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9 Pillars of a Successful Research Democratization

Increasingly, non-researchers are looking for insights and talking to customers. We can't always control it, but we can help shape responsible democratization practices that move our companies forward.

Words summarized by Mac Hasley, Visuals by Emi Tolibas

As user researchers, what responsibilities do we have? What can we uniquely do? What is our real job?

Maybe these questions sound abstract—but their answers have real, tangible implications for the way we operate within, and provide value to, our companies.

As organizations grow in their appetite for human insights and their desire to make more user-centered decisions, researchers’ goals and capabilities are changing. Increasingly, “just doing research” is less mission critical than making sure company-wide insights are gathered productively, and responsibly.

We talked with Behzod Sirjani (Yet Another Studio), Rannie Teodoro (Thumbtack), and Roy Opata Olende (Zapier) about what productive, responsible, and effective research democratization looks like today.

They gave us actionable advice for how we can demonstrate our value, transform our roles, train our teams, and better shape essential company decisions.

This is an abridged recap of our recent panel discussion. You can stream that full conversation, on-demand, here.

Know what your org needs, and when it needs you.

Behzod: I would imagine that most people are not very attuned to the way that most parts of their organizations make decisions, and the pace at which those decisions get made.

There are questions we need to answer in days and weeks and months and years. And most of the frustration, especially for early stage folks, is applying the wrong method or approach based on the speed of the decision that needs to be made. You end up with this mismatch of people trying to do really long research for something that needs to be made really quickly.

If you're bringing a method-forward or method-focused approach, you're often applying the wrong solution to the problem because it's something that they can't use.

We have to think about the organization's metabolism for information (do we need it in days, weeks, months, years?) but also an organizational appetite for research (what is it that we need to get done?).

And we have to think about whether people need answers or whether they need insights.

I think as a practice, researchers want to be focused on delivering insights and frameworks—pushing on knowledge, helping people make decisions better, and creating safe spaces where people can get answers. How can we let people talk to their customers and reduce that distance so they can get answers today to those short term, really well-scoped questions?

Rannie: I think there's a tendency to jump to solutions and say, "Hey, we need a researcher. We need designers. We need to answer these questions. So whoever can answer them, let's go after it and do it." And it's challenging, but we need to take a step back and say, "Okay, first things first, what are our real needs? What are the biggest questions?"

We have to have that conversation first and foremost, with the leaders within the organization, and to get aligned on where the biggest gaps are. I find that a lot of folks will just say, "Well, this is on fire. This is on fire. We just need to scramble to get it addressed. And we have a deadline or we're shipping this thing, or we need this net for the experiment." There's a sense of urgency. And I would push back on whether or not that's perceived versus real urgency.

What are the user's needs, what are the organization's needs, and where does that overlap?

Let's go after that and ask: are there opportunities within that space that we can immediately address and/or outsource? Or delegate to non-researchers when that's within their skillset?

Roy: I've seen user researchers struggle to apply the practice of research to what we do with companies. Whenever I hear discussion around "So and so doesn't want to do research” or “We need this resource or that resource," I step back and ask if we really understand the core problems.

We have to use skills we have as researchers and get to a point of really clear problem definition. If we can't define that problem well enough, then our key superpower is not being applied to our work, which is tragic.

The state of your company, the maturity of your company and your UX practice, what growth is looking like, what the full internal philosophy in the company looks like—that should shape our strategy.

We have to use skills we have as researchers and get to a point of really clear problem definition. If we can’t define that problem well enough, then our key superpower is not being applied to our work, which is tragic.

Roy Opata Olende

Democratization isn’t a threat, it’s a chance to show our unique strengths.

Rannie: I don't know if folks have ever chatted with non-researchers who are conducting research, but it tends to be a really big empathizing moment for non-researchers. They realize, "Holy shit, what you do is hard."

If anything, democratization has allowed us to advocate for more resources because non-researchers realize how much time and effort and intentionality is required in order to conduct these research studies.

I would also advocate for compartmentalizing the different aspects of democratization. Democratizing your process is different than saying anyone can go and do our research practice. 

