Will Democratization of User Research Improve the User Experience?

The recent "democratization" movement has left many UX researchers feeling confused (and concerned) about how to best promote high-quality research practices across their team. We want to help demystify the process.

4 mins read

The “democratization of user research” sounds bold, but what does it really mean? 

To borrow every UX researcher’s favorite answer: It depends. Everyone interprets the phrase differently.

Curiosity Tank Founder Michele Ronsen s a research practitioner and educator ho aims to demystify the research practice and help companies at all stages of their user research journey.

She knows that building a culture of user research is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach. She shared some of her best advice during Marvin’s recent event, “Democratizing User Research: Risks & realities from the front lines.”

What is the Definition of User Research Democratization?

User research democratization means different things to different companies and teams.

It’s defined after taking into account the goals, measures of success, support models and guardrails of the organization in question. Michele described the three main challenges her research clients face – Efficiency, Effectiveness & Inclusivity.

To tackle these, she outlined three overarching goals of any research democratization initiative:

  1. Demystify the research process – It begins with identifying what is user research and what isn’t. A demarcation between what can be achieved and what can’t. A clear line in the sand. Research is a discipline that requires continual learning, digesting and applying. This iterative cycle is key to what Michele dubs the “crawl-walk-run” approach — where hands-on practice of conducting research is imperative. 
  1. Make user research more inclusive – helping non-researchers improve the intake process and their ask, so that when they approach the research team, requests are more focused and strategic. Michele advised a “train the trainer” program (research deputy program) where a non-researcher shadows a researcher for three months. They co-pilot two or three studies before non-researchers can carry out their own studies.
  1. Foster better decision-making – focused on empowering people to answer their own evaluative questions. Go through the existing question bank and identify what type of question each is (leading, generative, double-barreled etc). This helps everyone ask better questions in the future and leads to less biased decisions and results.  

Michele sees a common theme emerge: a newfound respect for researchers and their craft.

“Not only are we demystifying the process, but we’re demonstrating that it’s difficult, complex and very nuanced. There’s a lot of soft (and) hard skills. There’s a lot of technical and ethical considerations and cultural differences. It’s not necessarily a goal — just a result, a byproduct of it,” she said. 

Training Non-Researchers to Conduct User Research

“There’s far more questions than there are trained researchers to handle all the questions,” Michele said. 

A perennial problem. More people conducting uninformed research is not a good idea (more on this below). Can equipping non-researchers with certain skills lessen the burden? 

“UX is a team sport. The more people that can speak my language, the better,” she said. 

During her talk, Michele used a food metaphor that made us hungry, but more importantly drove her point home. 

We like to think of research as the nutrition that feeds an organization, so we’ll stick with her example. She cautioned that research training can range from teaching people how to “make a Cup O’ Noodles to cooking a soufflé.” A Cup O’ Noodles education involves teaching people foundational research — asking effective research questions and tying studies to overall organizational goals. 

What about the soufflé? The complexity of the research practice means mastery isn’t likely to be achieved in 30, 60 or 90 days. 

“Our industry, our craft requires application, learning, mentorship and handholding,” she said. 

It’s implausible to create chefs capable of cooking a soufflé, but we can create sous-chefs or prep cooks who aid the process, making it easier and faster to conduct the research.

Michele gave us a few tips on how to get sous-chefs involved in research and get their hands dirty. 

Five Tips for Non-Researchers to Conduct User Research

  • Observe sessions 
  • Take notes – introduce them to note-taking frameworks
  • Participate in data analysis & synthesis workshops
  • Identify demographic criteria before conducting studies
  • Conduct secondary research – comb the archives to find out existing knowledge

A great teacher needs to meet the learners where they are, assess and discuss their needs, and tailor a program based on their goals and stage of their journey.

Speak a Common UX Research Language

Our terminology has evolved dramatically over time. The 2022 Oxford Word of the Year was “goblin mode.”

[Insert face-in-hand emoji]

Jokes aside, with the growth of research as a practice, definitions and phrases are vague, vary widely, and have increased in complexity.

This can be observed in HR and recruitment too. Do we need a Data Analyst or User Researcher? A quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods researcher? Confusion between UI and UX is still highly prevalent.

“It became clear to me after many confusions and misunderstandings that we have a cluster of terminology,” Michele said.

Michele and her colleague decided to create a UX research lexicon to spark healthy conversation about particular phrases with the user research community.

It is an accessible, comprehensive and helpful glossary of research terms and definitions. At the beginning, they crowdsourced answers to garner thoughts from people of various disciplines.

Create User Research Guardrails

More research does not equal better research.

When studies aren’t conducted correctly or the right people aren’t asked the right questions in the right way, it poses risk to organizations. One recent example? Many major tech companies saw major blows to their reputations when investigations revealed racial and gender bias in their AI algorithms. 

“Doing research carries a lot of responsibility, as the business is making decisions off this data,” said Michele.

Decisions taken based on skewed studies expose companies to financial and resource risk, as precious time, money and resources are wasted. To mitigate such risks, firms must introduce guardrails.

Guardrails act as protection for the company, its decision makers and employees who haven’t conducted research before. These guardrails can be as simple as making it a requirement that seasoned researchers act as the gatekeepers on new studies. Firms can assign an experienced research buddy to work with a new researcher or UX designer on their first three projects.

How to Democratize User Research at Your Own Company

Everyone benefits from hearing the customer’s voice. We recommend you factor this in whenever you build out a new UX research strategy.

So where should you begin your user research democratization process? 

Michele offered simple parting advice:

“Talk with your colleagues and have a conversation about what the goal is. Once you have goals (even if they aren’t good goals), at least you’re starting to evaluate whether or not this is something you want to pursue, and if so, what it might look like.”

Check out our highlight reel to see top advice from Democratizing User Research: Risks & realities from the front lines.

Photo by Matt & Chris Pua on Unsplash

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