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Ward Off Democratization Scaries with 4 Helpful Steps

Sometimes democratization is the only option with teams strapped for resources and time. Learn how to make it better for everyone.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Allison Corr

Democratization has become a hot topic among UX researchers—but its benefits and efficacy can quickly become controversial.

A debate about democratization can be just as heated, if not more, than one about personas or Jobs to be Done. There is a spectrum that people sit on when it comes to democratization—from believing that we should never let others conduct user research to thinking colleagues should be empowered to conduct as much user research as possible.

My past experiences with democratization have not been stellar, causing me to lean more on the side of caution. I've allowed those experiences to make me more defensive than I'd like to admit. While I don't think I can write an unbiased piece about democratization, what I'd like to do is help those who were in similar positions as I was.

You might not fully believe in democratization, but you might not have a choice. So how do you ensure that your democratization practice is positive and goes smoothly in this position?

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Where did democratization come from?

Democratization is a buzzword. Like any other buzzword, we can use it without much thought or shared understanding. For example, you could tell a colleague you want to democratize research, which means they will take on the responsibility of a user researcher for their projects. What you mean is that they will be setting up basic usability tests.

Before we dive into understanding what democratization can mean for us, we need to know where it came from.

Democratization (in any form, not just concerning user research) was born out of a need for speed. Deadlines became too short, and budgets too small. Often, there wasn't money to spend on a user researcher, or the rigorous research process or researchers didn't have time to juggle all their projects.

With this, user research became more and more impossible, but we were still proving its value. Colleagues still wanted user research for their projects (and rightly so) but couldn't always get it. This then led to a "doing" movement in user research.

If the researcher doesn't have time to conduct research, let the product manager, designer, developer, market researcher, account manager (and all other roles) do it.

This change is where the democratization of user research got skewed and has been ever since.

Now that we understand where democratization came from, how do we make a move in a more positive direction?

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Democratization can allow many perspectives to come together creatively and tackle a problem. It does not have to mean other people doing user research.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier
Founder, UX Academy

Step 1: Redefine democratization

Creating a shared definition and understanding of democratization in your organization is one of the best ways to start this practice. Unfortunately, since democratization can already have such a negative connotation—for researchers and our colleagues—it’s important to redefine what it means to you.

Democratization, as it stands, holds many misconceptions. As mentioned above, democratization is known as nonresearchers learning and doing user research.

Many user researchers get upset about this (at least, I have) because we see this as demeaning and devaluing our craft. Colleagues ask us if they can do interviews after watching one or two. Or we have three hours to teach someone how to run a usability test. Many of the skills we have taken years to hone are condensed into an afternoon workshop.

Not only is this degrading to a researcher, but it has also led to the decline of the user research field. If we don't conduct quality research, the result is poor decision-making. Then, why even conduct research in the first place if it doesn't lead to better results?

It's a great question. The problem is that quality piece. And first comes a redefinition.

Instead of teaching others to conduct user research, democratization is best as an educational and collaborative exercise.

Democratization of user research is opening up the process to include your colleagues. It means they are part of the end-to-end process:

  • Planning the project and problem definition
  • Helping to define the goals
  • Observing sessions and assisting with administrative bits (if possible)
  • Coming together for the synthesis
  • Articulating what they need so the researcher can help put together the best information
  • Taking part in ideation sessions

Democratization can allow many perspectives to come together creatively and tackle a problem. It does not have to mean other people doing user research.

Now, whenever I set up a democratization practice, I ensure this is the first step I take toward success. Once my colleagues and I have a shared understanding of what democratization will look like, it’s easier to get them involved.

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Surveys and unmoderated tests are a great place to start if you have to democratize. These two methods allow for essential communication and data from users, with a more limited possibility of bad outcomes.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier
Founder, UX Academy

Step 2: Carefully teach what makes sense

I see a lot of organizations mandate or force colleagues to learn user research. In tech and product, product managers and designers are often told the importance of speaking with customers. The industry expects them to be in front of customers and test solutions.

It's incredibly stressful for people in these roles if they cannot do that. However, the researchers who find themselves needing to democratize are usually time-poor. They don't have the time to do all the studies in their backlog, so they also don't have time to educate and teach correctly.

What do you do when you are in this situation and need to teach people how to conduct user research?

Whenever I've tackled this, it's been in two phases:

  1. Educating colleagues about user research in general
  2. Creating templatized user research

✔ Educate colleagues on general UXR

When colleagues don't understand the goals of user research and what types of questions it can answer, they might use it poorly.

Education on general best practices is a great way to better your user research democratization practice. When people understand what projects make sense with user research, how to set projects up for success, and why they conduct research, democratization goes much more smoothly.

I start the education process through a regular (usually monthly) presentation to those who are new and an intake process to require people to think through research project requests.

✔ Create templatized user research

I started by saying we should never teach people user research, but sometimes we can't help it. For instance, if your colleague needs to run a survey, you should empower them to do that in the best way possible.

Choose basic and straightforward methods to democratize—those you can create easy templates or best practice sheets with.

For instance, I tend to teach colleagues how to write great user research-focused surveys. Then, before they send them out, I look them over, give feedback, and work together on any improvements.

I also try to democratize unmoderated usability tests, although this takes more work and is less templatable. However, surveys and unmoderated tests are a great place to start if you have to democratize. These two methods allow for essential communication and data from users, with a more limited possibility of bad outcomes.

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Step 3: Find those who want to go deeper

Some of your colleagues will love user research. I know several product managers I used to work with who have become user researchers over time. If a colleague is deeply interested in learning and they have the time, this is an excellent opportunity to take your democratization to the next level.

Whenever I've done this, I've set up an in-depth training program for the person, which includes steps like:

  • Multiple sessions to break down the methodology. Usually, these are bi-weekly and dive deep into the different phases of a topic (Ex: goals, how to write questions, how to synthesize, etc.)
  • Practice sessions in between. I ask the person to practice between the above sessions so we can review their work. For instance, if someone wants to learn 1x1 interviewing, I have them practice with other colleagues, friends, or even family members. We then review the sessions, and I give feedback.
  • They shadow me. The person has to follow several sessions before they go on their own. After each session, they send me a breakdown of how the session went and how I could have improved the session.
  • I shadow them (internally and externally). After they practice and observe my sessions, I watch them conduct two internal research interviews and two external interviews with participants. After each session, we discuss how it went and how they can improve.
  • Repeat, if necessary. If you've ever taken a break from research sessions, coming back can be challenging. If the colleague has spent some time away from research (about two months or more), I have them repeat a few observations and shadow a few of their sessions to ensure everything's on track.

Not everyone will want to learn methodologies. You might have colleagues who wish to become better notetakers or workshop facilitators. I don't go through as rigorous of a process as above, but I do try to give them ample opportunity.

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Step 4: Have eyes on everything (and require people to rewatch)

Finally, whenever possible, make sure more than one person is looking over a research plan or interview script.

Also, one fundamental change I made was requiring my colleagues to watch their research sessions. I gave them an assessment sheet, which they filled out, and presented back to me. Together, we highlighted areas of improvement for them.

A democratization practice does not mean that nonresearchers are conducting research. There are many ways to include people in your process and ensure the best experience for everyone.

As a user research team of one, I couldn't create more time in the day or hours in the week. I didn't want to burn out as I had before. Juggling so many projects became too tricky to the point where I used the wrong script. I had no other choice but to democratize user research—and I know many others are in the same position.

By offering more thoughtful training and pinpointing the best types of projects for less experienced colleagues, you have the opportunity to reduce many common challenges that can come with democratization.

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Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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