— and five learning theories that inspire research education
Some opinions support it because it scales the value of research in an organization. Some are against it because it dilutes the profession. Jared Spool thought both were wrong because they treated research as the end goals rather than the process of understanding problems.
We will not have a winner in this debate because when people are arguing over a trend, the trend is already happening. It will not cease and it is inevitable whether we are against it or not. Is user research an independent profession or just a tool? Maybe the debate is not important.
What’s important is the signal that there are more and more non-research roles such as product designers and product managers are keen to do user research themselves and learn from it.
I regard this a positive signal because it’s an opportunity to decentralize the authoritative power and share the right of generating user research knowledge among those who want to, without the limitation of roles.
If user research is not democratized in an organization, only the research team generates insights and manages the end-to-end user research activities.
Imagine this: I am a user researcher and you are not. I own every piece of knowledge from research and you don’t. At the end of the day, you have to listen to me telling you how I did the research.
Even if I bring you in as a stakeholder and engage you in interview sessions and data analysis, it was my strategy to get you informed to realize my research values, not to help you truly understand and practice research on your own. The user research process didn’t help you with it because I didn’t intend to. After all, I am a user researcher and you are not.
It leaves a question here: in a subject that relies on individual interpretation, how could we overcome the power dynamics in knowledge generation? In such a subject, if there is no one universal law to judge the research methods and knowledge to be right or wrong, how could we make sure the knowledge that one single institute has created is not biased within their own interpretation?
This is not a question I raised just right now, but a problem in the power-knowledge relationship that Foucault has pondered in his entire life (Rouse, 1994).
It is interesting that authors argue about the risks and benefits of democratizing research, and suggest strategies to facilitate the process, such as better tooling and more efficient research ops. I would rather focus on educating and coaching the learner in user research democratization to improve research quality.
Eventually we would like to see more user research done by the broader teams, but at the same time, the process of research democratization should help those who conduct research to advance their research mindsets and skills. We want to see the improvement of research quality that scales user research values in the organization.
2. User research is a craft
A craft is composed of technical skills and foundational mindsets. Skills in user research are so diverse that include interviewing skills, inductive skills, deductive skills, reading skills, listening skills, and so on.
A learner can get familiar with skills by doing research themselves. However, having the skills only won’t make a good user researcher. The learner needs the right mindsets to approach the research problems in a more appropriate way — I didn’t say the correct way. The user research mindset development is just as hard as skills. It takes years.
An analogy I’ve always been using is boxing. Maybe you can throw a sharp jab, a powerful straight, and a vicious body shot on the heavy bag too. Those are skills. The mindset is that instinct helps you analyze and predict your opponent as a whole moving target.
With the right mindset, your opponent is almost throwing the punches that you expect them to throw. Not because they really do so, but because you read them by feeling their movement and gestures so that you could react actively. The mindset of “reading your opponent” transforms into the skills of defending and counterpunching. A boxing coach is the one who corrects their boxers skills and nurtures their mindsets as an intimate outsider.
In user research democratization, the research coach should work similarly as a boxing coach. They give feedback to the learner, put them on the right track for user research, and provide training sessions for skill improvement, and so forth. The research coach doesn’t have to be alway bugging the learner, but they need to show up when the learner needs them for answers. The coach needs to have enough knowledge of the end-to-end design research process and when to use which methods. Also they need to be a patient instructor so that they could get along with the team over a long period.
The requirement list for a user research coach can go on and on, but it is also crucial for the coach to figure out how they might provide appropriate mentorship to help the learner achieve the goals.
There are five primary learning theories that research coaches can refer to. These theoretical perspectives were born to respond to the different stances among each other in history. But there are no right or wrong, worse or better perspectives. The research coach can even apply all the five learning theories in their work at the same time.
3. Behaviorism learning theory and behavior reinfocement
Learning is based on a system of routines that help students memorize the information in those routines. In order to put the information in students’ memory, it is important for the teachers to give direct feedback on the behaviors. If students did a good job, they should receive positive feedback and encouragement. The purpose is to reinforce the recognition of the correct behaviors in a rewarding manner. If the students did things incorrect, there should also be instant feedback to correct the behavior.
In user research, the coach needs to give feedback at the right timing to the learner. There are two scenarios that can be the best timing to give feedback. One is when the learner is planning the research activities yet not implementing. The other is when the person has done the activities and is reflecting how well they’ve done it.
