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Ideas

Getting Smarter About Democratization

Research democratization can feel overwhelming. Consider the variables "Control" and "Access/Mindset," to align stakeholders and start smarter.

Words by Julie Norvaisas, Visuals by Thumy Phan

When I say “democratize research” you say…

I asked this question on LinkedIn in 2021, and one of the first responses I received, which was exactly the right response, was, “Why ;)?” While it’s tempting to read this as a thinly veiled ((shakes fist at sky)) cry of despair followed by a ((lays head on desk)) resigned sigh, the story is much more complicated than that.

UX Research leaders and their teams can work with stakeholders on effective programs under the umbrella of "democratization." These programs can elevate the practice and credibility of UX and Design, while distributing work and/or familiarizing non-researchers with our mindset and approaches–which in turn provide teams with crucial insight into human/cognitive behavior, help teams check/challenge assumptions, reduce risk in decision-making, and ensure usable quality products.

In the fall of 2021, I engaged with dscout as a Researcher-in-Residence to explore the concept of democratizing research. I distilled what I’ve learned through my experiences and gathered a group of 18 distinguished leaders from across industries for a Research Leaders Forum to share perspectives and approaches around this hot topic—and it is a hot topic.

Collectively, we were a strong “it depends” when it comes to whether to pursue efforts to democratize our teams’ specialized work. This article summarizes some of that thinking and should help you start asking the right “whys” for yourself and your teams.

I will share a framework distinguishing types of democratization to help your organization reflect on the key needs/root causes driving requests and outline appropriate solutions in response. I will also share a few specific imperatives to keep in mind as you navigate the waters for one particular and popular type of democratization, stakeholder empowerment.

These insights and implementation strategies are the product of a wealth of experience (in other words, mistakes have been made!). They can help you execute smart democratization that advances your team’s long-term goals, but doesn’t create more problems than it solves.

No matter where you are in your democratization journey, these tools and ideas should help you set clear expectations, think strategically, and establish effective processes for your team, stakeholders, organization—all of which should ultimately benefit the humans who use your products.

What’s in a name?

The words we use matter, and what we call a thing is always worth examining. Let’s pause a moment to do so here. The word “democracy” carries a lot of weight. It’s a big word, one of the most important societal and governing concepts going. It is also very much an ideal.

Without oversimplifying too embarrassingly, democracy is something many of us believe is very much worth striving for, worth fighting for. Democracy is far from an easy button in the world, and alas it’s not an easy button in this much more limited context either.

As I write these words, the Ukrainian people battle for their rights to maintain a free and democratic society against the violent forces of autocracy and tyranny. Sadly, such critical battles occur continually around the globe, spilling blood.

In democratically ruled countries not currently defending against direct threats, democracy is terribly messy, imperfect, and difficult to achieve. It requires wholehearted participation by all citizens, a high level of commitment to a collective civic duty, and the ability to debate and compromise. That last part has proven really tough.

To be asked to “democratize” something can feel a bit like a patriotic duty; to hesitate to heed the call can feel vaguely disloyal. But indeed there are reasons to invest the time it takes to do it well—to become smart in how you implement the concept.

Alert to your awareness of all this, gather your stakeholders and “town-hall” it out. Set intentions, discuss aspirations, debate approaches, question each other, arrive at policies after some give-and-take, you get the idea. Let it be a little messy at first. Embrace a spirit of experimentation. Remember that there are multiple, often circuitous paths to a similar destination—but first you need to agree on that destination.

What are we really talking about here?

In addition to our words, precision also matters. Over the years it became clear to me that people can mean more than one thing when they talk about democratizing research.

Not being clear on that creates confusion from the outset and can set you off on the wrong path. Insist on a shared understanding of the specific expectations behind the words and what’s driving the need to help you focus more clearly on prioritizing your efforts.

I developed this framework to help me articulate some useful distinctions:

Click image to enlarge

I chose to draw apart two dimensions for this 2x2, both of which are spectrums, not binaries. One is R (Research) control. With more, Researchers and Research teams retain control of their work, and don’t cede as much responsibility for studies and outcomes to non-researchers. Trained Researchers remain at the helm. With less, non-researchers will play a bigger role.

The other dimension, a little more slippery, forces us to think about what underlying shifts are taking place. Is it a fundamental mindset shift taking place around how we conceptualize or utilize research? Or is it a shift to more direct access to participants and various aspects of the process (e.g., crafting protocols, conducting interviews, analysis) within a more-or-less “traditional” research process and expected outcomes?

Stakeholder empowerment

Access shift/less R control. If your core driving need is to keep pace with research demand and outsource projects/create capacity as your org grows and matures, consider training and empowering non-researchers to conduct studies. This seems to be mostly what people are expecting when they ask you to democratize research, but it’s not the solution every time.

Stakeholder participation

Access shift/more R control. If your core needs are to build empathy, viscerally question assumptions, and integrate insight accountability, consider opening up your process to involve stakeholders in low-risk ways, such as taking notes for interviews, immersive experiences, or collaborative analysis.