We get stuck in this preciousness; we think, "It can only be a researcher who can speak to participants" or "It can only be a researcher who knows how to ask thoughtful questions." And I think you can separate skills out and train on and be thoughtful about educating different skill sets. Doing so will make our organization better. 

Meanwhile, we should hold onto what “gold standard” research looks like, and make sure we’re not taking that lightly.

Non-researchers will speak to users. It’s our job to set guardrails.

Behzod: A conversation with a customer is not a research interview, but in many organizations, both of those things are having an impact on product strategy.

So it's irresponsible of us not to recognize that and to do something about it. When I talk to folks who are thinking about democratizing, we have very early conversations about the quality bar.

How do you prevent customers from being exploited? How do you think about embedding intentional practices into your systems and processes so that there are these safe places for people to play within it?

At Slack, we have account leads who are doing research before they go onsite and train people. And it's actually disrespectful to our customers to see that different account managers are asking the same questions in different ways, and are trying to compare results. It's a hundred percent worth my effort and my team's effort to work with them, to standardize those questions, and think about how to be rigorous.

And in many cases it wins us more resources because we're not coming in and saying, "Y'all are totally wrong and we're just going to steamroll you into your jobs." We're saying, “We have a specific lens on how you're trying to accomplish something, and we want to respectfully and responsibly make those things better together.”

Because it’s not about if it’s about how and when. There’s this responsibility that we have because these things are happening all around us, whether we want to fight them or not.

Roy: I think there’s a difference between what we hope versus what's really happening. Product managers, designers, marketers—they're really making decisions right now about what to do next, whether you like it or not. That's part of their job. They have to make decisions. They have to make progress.

And so I think it's a question of, do we embrace the challenge of helping them learn in a better way and progressively make more customer-centered, user-centered decisions?

I think it’s worth taking a step back and asking, “What are our unique skill sets that we bring to the organization—that we have had so much time and training on, and have developed thoughtfulness around?”

Rannie Teodoro

Conducting research isn’t the only way we provide value.

Rannie: I often hear from researchers this insecurity about democratization. "Am I going to be replaced? By teaching other people this skill, am I still going to be valuable to the organization?" I think that's what we're really tiptoeing around.

And I think it’s worth taking a step back and asking, "What are our unique skill sets that we bring to the organization—that we have had so much time and training on, and have developed thoughtfulness around?" One aspect of that is that we're really comfortable with ambiguity.

We tend to be like, “Ooh, a mess. Do I dive in?" And we want to scope down the problem. We ask, "What is the question? Okay, what's the question to the question? Okay. What, why, how do you get there?" And then we get to the core.

We apply that to our research questions in our studies, but these are such transferable skills to utilize internally. We need to ask "Hey, what's the goal here? How are we thinking about this user pain point? How does this fit in and the overall roadmap, could you help me understand?" These are open-ended questions that I'm asking in a way that's neutral; I'm trying to triangulate with other teams' functions.

We can say, "Hey, I heard this thing from design, but I also heard this other thing from the PM. And then here's the data that I'm seeing from the analytics team. How are these pieces playing together?" If there isn't a solid answer, which often there isn't, it becomes our role as a neutral researcher to play a bit of a matchmaker and also to fill in the gaps say, "Okay, it seems this is where the biggest gap is, and let's go in and address that." And that's where we can conduct research.

So I do think that there's a lot of tying our unique skills and our training to educating our partners. Saying, "Hey, here's how to use me. Here's how to use us. Here's where we haven't had a skillset before, but here's where we have it today. And we will have even more of this if you hire more researchers who have this type of skill set.” A quantitative researcher is different from a market researcher. A market researcher is different from a qualitative ethnographer.

It’s part of our responsibility to help educate where those gaps need to be filled and how to fill them.

Behzod: Most of us need a much more creative and holistic view on our roles as researchers. We’re not just people who talk to customers or do surveys. We help people make better decisions.

And there are infinite ways for you to do that in an organization, do the one that works best for you. And it's okay if that doesn't work for other people, because they're in different companies at different sizes, working on different things.

Roy: I think UXR teams really need to understand the business. If you don't understand how this company makes money, then you don't understand how you can add value. And that's really important. It's where you add value. Understand how the product works. If you don’t understand how things work, build relationships so you start to understand. Without that context, you’re just firing blindly.

