthetic users told us in these two examples is due to two factors:

  • Human behavior is complex and context-dependent. Synthetic users miss this complexity. The synthetic users generated across multiple studies seem one-dimensional. They feel like a flat approximation of the experiences of tens of thousands of people, because they are.
  • Responses are based on training data that you can’t control. Even though there may be proof that something is good for you, it doesn’t mean that you’ll use it. In the discussion-forum example, there’s a lot of academic literature on the benefits of discussion forums on online learning and it is possible that the AI has based its response on it. However, that does not make it an accurate representation of real humans who use those products.”

That seems obvious to us, but apparently some people need to be told. The lure of fast and easy results is strong. See the article for more observations. Here are a couple worth noting:

“Real people care about some things more than others. Synthetic users seem to care about everything. This is not helpful for feature prioritization or persona creation. In addition, the factors are too shallow to be useful.”


“Some UX [user experience] and product professionals are turning to synthetic users to validate or product concepts or solution ideas. Synthetic Users offers the ability to run a concept test: you describe a potential solution and have your synthetic users respond to it. This is incredibly risky. (Validating concepts in this way is risky even with human participants, but even worse with AI.) Since AI loves to please, every idea is often seen as a good one.”

So as appealing as this shortcut may be, it is a fast track to incorrect results. Basing business decisions on “insights” from shallow, eager-to-please algorithms is unwise. The authors interviewed Synthetic Users’ cofounder Hugo Alves. He acknowledged the tools should only be used as a supplement to surveys of actual humans. However, the post points out, the company’s website seems to imply otherwise: it promises “User research. Without the users.” That is misleading, at best.

Cynthia Murrell, July 10, 2024


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