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How To Succeed At Democratizing UX Research

Phil Hesketh Photo of Phil Hesketh

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Allowing everyone in your organization to contribute to product design and development can help employees feel empowered and valued. But should this extend to letting non-researchers contribute to UX research?

In this article, we’re taking a look at the concept of democratizing research, what the benefits and downsides can be for an organization, and why having a strong UX research team is the key to successful democratization efforts.

What is the democratization of user research?

Democratizing UX research means that technically anyone in an organization can conduct user research. For example, people on your marketing, product management, or sales teams.

There are opposing thoughts about whether this is a good idea or not. Not everyone is in favor of democratization, as the term has become shorthand in many places for ”let everyone talk to customers and we can lay off the research team”. Which obviously doesn’t sit well with dedicated UX researchers!

But democratization doesn’t mean that you don’t need your UX researchers anymore. It simply allows a broader range of insights to be collected across a company, as opposed to only having the time and resources to carry out narrow, targeted research studies.

Democratization can also mean different things for different organizations. For example, you might only choose to democratize one of these aspects, or you might want to implement all of them:

  • Access- this means that everyone can access, view, and analyze the results of user research. Even this small amount of democratization can increase customer empathy and help teams understand the impact of things like surveys, interviews, and raw user feedback.

  • Participation - this enables everyone to become part of the research process by way of things like carrying out field studies, participating in usability studies, and being part of post-research work.

  • Facilitation - if your UX team has the time and resources to adequately train non-researchers, enabling facilitation can help researchers with a lot of the heavy lifting involved with running usability testing and other hands-on research sessions.

  • Ownership- at the highest level of democratization is research ownership. This means that anyone can run UX studies as long as they sit within the established boundaries set by UX researchers.

However you structure your democratization efforts, it will enable your non-researchers to gather a broader range of customer feedback, which can be invaluable for developing better products and experiences.

So why do we democratize research? Is it truly beneficial for an organization? Or can it be detrimental to building a successful product?

What are the benefits of democratizing UX research?

If it’s carried out strategically, democratizing the research process in your organization can have some key benefits, both for individual employees and for the company as a whole.

Increases data collection

One of the biggest benefits of democratized research is that, done correctly, you can rapidly increase the amount of quality customer data that you collect.

With more teams, time, and brainpower invested in UX research, you can talk to more users, and test and validate more assumptions. You’ll also be able to get diverse insights from the various team members who are now contributing to a variety of research areas.

This can all lead to more innovative solutions to user problems, and give you the ability to put what you’ve learned into action faster to support overall business goals.

Deepens customer empathy

Many employees can bring huge value to UX research due to their deep subject matter expertise, but these people often don’t have a “direct line” to talk to users and understand their problems first hand.

Democratization can enable these people to observe or participate in research in a way that deepens their comprehension of user pain points, needs, and desires—which can lead to developing even better products and customer experiences.

Improves motivation and collaboration across teams

With democratization, teams can feel more connected and aligned with each other, and with your business goals. This can increase the understanding of the importance of UX research, and motivate everyone in the organization to contribute to research efforts.

Democratizing also reduces bottlenecks in the research process, as more people are able to collect and analyze research themselves. This reduces pressure for small or busy UX researchers, while still keeping them in the loop about wider, ongoing research.

Smarter, faster decision-making

Enabling access to important user insights when they’re “hot off the press” can help decision-makers to quickly make data-driven choices about optimization.

With democratization, all teams can gain a great understanding of user needs and behaviors so they can prioritize areas for improvement and implement changes faster—resulting in a more agile and informed development process.

Are there any dangers to democratization?

While democratizing can have significant upsides, it’s also important to be aware of the risks if it’s not carried out properly, and if non-researchers don’t have a good understanding of research and its potential impact on product development.

If there’s no strategic groundwork laid out, democratization of UX research can make it challenging to ensure that high-quality, responsible research is being carried out across an organization.

The most significant danger is the risk of misinterpretation or misuse of data by non-researchers. Without proper training and guidance, individuals may draw erroneous conclusions, leading to misguided product decisions and potentially harming user experience.

To mitigate this danger, organizations must establish clear guidelines for data interpretation and decision-making. They should also encourage collaboration between research experts and non-researchers to validate findings and ensure accurate insights inform critical choices.

Abhishek Shah, Founder, Testlify

Even though teams gather large amounts of feedback from customers on a daily basis without the help of UX researchers, non-researchers often don’t have the expertise to distinguish between feedback that can be used to optimize UX, and data that might do more harm than good for development.

Anyone doing research with poorly designed questions, approach and analysis can greatly bias design and product decision making.

If this happens at scale, it can quickly create a massive problem across your organization where you’re spending time, money and resources on all the wrong things with a false sense of confidence.

Zack Naylor, Co-Founder, Aurelius

If everyone in the organization can effectively be involved with research, it’s essential that everyone applies the same research processes, takes the same training, and adheres to the same level of research standards.

A haphazard approach to research can potentially create conflicts within teams that affect the entire company and lead to harmful decision-making. It can also create an unsafe participant experience which can damage relationships with valued users.