Then make further decisions about where you're going to focus. I'm really surprised by how many researchers I’ve talked to who have zero idea about how product teams make decisions.

Show, don’t tell, your stakeholders how good research works.

Behzod: At Facebook we had a walk, crawl, run approach. The first thing we would have them do, even before they came to the lab or into the field, is just have a conversation about what bias looks like—how we would ask questions and listen meaningfully in these conversations.

Then we’d discuss how to engage meaningfully and to ask questions. And then we might say something like, "Okay, we're actually going to let two or three of you help co-moderate, because there are specific things that you want to learn.”

From there we’d have a conversation about how to really listen, so they don’t sit in on one interview, or get one piece of feedback, and then totally pivot a product strategy.

Rannie: We were conducting research on the personalization of categories with trending news back at Facebook. And I was working with a PM and I was like, "Okay. So the question is, 'What are meaningful buckets of content for the user, for the consumer?'"

And he's like, "Yeah, that's what we're looking for. What are those buckets? What should those buckets be?"

So, I said, “We're just going to do a card-sorting exercise." And in his mind, he was like, "Wait, you're not going to show them the product?" I'm like, "Nope, we're not going to show them the product." I was like, "We're going to strip out the UI.”

And in his mind, he was very skeptical about this approach; he raised lots of concerns. And we had to have a conversation about what he’s going to look for when we have the sessions.

And after the first one, he was still skeptical—but after the second and third, he was completely onboard and could completely understand exactly why we were taking this approach. So yes, I think the heuristics that we have as researchers in terms of how to approach a complex or complicated problem space—that tool kit—is the benefit of that more sophisticated research training.

Most of us need a much more creative and holistic view on our roles as researchers. We’re not just people who talk to customers or do surveys. We help people make better decisions.

Behzod Sirjani

Take your first steps carefully.

Rannie: The first thing to do is define the sandbox. Understand what you are working with. And it goes back to the problem definition and understanding what constraints you have, what constraints you don't have, and what problems you're facing.

Prioritize those lists of problems and then really get crisp on that prioritization list and say, "Okay, what's a must have, what’s a nice to have, what’s a could live without…” Focus on the must have, and how to sequence those tasks in a way where, maybe you have one to two researchers on your team, they can focus on the big questions.

Give researchers the things you have to get 90% right. Maybe those concerns revolve around the core consumer segments. Maybe it’s the largest pain point in Q3 or Q4. And then maybe for those smaller tactical questions—where you can say, “We can get this 60% right, we'll experiment along the way”—you realize there doesn’t have to be a full researcher dedicated to this.

Once you define that sandbox, what exactly you're playing within, then you can build your castle. And if you could build that castle and feel really great about that foundation, you can build more effectively on top of that.

Establish thoughtful, and empowering, training practices.

Rannie: At Thumbtack, we were getting an endless amount of questions. And there were only three UXRs within the organization. We had to figure out, "How do we focus on the most complex questions and the most strategic questions, and uniquely use our skill sets towards those? How do we prioritize the bigger projects that can have larger amounts of impact without blocking cross-functional partnership on those smaller, tactical, quick asks that stakeholders need answered?"

So in terms of training, Thumbtack held workshops and they invited non-researchers and they could also tailor it depending on the audience. There could be one for customer sales and success managers on ways to ask really unbiased questions about the customer experience. 

Or for our non-researchers on the product design side, it was about getting really clear questions and protocols established for their needs. We’d roll play talking about different scenarios or features, and how they could go about asking a participant about them.

Roy: At Zapier, we’re in the middle of getting training up and running. When I came onboard, I introduced this thing called, “all-hands research ride-alongs,” so anyone in the company could jump into a research call and just observe. They're hidden from the participant and just an easy way for people to just get involved.

And so in kicking that off, we have a UX, all one-on-one training, which is just an “intro to research.” We also do in-depth observer training. Because there's also parts of the research that are very normal to us, but really, even jumping in on a call can be a really big deal.