The coach might want to avoid giving direct feedback while during research, such as between interview sessions, or after a survey has launched. These are not good timings because correcting the behavior while people are doing the tasks can lead to stress and frustration.
Repetition and reinforcement are important in behaviorism learning. The coach should regularly emphasize on the correct behaviors and highlight the incorrect ones for improvement. For example, if the person wrote a good interview question in the discussion guide, the coach should give positive feedback not only once, but at least a few times in the future to imply the correctness till the person deeply embeds the behavior into the research mindset.
4. Cognitivism learning theory and learners’ initiative
To respond to behaviorism, cognitivism was born in the 1950s. Behaviorism learning theory focuses on the external force (i.e. teachers’ feedback) to change behavior, in comparison, cognitivism learning process shows the importance of internal thinking processes. The learner is not considered a pre-designed object to be changed, but a human mind that can absorb cognitive materials, digest information and generate knowledge on their own.
Cognitive learning process emphasizes that the learner can take the initiative in understanding learning materials such as texts and instructions. The learner should not just repeat their behaviors for the best outcome of learning. More importantly, they need to make sense of the meaning behind the learning materials and reflect on what they’ve learned.
Cognitive learning theory tells us that the user research learners can learn actively and reflectively. Firstly, there should be some instructions on user research for the learners to read and watch by themselves. It could be texts about how to run user interviews, presentation recordings of how to analyze survey data, or video tutorials on writing up a good research plan. The key is to offer the learner the cognitive stimulus, which is the learning materials, and give them the time to digest.
Secondly, the research coach lets the learner run their own research under guidance, then reflect on what they have done and how well they think they’ve done. It is important to notice that, in the cognitive learning approach, the coach is better to give feedback after the learner shares their feelings and thoughts.
For example, in a 1 on 1 chat between the coach and the learner, the coach could let them talk about feelings on the recent unmoderated design testing, ask about the difficulties and barriers they had, and how they want to improve next time. Based on these cognitive reactions towards the specific research, the coach could give positive or negative feedback on certain aspects. Notice the timing of giving feedback is to ensure the coach’s perspectives will not pressure and lead the learner’s thoughts in the conversation.
5. Constructivism learning theory and the former knowledge
Constructivism is related to the psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Constructivism holds the belief that a learner is not an empty vessel or passive recipient of information. They construct new skills based on previous experience and knowledge.
This learning concept emphasizes that there is a strong and constant connection between what the learner has already known and what they want to learn next, as well as how they will learn it. Current knowledge acquisition is always built on the learner’s older knowledge.
In user research coaching, constructivism implies the individualization of the learning experience. Since each learner comes from a particular background with unique professional knowledge such as UX design, product management, marketing, business strategy or visual design, it is crucial to know the learner’s current understanding of user research, what research methods they’ve been using most often, and what research skills they want to learn in the future.
By understanding this background, the research coach can make sense of how the learner constructs the new knowledge, and how they might obtain the future knowledge based on the current practice.
For example, if the learner is learning usability testing, and they are from a statistical background who designed hundreds of quantitative surveys, the coach may need to talk them through more fundamental mindsets of interview facilitation, which is a very different way of collecting data than quantitative survey, but also shares the commonality of validating hypothesis.
The research coach should also respect the learner and take care of them for new knowledge construction if they have limited experience. In-depth user interviewing might be a useful research skill, but it could be intimidating and stressful to the learner if the coach asks them to directly jump in the interview facilitation. Constructivism reminds the research coach that always bear in mind where the learner’s current skills are from, which level they are on, and what their biggest interests are in future learning.
6. Humansim learning theory and self-actualization
Humanistic learning approaches are based on Maslow’s theoretical foundation (Maslow, 1954). It holds the moral stance that humans should be in the center of scientific inquiry. Scientific activities should help the individual person pursue a self-defined and meaningful life.
A fundamental notion in humanism philosophy, based on Kant, is that there is no one universal moral and ethical truth for all humans, but ethics arise in the humanistic way via which people seek for their individual good (Dierksmeier, 2011).
In user research coaching, humanism theory shares a commonality with constructivism, which is the learner-centric approach. Humanistic learning approaches propose that the learning process is a pathway to reach the learner’s self-actualization. Therefore, coaching user research is about helping the individual learner become the person they want to be.
