UX Research Democratization in 2023

Demand has never been higher internally at most product companies for UX research. This means non-researchers inevitably conduct research. How you feel about that sentence brings us to the great democratization debate.

Have you seen the theories that these 2023 tech layoffs have disproportionately impacted UX research compared to other disciplines? 🥹 The data isn't strong enough to support or debunk this theory, but one thing all UX researchers and research ops teams can probably agree on - demand has never been higher internally at most product companies for research 🤓.

This means non-researchers inevitably join the chat around conducting research. You might think this is terrible or fantastic, which brings us to the great democratization debate in UX research.

This article explores UX research democratization, its pros and cons, and potential signs your organization might benefit from. We've also included comments from influential UXRs with experience implementing research democratization strategies.

Democratization Requires Oversight

Behzod Sirjani is arguably one of the strongest voices and advocates for democratization. Through Yet Another Studio, Behzod offers democratization training and resources. He's also given many talks and interviews.

I believe that research is a practice of rigorous curiosity, and the role of researchers in an organization is to help the people they work with make better decisions.Behzod SirjaniYet Another StudioBehzod argues that democratization is part of a UX researcher's job, and the UXRs should empower teams to gather and share data.

"We have to acknowledge that our role in helping our organizations learn and make better decisions means that we cannot be the ones with all the answers. Instead, we need to identify areas where our organizations need to learn in rigorous and structured ways and actively support that learning."

Erika Hall is another voice for democratization but emphasizes the importance of correctly framing the discussion and processes.

"Don't argue for or against democratization. That's a pernicious framing that tries to make a virtue of lazy thinking. Work towards true, goal-oriented, ethical collaboration with clear roles and responsibilities. Clarity enables efficiency." Erika HallMule Design

The problem "no one is talking about"

Kyle Soucy published an article titled: The Problem With Research Democratization That People Aren't Talking About. Kyle points out that "Just because non-researchers (i.e., designers, developers, product managers, marketers, etc.) can learn to conduct research, it doesn't mean they want to."  

So, even when research teams embrace democratization, they have an uphill battle educating team members and stakeholders who aren't excited about the idea of more work.😤

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What is Democratizing UX Research 🤔—And Why is it Important?

Democratizing UX research makes research (collecting, storing, sharing, and accessing) accessible and possible for anyone within an organization, regardless of their role. It aims to break down traditional barriers and hierarchies, allowing cross-functional teams to contribute to and benefit from user insights. The importance of democratizing UX research stems from its potential to transform how organizations approach user-centered design and decision-making.

Democratization has gained traction in research operations to address common challenges and optimize research efficiency. In the research process, democratization aims to promote collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and a more holistic understanding of users' needs by involving non-researchers, such as product managers, designers, developers, and marketers.

How UX Research Democratization Works

UX research democratization completely shifts the traditional research process, empowering a wider range of stakeholders to actively participate and contribute to user research activities.

It's essential to get everyone aligned on goals, questions, and decisions to start with. Only after you do that can you appropriately plan and delegate the work, and socialize the insights that come out of it.Erika HallMule DesignHere's a high-level overview of how democratizing UX research works:

  1. Cultivating a user-centered culture ❤️ : Democratizing UX research begins with fostering a culture that values user insights and encourages collaboration across teams. Organizations must establish a shared understanding of the importance of user research and the benefits of involving diverse perspectives.

  2. Educating and training non-researchers 👩‍🏫: To effectively democratize UX research, providing education and training opportunities to non-researchers is crucial. This training helps team members and stakeholders understand the research process, methodologies, and best practices, enabling them to contribute meaningfully and make informed decisions based on user insights.

  3. Defining research roles and responsibilities 🧑‍💻: Clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of different team members involved in the research process is essential. Research experts are crucial in guiding and supporting non-researchers, ensuring that team members conduct research activities ethically and rigorously.

  4. Collaborative research planning 👫: Democratizing UX research involves non-researchers in the research planning stage. UXRs conduct collaborative sessions to define research goals, select appropriate methodologies, and determine the scope and timeline of research activities.

  5. Sharing research findings and insights 🗂️: Openly sharing research findings and insights across teams is critical to democratizing UX research. Regular communication channels, such as presentations, reports, and workshops, disseminate research findings and encourage discussion and knowledge-sharing among team members.

  6. Iterative and inclusive decision-making ☺️: Democratizing UX research emphasizes the importance of diverse perspectives in the decision-making process. Research insights are considered alongside other factors, such as business goals, technical feasibility, and design considerations, to inform product decisions and prioritize future research initiatives.

  7. Feedback and continuous improvement 🏋️‍♀️: Democratizing UX research relies on a feedback-driven approach. UXRs must establish regular feedback loops to gather input from all stakeholders involved in the research process, enabling continuous improvement and refinement of research practices.

The level of democratization can vary across organizations and projects. Some organizations may start with small-scale initiatives, gradually increasing involvement over time, while others may adopt a more comprehensive approach from the outset.

The key to democratization is to balance inclusivity and thorough research, leveraging teams' collective knowledge and expertise while upholding ethical standards and maintaining the quality of research insights.

Benefits of Democratizing UX Research

Democratizing UX research can benefit organizations and teams aiming to involve a broader range of stakeholders in the research process.

Increased access to research insights for cross-functional teams

Democratizing UX research allows cross-functional teams to access and leverage research insights directly. This access facilitates a shared understanding of user needs and challenges, enabling teams to make more informed decisions and design user-centric solutions.