UX researchers are well trained in how to provide safe, inclusive, accessible research sessions that reduce risk and harm for participants. They know how to approach sensitive topics and ask appropriate questions, and can ensure that user consent is freely given. But for non-researchers, it can be difficult to maintain a safe environment for participants to speak openly.

Another danger is that researchers might feel that their expertise and skills are being devalued when democratization is mentioned. They might also worry that they won’t have enough time to work on their own projects if they’re kept busy all day training and overseeing non-researchers.

This is why having a skilled, motivated UX research team is critical if democratization is to succeed.

Why a strong UX research team is the backbone for successful democratization

One of the main reasons organizations decide against democratization is the fear that letting “everyone” do research will result in large amounts of sub-par information being gathered.

While not everyone can be (or wants to be) a researcher, everyone has the ability to carry out user research that can be used to your UX researchers’ advantage.

But it’s also important for everyone to understand what good research looks like. This is why it’s essential for your researchers to take the lead in any democratization efforts.

It’s important to have a strong research team in order to “democratize” research as they can guide the use, execution, interpretation and application of research insights to folks.

First consider what “democratization” truly means and what you hope to accomplish from it. Does it mean everyone is doing research? Does it mean better access to insights? Think about the goals for democratization, and what you feel is lacking today that doing so would address”_

Zack Naylor, Co-founder, Aurelius

Laying a foundation for success

Your researchers can help lay the groundwork for successful democratization in your organization, and ensure that training and resources are available to keep everyone aligned with research goals, standards, and ethical processes.

Your UX researchers will be instrumental in empowering your non-researchers with the skills they need to systematically gather valuable feedback.

It’s essential to be strategic and to plan meticulously. Democratizing the UX research process involves everyone, which has its advantages and disadvantages.

While it can greatly aid in the research, it also requires allocating time and effort to each task and team member. Therefore, it is crucial for everyone to perform their roles diligently and with precision to ensure its success.

Leizel Laron, UI/UX Designer, ExaWeb

Instead of your junior researchers stressing about keeping their jobs, and senior researchers being worried about having all their time taken up with training and coaching, make it clear how important their role as researchers is.

This will ensure they feel more empowered about creating a democratization strategy that has an impact, and understand that their value as a researcher is being recognized and not undermined.

Training non-researchers

UX researchers have invested a ton of time and dedication into their roles, gaining the specialist knowledge needed to do great research, test assumptions, and provide an actionable game plan to implement what they’ve learned.

While researchers might groan and eye-roll at the thought of having to spend their days explaining research 101 principles to everyone from product teams to support—teaching others about conducting research can help researchers hone their own learning and communication skills.

So instead of preventing non-researchers from contributing to product optimization, UX researchers can step up to empower your organization to get all the essential groundwork in place for democratization to succeed.

Depending on your organization, training might include things like:

  • Creating research playbooks

  • Creating a UX research plan

  • Scheduling “office hours” for questions and advice

  • Running workshops on responsible research practices

  • Creating frameworks for collecting quality data

  • Understanding and managing risks

  • Inviting non-researcher to observe research sessions

  • Ensuring best practices for compliance and informed consent are adhered to

  • Implementing a CRM for user data and research repositories

  • Tracking ongoing research across the organization

It’s important for your non-researcher participants to build their skills gradually when they’re starting out.

Your UX researchers should be able to match team participants to the right projects to ensure nobody is feeling overwhelmed, and correct processes can be put in place.

This means starting people off on simpler research projects that might involve checklists, surveys, or scripted user interviews which don’t involve time-consuming training and are more “low risk” initiatives.

Providing guidance

In many organizations, UX researchers simply don’t have enough time or budget to carry out all the research that’s needed to optimize every customer touchpoint. This can lead to teams without UX support making product decisions without the necessary data to point them in the right direction.

And even when UX researchers are involved, it can take them time to get up to speed with the knowledge they need for that specific team or initiative.

With democratization, UX researchers can:

  • Help other teams in their organization conduct research activities

  • Empower stakeholders to run their own research

  • Guide non-researchers in identifying and prioritizing feedback that will drive results

  • Review outcomes

  • Provide advice and direction to move forward

  • Improve learning and communication across the organization

  • Advocate for wider research initiatives

  • Build empathy and understanding around the customer experience

Freeing up more time for strategic UX initiatives

We’re not going to sugar coat it. Spending time creating robust frameworks and resources for non-researchers can eat into time that UX researchers would rather spend on what they do best!

But once a democratization infrastructure is set up and everything is running smoothly, teams can essentially take care of their own research initiatives—which means UX researchers get more time back to focus on their own high-impact strategic work.

Wrapping up

Democratization isn’t a replacement for skilled UX researchers. It’s a mechanism that will help you get the most out of your wider research initiatives, but it shouldn’t be undertaken without a clear strategy and infrastructure in place.

You’ll need to evaluate your organization’s research needs, identify gaps between the research you need and what is currently being done, and ensure that your non-researchers get appropriate coaching and training from UX research experts to enable them to gather ongoing feedback that will drive growth and revenue.

If you’re looking to carry out UX research studies for your organization, Consent Kit can help you formalize your recruitment process, manage participant data with ease, and ensure your studies are accessible, compliant, and efficient. Try it free for 14 days.

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