The center of learning research is not the user research profession, but the individual momentum of how the learner wants to use research in their work, or what type of research skills they think will benefit them the most for a better career path.
There might be the difference between high-quality and low-quality user research outcomes, but there is no one universal law defining what user research is and how it should be used for all professionals. The way it is leveraged has to be aligned with the overarching actualization of learners’ personal values.
To realize the humanistic value in user research education, the learner’s managers can play an important role. Whenever the learner chats with their managers, they could share thoughts about what their goals are on learning and practicing user research. For example, is it more about meeting OKR requirements for the year, or are they interested in transferring into a more user-focussed role in the future, or just some ad hoc curiosity? No matter what it is, none of these goals are unreasonable. They are all precious motivations of learning user research that managers and the coach should respect.
Managers are usually the people that most easily listen to the learner’s thoughts and feelings. Therefore the user research coach should keep a close relationship with managers to ask about the learner’s goals and motivations.
7. Connectivism learning theory and social learning
Connectivism theory was developed in the technological and digital era. Specifically, connectivism is a social learning approach. It claims that the learner obtains knowledge not in a single channel of resource, but within the networked social connections. It is only through these personal networks that the learner can acquire new viewpoints and diversity of opinion to learn to make critical decisions (Duke et al, 2013).
A key concept is that the learner has or should nurture the ability to see connections between different information sources and to maintain that connection to facilitate continual learning.
In an organizational environment, it is not difficult for user research education to adopt the connectivism learning theory because an organization itself is a network where the learner can obtain new knowledge.
I consider connectivism learning approach can be practiced via two ways for user research upskilling.
The first method is about the connection between the learner and their peers. If the learner is not very experienced with user research, they are suggested to pair up with peers in user research projects, which we call a research buddy. The research buddy usually has more research experience than the learner. There could be a few research buddies for one learner, and they can be either designers or researchers. The learner will shadow their research buddies in a few research sessions until they feel comfortable to run their own research.
It is very important for the research buddies to give positive or negative feedback at the right timing, just like a coach’s action under the behaviorism learning approach. What’s also crucial is that the research coach should set up meetings with research buddies to see how they’ve been helping the learner to make sure the research activities are on track and the learners are comfortable.
The second method is about the connection between the learner and the research coach. The research coach should not only rely on a few big workshops or lengthy research coaching sessions to urge the learner to digest all the knowledge, because it is better for the learner to connect the knowledge fragments they acquired from different resources, and digest the connection of knowledge over time.
The one-time coaching sessions can be useful for basic user research concepts, but the ad hoc chats are equally valuable when the learner needs to resolve their instant problems. The research coach should be open and happy to answer any questions that any learners come up with at any time. The timely ad hoc chat on research questions creates the most effective moments that the learner absorbs knowledge and gains new skills.
8. Back to user research democratization
I talked about the learning theories that can help the education for democratizing user research. One of my UX research friends once asked me – Have you ever thought, after years, if non-research people learn and practice research better and better, what do we do then? Are we going to lose our jobs?
I asked him, so what do you do now?
He said, I do service design now. I feel they are all interconnected.
Separation of design and research is what this capitalistic industry defined, not what people naturally generated to achieve our personal goals. As Max Weber believed,
bureaucratic organization is an efficient way of managing laborers. It defined the meticulous division of labor, the responsibility, and the clear hierarchies and professions to maintain its efficiency.
I regard the democratization of user research across non-research roles as an attempt to step out of the taken-for-granted scope that the bureaucratic organizational power has set.
In a sense, people can be driven by their desire to learn new knowledge beyond the professional role definitions. Since non-research roles could learn and practice user research, then researchers can also learn and practice other skills and step into new fields too.
At the end of the day, you study and understand human experience, based on which you create something new to help people’s lives. That’s what we call innovation.
Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.
Duke, B., Harper, G., & Johnston, M. (2013). Connectivism as a digital age learning theory. The International HETL Review, 2013(Special Issue), 4–13.
Rouse, J. (1994). Power/knowledge. The cambridge companion to Foucault, 2.
Dierksmeier, C. (2011). Kant’s humanist ethics. In Humanistic ethics in the age of globality (pp. 79–93). Palgrave Macmillan, London.