Overall the way we’ve decided to do training is in modules. Usability testing is pretty big in our company, interviews are probably even bigger. So putting in place modules to train folks in these methods is a very active thing. Because all these folks come in with different levels of experience, training is important so we know where everyone sits.

Behzod: A number of organizations I've been a part of offer an “SQL 101” course, or some intro to analytics, where you can learn the syntax of SQL. You learn some of the canonical tables that people reference, and you by no means are expected to build models or dashboards. But when you need to understand how many people do X, Y or Z thing, there is a very simple set of commands that you can use in a safe pipeline, or that has been built for this explicit purpose.

And doing that actually helps me do my job better because instead of asking an analyst to go and do something that is incredibly low level for them, I'm able to get a quick answer and then continue on with my work.

And so I would push people to think about democratizing research, not as giving away the core responsibility, inviting people to participate in parts of that process that are meaningful and safe and valuable for them to understand.

All of us, I think, would like to be part of healthy teams that are working well together in service of whatever we’re doing. And I think democratization is a means to getting to that point.

Behzod Sirjani

Set aside time to be a resource.

Rannie: We’ve done two things at Thumbtack that I think have helped us guide teammates. One is, we hold research office hours. That allows for folks on our research team to advise on these smaller, quick asks, like, "Hey, can you give me some advice on this question?" or “I’m thinking about launching this survey, could I get some feedback on it?”

The other is a bit more intentional about who, how, and when folks can speak with or survey participants. Within our participant recruiting process, we have a research ops person. She basically gets all the requests through a form and that allows us to know who’s conducting research, who’s interacting with folks using our platform. It’s like a beaded curtain. You see the walkthrough, but you still have got to walk through us, and it allows us a checkpoint.

We can ask about how they came up with their number of participants, ask if there are any alternatives, look into their timeline, and educate on some of the intentionality that goes on behind decision making. And it builds a muscle and keeps our relationship going.

Behzod: I can't cosign office hours or that visibility enough. At Slack, I actually had complete oversight and control over who got to use Qualtrics. People had to read terms of use that I wrote that said, "You're not going to do a bunch of these things or else I'm going to take your access away.” But we also had office hours for exactly that reason because the entire point was to help make visible parts of our practice that are very often invisible.

The conversations we were having over and over again during office hours helped us design the curriculum of what we wanted to start teaching more regularly, because it was the conversations we were having over and over again that we realized we should actually standardize and scale.

And we were really lucky to have folks who had in prior worlds been doing research in some capacity. And so office hours allowed us to say, "Oh, look, you actually can write a really beautiful discussion guide. And you're an incredible moderator. You just need to think more structurally about recruiting. Let's help you do that. And in fact, great, we've templatized all of these things, let's help you.”

Acknowledge that research still involves risks and costs.

Roy: There is a risk involved in democratizing research. You can get to a point where anyone and everyone is doing research and you run the risk of really poor participant experience, bad decisions and budget. You need to be careful about this so that you don't end up in a place where you're burning through money, you’re creating a bad participant experience, or worse.

Behzod: I think a lot of us take the fact that we could or should do research for granted without stopping to acknowledge that all research has a cost, and it's a very significant cost. It costs you time and energy to plan and do. It costs your participants time. It costs you energy and resources to gather, store, process cleanse and make sense of data. None of this is free and you shouldn't be doing these things if you don't have a good reason. And so the risk is that you are exploiting, wasting, creating something that is really problematic.

And I think that that is a really another aspect of our practice that is very often under discussed because we just assume that we are researchers and so we are going to go out and research. And the reality is that there are some things that are not worth researching at this moment in time, in this way.

I think that the balance that you want to strike is that your organization is healthy, looking inward and looking outward inappropriate ways. I think when people hear me say, "Let's democratize," and the pitchforks come out, I think we still agree on that end goal. I think the journey to get there is hard and it's different, it's going to look very different for different companies, in different spaces, or different company sizes.

All of us, I think, would like to be part of healthy teams that are working well together in service of whatever we're doing. And I think democratization is a means to getting to that point.

Mac Hasley is a writer and content strategist at dscout. She likes writing words about words, making marketing less like “marketing,” and unashamedly monopolizing the office’s Clif Bar supply.

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