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What is the democratization of user research?

Holding up the shared brain.
16 November 2021
Sean BruceLucy Denton

We’re all aware that the demand for research insights far outstrips the capacity of full-time UX researchers to deliver them. One suggested solve for this problem is the scaling of user research by “democratizing” research activities.

To help us understand the changing nature of the research profession and the practical benefits and applications of research democratization, we spoke with Dovetail’s Product Design Lead Lucy Denton who has years of experience working in highly customer-centric product teams.

What is the democratization of research?

The definition of democratization is murky at best. At a very high level, it means engaging stakeholders in the research process. This could be through observation, collaboration, or training. The extent to which stakeholders actually run research projects themselves is a hot area of debate.

Some groups advocate for training stakeholders to run their own evaluative testing. The idea is that by “offloading” more granular research tasks, full-time researchers will have more capacity to focus on strategic research that yields higher impact for the organization. This approach isn’t without its detractors. On one end, researchers believe this threatens to dilute the craft. On the other, thought leaders like Jared Spool don’t believe this kind of training yields the desired impact. Spool, for example, believes democratizing research activities in this way only offloads unpleasant or repetitive tasks to stakeholders who stand to gain very little real customer insight (check out his full opinion on the matter here).

Perhaps a more nuanced approach is simply considering the democratization of research as a structured approach to transforming an organization’s culture. By equipping everybody with the right knowledge and tools and providing opportunities to interface with customers in a formal way, democratization allows stakeholders to gain a deeper understanding of the customers they serve.

The changing role of research

One approach to democratization argues that in mature organizations, user researchers could add research enablement to their activities, helping to lead a research-driven, evidence-led culture.

Dovetail’s Product Design Lead Lucy Denton sees this shift as similar to the evolution of designers in product team. And there are distinct parallels between the changing nature of both roles that can help us better understand the direction research is headed and perhaps guide researchers looking to have more impact in their organizations.

“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,” says Lucy.

The role of the designer evolved as design professionals began to seek a greater stake in the strategic decision-making processes of the business, says Lucy. “I see it as part of a researcher’s job to enable people in the organization to do their own learning with customers and scale that function and build a user-centered organization and product.”

In this way, “democratization” is more about research professionals driving a customer-centric culture powered by high-quality research. It’s less about offloading repetitive tasks and more about closing the customer understanding gap in organizations.

Scaling user research through democratization

A guide towards greater customer understanding

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.

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.

The way forward, towards a democratized approach to research, will require researchers to lead with the provision of ResearchOps, research systems, and guidelines for best practice and benchmarking for their teams to follow and learn from.

Good researchers will open up their methodologies and educate their teams on what good research is (here’s a hint: it’s not just “having conversations.”)

“Enabling product managers, designers, engineers, and business operations people to better understand the purpose of research and how it’s conducted really helps,” says Lucy. “I think the best way to do that is to involve those key people in the research process, led by the researcher.”

A new way to convey customer insights

As research knowledge becomes un-siloed, the goal is to increase the pace of research and make research accessible across the organization.

In many organizations, traditional research work has typically followed the following formula:

  • Stakeholders are involved at the beginning of a research project.

  • They provide a brief with a set of questions they want answered.

  • Once the researcher completes her work, she presents stakeholders with a report.

“I think that’s a super inefficient way to learn about your customers,” says Lucy. “It’s tough to consume research in a long report format. You’re not able to continually guide the conversation to ensure stakeholders are getting the right insights.”

To make research more accessible and less report-driven, we come to the idea of a research repository—a central location or source of truth for all research insights and the evidence that backs them.

Current systems are too reliant on tribal knowledge, and researchers have become knowledge managers and librarians in their organizations, Lucy explains.

“If a researcher leaves, it’s really hard for designers, product managers, and business professionals within organizations to access knowledge, and I see the industry trying to figure out ways to make knowledge accessible to those roles—that’s what research repositories are aiming to do. There are a few different examples out there. It’s what Dovetail aims to do—to make research insights self-service so that if you were a designer and you wanted to learn about a particular topic, you could go to a place and search through what is already known.”

Changing the culture around research

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—is what the industry is working towards.

What’s required to make this change, among other things, is a cultural shift away from researchers as siloed guardians of knowledge towards facilitators and enablers of research for their team.

Of course, this doesn’t mean researchers will stand by and push stakeholders to drive the research process. As Lucy commented, “We’ve talked about product managers and designers running their own research, but of course, researchers still run research.”

Though difficult to achieve, particularly in larger organizations, the benefits of enhanced connections between stakeholders and customers that democratization of research can bring will increasingly be the magic ingredient that defines the success of an organization.

“As technology becomes more table stakes, the differentiator for a product becomes related to design and customer insight,” explains Lucy. “It’s more and more important for these decision-makers to understand customers so they can create a product tailored to their needs. Otherwise, those customers will go somewhere else. I think these roles are looking to research to enable their decision-making. That’s where the benefit really is.”

Art by Ben Jomo, illustrator.

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