What Is Democratizing Research and How To Make It Work For You

Discover what research democratization is and isn’t and how it can make your organization more customer-centric and successful.


There’s been a lot of buzz in the user research world about user research democratization. Let’s explore what it is and isn’t the pros and cons, and things to consider when democratizing your research approach. 

What is user research democratization?

In simplest terms, user research democratization means making it possible and acceptable for anyone in an organization, regardless of role, to conduct user research. 

This idea is likely to anger many researchers. After all, research takes training and special expertise, and they may worry that democratizing it will put them out of work. But that’s not the case. So before you click away from this article, let’s look at what research democratization is not.

Democratization of research does not mean handing over the practice of research to everyone in your organization and eliminating the specialized research role. 

In fact, when a company democratizes research, its researchers will need to do even more work. They will need to create a curriculum and train, evaluate and collaborate with non-researchers. Plus, there will still be situations where professional researchers are solely responsible for conducting research or for aspects of research. 

Not only that, but there is no one way to democratize research. There are different levels of democratization—all of which rely on professional researchers. 

User research democratization has many benefits, but there are things to consider as well. Let’s take a look.

User research democratization creates a more user-centric organization

To understand the “why” behind research democratization, let’s first examine traditional research. 

At the kick-off of a research project, stakeholders define the research objectives and the questions that need answers. Then the researcher takes over. The researcher conducts the research. Some stakeholders might observe, but often they don’t, or they only observe some of the research. The researcher analyzes the findings, prepares the report, and provides it to the stakeholders. How much of the report is read and digested by the team? Who knows? 

The traditional research method makes it difficult to be sure team members truly understand the results. In fact, traditional research methods often result in the researchers gaining deep insight into the customers, while the rest of the team lags behind in understanding. 

And that doesn’t make any sense at all.

User research democratization, on the other hand, creates a more user-centric organization where every team member gains a deeper understanding of the customer. As an organization, not only do you better understand customers’ needs, wants and wishes, but you are better positioned to deliver on them. This will lead to more successful products that resonate with customers.

The pros and cons of user research democratization

Of course, research democratization comes with tradeoffs. There are pros and cons, benefits and risks. Organizations must explore these to understand whether democratization will truly benefit them, rather than cause harm. 

 

PROS/BENEFITS

CONS/RISKS

Builds respect for professional researchers’ skills and expertise.

Creates doubt or disrespect for researchers’ skills and expertise.

Creates enthusiasm for research and customer connection and understanding.

Brings potential bias, ethical questions, and overall lower research quality.

Promotes a deeper customer-centered culture and higher respect for research.

Potentially overwhelms researchers who must train and support non-researchers.

Shifts decision-making to a customer-intelligence-based approach across the organization.

Could potentially increase team workloads.

Providing research training adds knowledge and new skill sets to the team. 

Non-researcher research could result in negative participant experiences.

 

Research democratization is a double-edged sword. With each benefit comes a potential risk. But in the end, if you can successfully manage the cons, the pros will result in an organization that has deep, top-to-bottom insight into its customers, and is better positioned to meet their needs. 

There’s more than one way to democratize

Democratization is not one-size-fits-all. Once you have buy-in from your team on the general idea of research democratization, you will need to explore what level works best based on your needs.

IF YOUR ORGANIZATION NEEDS…

LEVEL OF DEMOCRATIZATION

…to keep pace with research demands.

High Level: Train non-researchers to conduct research.

…to drive deeper customer understanding and empathy.

Mid-Level: Involve team members in non-front-facing research tasks like notetaking.

… to encourage more insight-driven and customer-focused decision-making.

Low-Level: Increase team access to all research and data to shift to a customer-centric mindset.

Considerations for implementing user research democratization

There are many things to consider when implementing research democratization. Let’s take a look. 

Senior stakeholders should assess:

  • Need: Are you doing enough research to warrant implementing democratization? Is your team lacking in customer knowledge and empathy?
  • Readiness: Are research functions well-established in your organization? 
    • Resources: Democratization takes time, team power and money. Do you have the resources and are you willing to put them towards democratization?
  • Buy-in: Don’t attempt democratization without buy-in from the team. This is a major shift not just in research, but in culture as well. Be transparent about what democratization involves and the effect on team members’ workloads and the overall organization. Consider how to avoid dissatisfaction due to increased workloads.

Researchers should assess:

  • Necessary resources: As part of a democratization effort, researchers will need to take on new and more strenuous roles. They will need additional resources to be successful—operational, workforce, time and financial support to create a curriculum, templates and processes for a training program.
  • Roles: While researchers will be in a new role, they will still need to be solely responsible for some projects. They should be empowered to decide who does what, and this should be clearly communicated to all. 
  • Identifying potential researchers: Start with those who are already research-savvy. Then look at which roles will benefit the most from being involved in the research. There will be team members who are uncomfortable being in a front-facing research role. They can be involved in tangential research roles.
  • Training: Extensive training will be needed for non-researchers. Be honest about what the training involves and the required time commitment.

To assure the quality and integrity of research, training must include:

  • Anti-bias training: When non-researchers are very invested in a design, their tendency to influence responses through the way a question is asked increases. Even people who are aware of their bias can inadvertently influence responses without proper training.
  • Practice and assessment: Training should include a standardized method of assessing whether a non-researcher is ready to conduct research. Researchers can identify potential issues through shadowing and practice sessions.
  • Standardization: Prior to beginning training, standardize as many procedures and processes as possible so everyone is on the same page. 
  • Participant Care: Be transparent about how participant discussions and findings are shared. Protect participants’ personal information and emphasize 1) the importance of incentives for participation and 2) the necessity of treating participants with respect and appreciation.

While user research democratization is not easy or inexpensive, the benefits are worth it. Having an organization that deeply understands its customers brings success that will far outweigh the time, stress, and expense of implementing democratization.

Sources:

A Framework for Research Democratization by Amanda Nadya

https://uxdesign.cc/a-framework-for-research-democratization-ede51222bf75

What is The Democratization of User Research by Lucy Benton

https://dovetailapp.com/blog/what-is-the-democratization-of-user-research/

Scaling user research through democratization by James Vinn

https://dovetailapp.com/blog/scaling-user-research-through-democratization/

The Right Way to Democratize UX Research by Robin Beers, PhD

https://www.wevoconversion.com/the-right-way-to-democratize-ux-research/

Democratize User Research in 5 Steps by by Kara Pernice

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/democratize-user-research/




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