Insight management

Mindset shift/more R control. If your core driving need is to encourage better and more efficient data-driven/insight-driven/customer-focused decisions in planning and building, consider democratizing exposure and access to existing data and insights to help shift the mindset of the organization.

Perhaps everyone agrees that the critical research is indeed being done, but it’s getting stuck or feeling overwhelming to stakeholders. Solutions here often involve deep cross-functional insight-team collaborations (e.g. Market Research, Data Science, Customer Operations).

User participation

Mindset shift/less R control. This quadrant represents important emerging trends in Research that call on us to question the entrenched distinctions between researchers and participants, corporations and humans, and force us to question who gets to hold the power, privilege, and right to design.

These critical trends represent a major rethinking of mindsets and processes to center those who have been historically marginalized and shut-out of the design and development process.

Many powerhouse thinkers including some heroes of mine—Vivianne Castillo and the team at HmntyCntrd, Sasha Costanza-Chock, and Mary Gray—are driving these shifts. I encourage every Research professional to take the initiative to pursue these trends of your own volition, as they are unlikely to be identified as a blatant need from organizations or institutions.

The bulk of the rest of what I have to share here will focus on stakeholder empowerment as it was most top of mind in my work as dscout’s Researcher-in-Residence. But I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important it is to identify what is driving your organization’s need to democratize—and to be willing/able to shift and efficiently balance priorities as your practice evolves. Constantly revisit these questions.

As you consider democratization requests or pressures, first establish your own point of view on what’s behind it, then talk with your stakeholders about what is driving the request or need to democratize, then start talking about how to resource and approach it.

Pros and cons of stakeholder engagement

Now that we have established a little more clarity, let’s get back to the shaking-of-our-fists-at-the-sky for a second. There are some very real pros and cons to be aware of, but rose-colored glasses are often the fashion choice in early conversations about giving non-researchers ownership of research projects.

This wisdom is hard earned. I’ve personally fallen into the trap of oversimplifying and brushing aside valid concerns. It’s naive to think that your organization can only enjoy the benefits without being exposed to the risks. Once you’ve decided that stakeholder empowerment is the way you want to go, be very clear eyed with your stakeholders and leaders on tradeoffs.

Pros/benefits:

  • Builds respect for specialized UX research skills, processes, and mindsets
  • Creates enthusiasm for our work and a new crop of advocates
  • Fosters a deeper human/e-centered culture
  • Increases evidence-based decision making across product development
  • Provides cross-training for adjacent functions, creating more well-rounded teams
  • Allows researchers to prioritize more strategic work
  • Can help in securing more headcount/resources*

Cons/risks:

  • Undermines credibility and erodes respect for our skills and craft
  • Introduces unmanageable bias, low quality data, and ethical questions
  • Impacts researcher productivity as they support non-researchers doing research
  • Results in a hit to morale and productivity for non-researchers asked to do extra work
  • Risks poor or unsafe participant experiences
  • Creates noise in insight-delivery, t (worse) conflicting findings across studies
  • Can mask fundamental resourcing issues*

* Wait, these seem at odds! Yes, I have seen it go both ways. If managed cleverly, democratization can open leadership’s eyes to our value and clear the way for headcount and budget. If not, it can result in the programs being used as a band-aid and can even become an excuse to prioritize scarce resources elsewhere.

Getting smart about it

If stakeholder empowerment can be done well, but isn’t always done well, what gives? What should leaders keep in mind as they design and build programs within their organizations? To maximize the benefits and minimize the risks, you need to get very strategic and direct with your team and your partners about four things.

Boundaries and risk assessment

Not every type of research project can or should be done by a non-researcher, no matter how much on-the-job training they receive. Lightweight, tactical, tightly-focused, formative studies lend themselves well to democratization. Avoid non-researchers conducting studies that are:

  • Focused early in the product development process - exploratory, foundational, discovery
  • Longitudinal in nature
  • Requiring technical methodologies or theoretical underpinnings (e.g. ethnographic or quantitative work)
  • Focused on historically marginalized, underrepresented, or vulnerable communities
  • Targeting participants who are high-profile or revenue-generating customers or clients
  • Delving into sensitive, difficult or possibly re-traumatizing topics for participants
  • Dealing with areas that are potentially a high risk to perceptions of brand
  • Requiring nuanced competitive or secondary research to frame findings

In addition, not every element of the research process should be entrusted to non-researchers. Recruitment for example requires strategy, sample balancing, and bias-mitigation to ensure it’s both representative and inclusive. Non-researchers can gloss over this in the interest of speed, to the detriment of quality outputs.

What will help?

  • Clearly communicate boundaries around what types of projects, methods, and points of the process are open for democratization.
  • Implement a formal intake and prioritization process so everyone is clear on what needs to be done and who will do it. Have stakeholders sign off.
  • Offer low-investment alternatives such as heuristic evaluations or easy access to prior work to avoid repetition or wasting resources on unnecessary projects. Note that once democratization is established, it can be overapplied. Be on the lookout that every project being done needs to be done.