Empowering non-researchers to contribute to the research process

Democratizing UX research empowers non-researchers, such as product managers or designers, to actively participate in research activities. This inclusion fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility for user research, encourages collaboration, and ensures UX teams consider diverse perspectives.

Accelerating research velocity and scalability

Democratizing UX research enables organizations to conduct research activities concurrently with a broader pool of contributors, reducing bottlenecks and accelerating the research process. This collaborative effort enables faster and more scalable research initiatives, gathering insights efficiently and iterating on designs with shorter feedback loops.

Cultivating a user-centric culture across the organization

Democratizing UX research promotes a user-centric culture by involving various stakeholders in the research process. This user-centered mindset cultivates empathy for users and a deeper understanding of their needs, leading to better products and services. It encourages collaboration, breaks down silos, and fosters a sense of shared responsibility for delivering exceptional user experiences.

Challenges of Democratizing UX Research 😰

Maintaining thorough research and quality

The danger of democratization is that people who are not properly upskilled go off and do research, gathering bad data and coming to inaccurate conclusions, i.e. they know just enough to be dangerous.Anna LoparevSenior User Experience Researcher at New Relic, Inc.Maintaining thorough research and quality in a democratized approach presents a challenge that requires active oversight to uphold research standards.

With multiple contributors involved, it is crucial to establish clear guidelines, standardize research practices, and conduct thorough quality checks to maintain the integrity and reliability of the research findings.

Balancing speed and agility with the risk of compromising research validity

Balancing speed and agility with the risk of compromising research validity poses a challenge in democratized UX research. While democratization aims to expedite the research process, there is a potential trade-off between quick turnaround and maintaining research robustness. Striking the right balance involves:

  • Establishing streamlined workflows.

  • Leveraging efficient research tools.

  • Implementing rigorous validation processes to ensure the validity of insights.

Ensuring proper training and education for non-researchers

Ensuring non-researchers involved in the process receive proper training and education is essential to mitigate challenges in democratized UX research.

Equipping non-researchers with the knowledge and skills required to contribute effectively helps them understand research methodologies, interpret data, and follow best practices, enabling them to make valuable contributions.

Addressing potential biases and misinterpretations

Addressing potential biases and misinterpretations in data analysis and synthesis presents a critical challenge in democratized UX research. When multiple individuals are involved in data analysis and synthesis, there is a risk of personal biases and subjective interpretations influencing the outcomes.

To overcome this challenge, the Research Ops team must establish clear protocols, implement rigorous quality control measures, and foster a collaborative and open dialogue to ensure a more objective and accurate analysis.

Ethical considerations and data privacy

Research done by people who are not researchers is going to be worse than if a professional researcher did it; mistakes are guaranteed and can lead to confusion, bad decisions, and even legal problems.David TangDesign Research Manager at Capital OneEthical considerations and data privacy are critical in democratized UX research efforts. With increased access to user data and the involvement of multiple contributors, prioritizing ethical practices, obtaining informed consent, and protecting user privacy throughout the research process are essential.

Organizations must establish robust data governance frameworks, adhere to legal and ethical guidelines, and implement safeguards to maintain the confidentiality and anonymity of research participants' data.

Signs Your Organization Might Benefit From UX Research Democratization

Limited research capacity

According to an NN Group study, the average researcher-designer-developer ratio is 1:5:50—one researcher to 5 designers to 50 developers. 

In a Medium piece for UX Collective, David Tang outlines why, "The reason that research teams are so thin is that one 'unit' of research tends to support, inform, and enable a broader swath of other work."

If the demand for user research outpaces the ability of dedicated UX researchers to provide it, this could be a sign that the company could benefit from democratizing UX research. This situation can arise in small teams or startups where there may be no dedicated UX researchers or in larger organizations where the UX team is stretched thin.

Lack of user-centric decision making

If your company makes decisions without adequate user input or designs products without proper user testing, democratizing UX research could be the solution. Involving more people in the research process ensures that user insights inform a higher proportion of decisions.

Need for cross-functional collaboration

One approach to democratization is essentially a structured form of cross-team collaboration, bringing stakeholders along for the research ride.David TangDesign Research Manager at Capital OneIf you aim to break down silos and encourage cross-functional collaboration in your company, democratizing UX research can help. Involving more people in user research creates more opportunities for teams to collaborate and share insights.

Interest in research from non-researchers

If people in non-research roles show interest in conducting user research, this could be a sign that the company could benefit from democratization. This interest could come from designers, developers, product managers, or other roles.

Need for rapid iteration and learning

If your company operates in a fast-paced environment that requires quick learning and iteration, democratizing UX research can be beneficial. Enabling more people to conduct research allows you to gather user insights more quickly and adapt products based on these insights.

What UXRs Say About Democratizing UX Research

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"I often hear from researchers this insecurity about democratization. 'Am I going to be replaced? By teaching other people this skill, am I still going to be valuable to the organization?' I think that's what we're really tiptoeing around. And I think it's worth taking a step back and asking, 'What are our unique skill sets that we bring to the organization—that we have had so much time and training on, and have developed thoughtfulness around?' One aspect of that is that we're really comfortable with ambiguity." Rannie Teodoro, Head of UX Design at Coupang (Seoul, Korea) via dscout.

"Most of us need a much more creative and holistic view on our roles as researchers. We're not just people who talk to customers or do surveys. We help people make better decisions. And there are infinite ways for you to do that in an organization, do the one that works best for you. And it's okay if that doesn't work for other people, because they're in different companies at different sizes, working on different things." Behzod Sirjani, Founder of Yet Another Studio (Seattle, United States) via dscout.

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