UX Research Rumble: Research Democratization

A UX Researcher’s Guild Online Event
Moderated by Danielle Green and Jess Vice
This abridged version was written by Booker Harrap. View the full video presentation here.
Session 1 – May 12, 2023

We’ve all heard the buzzword: “research democratization” – the idea of distributing research responsibilities among team members who are not researchers. But is it a strategy that everyone should adopt? Salt Lake City-based researchers Danielle Green and Jess Vice posed this question in an informative and professional discussion. Here are some comments from that event.

“To be good at UX, you need to have empathy and compassion.  If we democratize that, we’ll all do better work and live better lives.”
– Anonymous UX Researcher

For as long as UX Research has existed, the question has been asked, “Who should conduct it?” The term “research democratization” is used to describe the practice of enabling non-researchers to perform research studies. Democratization can amplify the impact of research efforts, and allow teams to meet their research goals. However, allowing inexperienced team members to conduct tests comes with challenges. Below is a summary of the recent “Research Rumble” event where 35 UX professionals were asked to weigh in on the topic. 

In Support of Research Democratization

Multiplying Research Output:

“If you are organized and tactical, allowing you to oversee their research with minimal involvement, you can accomplish more.”
– Research Rumble Attendee

Let’s face it, there are always more research requests than resources. Delegating tactical research activities like usability testing to designers or other team members allows experienced researchers to focus on more strategic endeavors. By removing researchers as the bottleneck, time is saved. Researchers are then free to contribute to high-stakes projects, providing greater business value.

Amplifying Research Impact:

“Research democratization can help propagate the impact of research.”
– Research Rumble Attendee

When stakeholders feel ownership over research findings, it increases user empathy and buy-in. Additionally, stakeholders bring different perspectives and diverse skill sets, which can contribute to well-rounded data over time. This collaborative approach can result in a more comprehensive understanding of users and a more user-focused design process.

Improving Existing Practices:

It’s inevitable–team members outside of the research team are going to talk to users. Rather than spend our energy working against the process, it may be better for researchers to train PMs, designers, and other team members on best practices for gathering valid user feedback.  

Preparing for the Worst

“Research democratization is good planning because if the company has to downsize, it’s good to have some people with training in some research methods.”
– Research Rumble Attendee

This may not seem like a very friendly thought to researchers who want to protect their jobs, but research democratization is a safeguard from a business perspective. Having different team members with research experience ensures that some research capabilities remain within the organization, even when researchers quit or teams are restructured.

Against Research Democratization

Reducing Research Quality:

“Sometimes stakeholders, especially PM’s, just use [research] to validate their own ideas, introducing bias into the research… No data is better than garbage data.”
– Research Rumble Attendee

“Non-researcher research often requires researchers to come in and essentially do their work for them anyways because they didn’t get good data.”
– Research Rumble Attendee

There is a difference between conducting research and extracting valuable insights. One of the greatest assets of a trained researcher is their understanding of the myriad sources of bias, enabling them to design and execute tests that yield accurate data. Their training in experimental design and data analysis means their insights are more likely to reflect reality than delusions based on our assumptions. This objectivism is enhanced by a lack of direct involvement in product design. Conversely, stakeholders are often attached to their designs, feature ideas, or user assumptions. This can lead to research that only confirms what we think we know. Research projects conducted by untrained researchers are at a higher risk of returning useless or inaccurate insights, leaving researchers to repeat the trope: “No data is better than bad data.”

Investing in Operational Tools:

“As an organization gets larger it gets harder to find a balance between systemically coordinated efforts and lean factors.”
– Research Rumble Attendee

“You can only hope that the systems [you put into place] will be utilized by non-researchers doing research.”
– Research Rumble Attendee

To make research democratization successful, non-researchers must have access to appropriate tools and support systems to conduct research effectively and efficiently, and they also have to buy into using these tools and systems (which is not always a simple task). This delegation also creates a workload of instruction and oversight on the part of the researchers. Sometimes, researchers are forced to redo the work of untrained team members, which wastes time. Another important note on this topic is the general and unavoidable difficulty with finding a balance between structured process and agile research, especially in larger organizations.

Recruiting Mishaps:

“Non-researchers may not always have the patience to really recruit properly.”
– Research Rumble Attendee

Impatience, lack of research expertise, and failure to coordinate across teams can lead to recruiting the wrong users or over-recruiting the same users. Recruiting the wrong users invalidates the findings, and over-recruiting the same users can lead to skewed data or annoyed customers.

Sacrificing Other Tasks:

“Where is the extra time coming from?”
– Research Rumble Attendee

One way or another, research takes time. When designers or Product Managers are asked to conduct research, it takes time away from their work. This can lead to situations where, say in the case of a designer, you could wind up with lower-quality designs and lower-quality research.

Endangering Job Security:

Any time we teach other people how to do our jobs, we may be putting our own jobs at risk. More on this below.

Final Thoughts:

Most researchers agree that democratization is not appropriate for high-level strategic research. But for tactical research with lower risk, it might be the perfect fit. It depends on the circumstances, but on most teams, there are non-researchers who are capable of conducting valuable tests (perhaps with a little guidance). If the tools, operations, and oversight are available, you can accomplish more by democratizing research.

As a final thought,  let’s address the issue of job security. If anyone can conduct research, why keep specialized researchers on the payroll? In a recent article by Judd Antin, titled “The UX Research Reckoning is Here” the author states that UX Researchers are losing their jobs because they are not providing business value. He argues that researchers are wasting time on vague, foundational research projects and end up delivering findings that aren’t clearly actionable. Researchers can’t see the forest for the trees – they miss supporting business goals on their zealous missions to understand the user. This isn’t necessarily fair to researchers; this dynamic is often due to systemic issues in company leadership, leaving them cut off from the information and resources needed to inform these high-stakes decisions. Nonetheless, there is a valid point here: researchers need to provide business value. If researchers can focus bandwidth on research that reduces the risk of costly business ventures, it becomes easy to justify in-house researchers as specialized team members. It could be that, by enabling designers and product managers to conduct tests for lower-risk projects, researchers are actually better able to protect their jobs in the long run.

. . .

About Danielle Green (she/her): Danielle is a product and UX professional specializing in research and strategy (high growth, product-market fit). She is an Instructor and mentor with eight years in product, and five years leading teams. As a professor of practices at Claremont Graduate University, Danielle teaches the core courses for the User Experience MA in Applied Cognitive Psychology. She is also the founder and director of the Claremont UXR Laboratory (claremontuxrlab.com), a graduate student lab for UX Research, and has extensive experience in many domains, such as: e-commerce, SaaS, Edtech, Virtual Reality, and hardware.

About Jess Vice (they/them): Jess loves working with people and is curious and excited to understand what drives them to make decisions. Jess offers a deep background in qualitative and quantitative research, user experience best practices, and high-level strategic planning and is particularly good at making meaning from research and using it to create data-informed strategies for creative and development teams. Jess is also intensely aware that the first point of contact is always the internal teams they work with — if a relationship is not built on trust, they know they won’t be a successful researcher and strategist. Jess has been working in marketing and advertising, CRO, SaaS, and product for over 14 years, and is consistently thrilled with how much more there is to learn.

About Booker Harrap (he/him): Booker recently graduated with a master’s degree in UX Research from Claremont Graduate University. He is currently a UX Researcher with Atticus Capital and is working with the Games & Interactive Technology Lab on an emotional wellness program for middle school students using gamified mobile applications. Booker is actively seeking employment opportunities in UX research. For more information,  please send an email to hire@uxrguild.com.

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Session 3 – How Important are Quant Skills to UX Research?
Session 4 – AI in UX Research
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