Resource advocacy

Democratization is extra work for the Research team. It just is, from training through analysis through oversight and tracking. Democratization requires operational support and costs money. It just does. Doing something for nothing is not good business, and Research leaders should run their teams like businesses within the business. Make sure your stakeholders know what is required to build the infrastructure, budget, and team to succeed, lest you run the risk of devaluing your work. To not do so risks watering down productivity, bogging down the team, and/or distracting researchers from their work.

What will help?

  • Create a calculator to make visible the number of detailed person-hours required to develop and run a program. Don’t be afraid to assign dollar values to your efforts. In my experience stakeholders respect this.
  • Create metrics that help track success of democratized efforts over time. Of course, this level of accountability means collectively establishing the measures of success you’re striving for! Tie this back to the conversation you had with them about what is the core driving need around the effort.
  • Charge partner teams. While this may sound radical, stakeholder teams actually become much more invested when they have to pony up for the work being done (whether that’s in cost center exchanges for participant incentives, or offering contractor budget to get the work done, or something other). This can help avoid the risk of masking underlying resourcing issues through stakeholder empowerment mentioned above.

Data quality and integration

The thing about any kind of research is (wait for it!) it results in data. This data has consequences to the business and to the humans using your products. Real decisions will be made based on the outputs of studies conducted by non-researchers.

Research leaders must proactively think about and communicate how data from democratized studies factors into the data their teams are producing, and provide sufficient structure to safeguard quality. If you’re not careful, democratization can fall into the trap of chasing urgency at the expense of quality (including bias-management: eeeek).

What will help?

  • Require robust skills and bias training for non-researchers, including a certification, assessments, renewals. This is KEY. And it’s a big lift, that requires a senior level Researcher to lead, along with a team, including Ops support, to help create the curriculum and materials and lead sessions.
  • Create a shared lexicon that articulates levels of findings (observation vs finding vs insight vs implication), and establishes clarity about how to communicate research results appropriately (e.g., avoiding overgeneralization).
  • Have a data management plan. Ensure that non-researchers are clear on what to do with the data they are generating, including checks and balances on quality and whether results are included in broader insight management strategies (e.g., databases, integrated cross-functional reports).

Ethics and integrity

While I am stating this point last, it’s only because it touches on every single aspect of what I laid out above. Do not make this consideration an afterthought. Our field is undergoing great and necessary shifts in how we think about the ethics and equity of our practice, processes, and mindsets.

Smart democratization through empowering stakeholders cannot threaten this progress, and must strive not to replicate historically problematic aspects of our work. The projects chosen and data generated must help in our efforts to create more fair, decent, just, human/e products and services. And they must ensure that the safety and dignity of participants and non-researchers are protected at all times.

What will help?

  • Scale your team’s approach to ethics and equity, making sure these are covered in depth in trainings:
    • Ethical treatment of participants (e.g. informed consent, protecting PII in all materials and at all touchpoints, clear value-exchange, and discussions of how their data is used).
    • Researcher safety and self-care for non-researchers (e.g., reflexivity, bias, handling sensitive topics, dealing with difficult participants, time-management, and navigating uptake of results)
  • Provide less risky outlets for those interested in participating in research, such as attending and note-taking at sessions, actively debriefing, collaborative analysis, and possibly even weighing in on participant selection to drive home the importance and science of recruitment.

Keep your north star shining bright

Smart democratization is possible, but not for the faint of heart! Start with the basic step of being collectively clear on the why, getting clear-eyed on the pros and cons, and becoming systematic about building a program. But never relent on one thing: your efforts here can and should advance the strategic goals of your team, your north stars, whether that’s driving strategic influence, improving insight accountability, advancing equity and ethics in practice, or something else.

Democratization is not a band-aid, and it’s dangerous to the efficiency, effectiveness, and credibility of your practice to treat it as such. The choices you make along the way should help you harness the energy towards democratization to elevate your practice--and help you and your stakeholders design and build better, more human/e organizations and products. Which is, ultimately, everyone’s north star.

I welcome thoughts, critique, and feedback on these evolving ideas - and your stories about implementing programs to democratize your practice. My goal here is not to be perfect, but to be helpful. Let’s talk! You can reach me anytime via LinkedIn.

Many thanks to the team at dscout, the attendees of the Research Leaders Forum, and everyone who shared their thoughts on democratization with me. And special thanks, Donna Driscoll, for your valuable feedback, the ideas you contributed to this article, and your enduring thought-partnership.

Julie’s work in Design and UX Research has spanned decades, as a consultant across industries and most recently in-house as the Head of UX Research and Content Design for LinkedIn. She has cultivated a practice that centers dignity and the complexity of the human experience in product development and leadership—and a belief that it’s okay to have a little fun along the way.

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