Democracy is something that many believe is worth striving for and fighting for due to its potential benefit. When it comes to research, however, the concept can be confusing if the context isn’t clear.
Democratization of research is a structured approach to transforming an organization’s culture. Let’s learn how effective democratizing UX research can be in an organization.
As businesses create more and more applications, new startups get launched, and organizations hire more UX team members, the need for the democratization of UX research has become clear. UX professionals and teams must take responsibility for empowering other individuals and teams to conduct UX research and move the product development process forward.
To help us understand the changing nature of the research profession and the practical benefits and applications of research democratization, we will first learn what democratization of research means.
What is the democratization of UX Research?
Democracy in a general context speaks to a society where different voices are heard in which this helps to advance the whole society and would in turn create an ideal society. So just as having equal voices helps to improve the progress of an entire society and is at the root of a democratic society, an organization can benefit from the value of having multiple perspectives and voices that push it forward.
According to NNGroup, democratization of user research means making it acceptable and possible for anyone, no matter their role, to do user research.
By equipping everybody with the right knowledge and usability testing tools while also providing opportunities to interact with customers in a formal way, democratization allows stakeholders to gain a deeper understanding of the customers they serve. Democratization also helps to show the level of UX maturity in any given organization.
The conversation around research changes as it is passed through different teams and so the need for any team to understand the pain points of the customers they serve, UX researchers have a role to play by being major key drivers in pushing forward the importance of democratizing user research in an organization.
Democracy and Research: It’s changing role
There are several questions that often need to be asked as the research needs in any particular organization expand.
Let’s reflect on the following:
- What is the size of your research team and how many of the research needs end up unfulfilled?
- What problem space are you delving into and how complex is it for a non-expert to investigate it?
- What type of insights does your organization need and who could be equipped to deliver them?
Design has gone through a whole journey to get people to understand their process better, and I think research is going through the same thing at the moment as said by Lucy Denton, a Product Design Lead at Dovetail. Democratization efforts should be embarked on only when the research function is well established and mature.
Only when this foundation exists and the organization has a deep appreciation for robust research does it make sense to start letting partners conduct their own experiments.
A framework for democratizing UX Research
In other to mitigate risk and approach UX democratization in a sensible manner, here are some frameworks you can adopt:
The original research democratization framework, as developed by Julie Marie Norvaisas (2022)
This approach takes place when the core need in your research team is to encourage better and more efficient data-driven decision-making. The focus is usually data-driven decisions and work efficiency.
- Consider democratizing exposure and access to existing data and insights to help shift the mindset of the organization. Ie: making research repositories that can be accessed by researchers and stakeholders (Notion, Github, Google sheets etc). The repository may consist of reports, databases, and users’ pain points.
- Collaborate with other teams that produce insights for gaining a better understanding of a topic through data triangulation. Ie: Customer service team, Media Intelligence team, Data analyst team.
Consider looking into tools licensing for better functionality, ie: Premium Google access, including Google Site and Google Data Studio, or insight management tools like Airtable or all-in-one UX Research tools like UXtweak.
This approach takes place when your research team is driven to take part in emerging trends that question the distinctions between researchers and participants, corporations and humans. This practice will hope to lead to a close to an ideal design that can solve user problems in an innovative manner. The focus is usually on centering design on those most impacted
- If the situation and the resource are available, take the initiative to pursue these trends of your own volition, since they are unlikely to be identified as a blatant need by organizations or institutions.
- Look to disrupt the power dynamic of the product development process, and reinvent what human-centered means.
- Try community-based methods that can drive innovation. Ie: holding a co-design session with users to give ideas on how to build a concept or product.
Consider the time taken to complete the rethinking of the said process i.e task completion.
This approach takes place when your research team’s core needs are to build empathy, viscerally question assumptions, and integrate insight accountability. The focus here is bordered around insights, transparency and gaining credibility.
- Start asking your stakeholders to be involved in the research process. Inform them of the benefits. Ie: when inviting stakeholders to data collection, tell them that they can benefit from witnessing how users are using the product directly by telling them that they can also ask questions to users.
- Consider opening up your process to involve stakeholders in low-risk ways, such as taking notes for interviews, immersive experiences, or collaborative analysis.
Introduce lightweight education to stakeholders. Ie: giving stakeholders a quick briefing on how to be a good note taker while attending research sessions, showing them how to question users, or how to brainstorm insights gained from users together.
This approach takes place when your research team’s core needs are to keep pace with research demand but the resources are limited. The focus here is to keep the pace with research demands.
- Frame the research practice as empowerment. When not communicated in an inappropriate way, asking stakeholders to run their own research can be perceived as extra work that may demotivate them.
- Create standardized guidelines for stakeholders to follow. This functions as the guidance for minimizing misconduct/biases during the research process.
- Socialize the materials to respective stakeholders so that they are aware of them and thus, try to digest and understand them before getting a hands-on session. Emphasize the need for building empathy with users to develop a human-centered design.
- Provide in-depth training/workshops regarding research. This aims to improve stakeholders’ skills in conducting research and to minimize low-quality insights as to the results. Ie: holding a usability testing workshop for non-researchers, or how to summarize insights from a quick user interview.
These are helpful frameworks you can use to democratize user research in your organization. There are great benefits of democratizing user research and it will be important for us to learn about it.
Benefits of Democratizing UX Research
According to NNGroup, there are three advantages to democratizing user research and they include:
Getting research done
The obvious benefit of making it possible for more people to do user research is that it increases the likelihood that more research will be done, especially in organizations that have nobody in research roles or where professional researchers cannot meet demand.
For example, working as a single researcher in an organization. You believe user research is necessary, so you get creative and resourceful and find a way to get research done. That improves the UX maturity of the organization. Even imperfect user research is usually much better than no research at all.
Increased job satisfaction
Some designers, product managers, and people involved in the product development process enjoy doing user research. They appreciate the exposure to customers, use the findings to drive their decisions, and welcome a variety of tasks in their job.
Enabling them to do research ultimately helps them learn new skills, increases their perception of growth and their value to their teams and the organization at large.
Increased knowledge about user research
Each time someone plans, runs, and follows through on a user study, they become more aware of the effort and complexities involved. They also sometimes share this new knowledge with others. Even those who don’t pick up on all nuances involved or make mistakes will probably realize the effectiveness of user research and why user research is important.
Researchers are becoming keen collaborators, enablers, champions, and facilitators, pushing their teams to embrace a culture of curiosity and learning. Through exposure to the research craft, methods, and ways of thinking, product teams can have an ongoing relationship with their customers facilitated by user research professionals.
A new way to convey customer insights: How UX helps
As research continues to have more impact in organizations, finding ways to make the outcomes of research more accessible for the people who use it (the decision-makers) should be what the industry should work towards. The goal is for researchers to empower stakeholders to use the potential of unstructured customer data to interrogate underlying assumptions and make evidence-based decisions in lockstep with the fast pace of agile development processes.
To make research more accessible and less report-driven, UX researchers should welcome the idea of a research repository which is a central location or database for all research insights and the evidence that backs them.