Democratizing UX research: 3 experts reveal their tips

How do you take UX democratization to the next level? Three experts tell us how they're making it work in their organizations.  

User research is becoming more vital by the day, but it's widely recognized that the supply of user experience (UX) researchers isn’t keeping pace with demand.  

In fact, according to data from the Nielsen Norman Group, by 2050, we'll need an incredible 100 million user researchers. Today, we have just 1 million. 

How will we cope with a 100-fold surge in demand? Well, the answer lies in the democratization of UX. 

What is UX democratization?

The democratization of UX centers around equipping employees outside the traditional UX team with the skills and tools they need to conduct user research and access research data and insights.

At this year's UXDX 2022, Rima Campbell - VP, Research Partner at UserZoom - hosted a panel discussion that brought three UX leaders together to tell us how they're approaching the democratization of UX in their organizations. We wanted to answer some key questions:

  • How do you actually democratize UX? 
  • How do you avoid the common mistakes on the road to UX democratization?  
  • How do you make it work in different types and sizes of organizations? 

Here's what our experts had to say. 

Erin Howard — Research and Design Lead, Charles River

When Erin joined Charles River in 2021, she took on the task of building out the company's UX function from scratch. 

While she had no dedicated UX researchers onboard, she saw an opportunity to develop a genuinely agile process by embedding UX into Charles River's product delivery lifecycle. 

"We're building the plane while flying, if you will," she explained. "We've gone from one product designer to 10 in the last 15 months. We're working with each other to create frameworks and guidance documents that will inform the future of our UX delivery model."

For Erin, this growth phase will pave the way for what she envisions as a continuous, seamless lifecycle for UX, where UX insights are woven into the fabric of product decisions. 

"We're already empowering UX activity and design thinking across all of our functional areas," says Erin about Charles River’s democratization efforts. "We're still figuring it out, but I see our lives changing and looking more structured in the future." 

Incorporating UX research throughout the product design and development lifecycle is a formidable goal, enabling a culture where every team member can make data-driven decisions about customers' needs and pain points. 

So, what are Erin's tips for building an in-house UX function with democratization in mind?

  • Lay the foundations to support non-UX-researchers: If you're starting with democratization, think of the resources you can create for your product teams from the outset. Erin and her team, for example, are creating guides, research methodologies, study templates, and best practices that, in the future, will support members from other departments to conduct research on their own. 
  • Share your insights: The team has plans to develop a research repository tool—a searchable database of user insights—so that stakeholders, product designers, and other employees can access research findings and discoveries in their own time without putting additional pressure on Erin's team. 
  • Harness the power of available technology: Erin foresees that digital tools will be a huge part of running in agile—especially given an absence of dedicated UX researchers. Essentially, with a dedicated UX platform, you can unlock pre-loaded test templates, automate recruitment, and more, which makes it much easier for non-UX-researchers to run tests quickly. 

Jessa Parette — Research and Design Lead, Capital One

Over at Capital One, Jessa is scaling the company's UX democratization program with a focus on research ops. 

She explained: "I've split UX into two parts. We have a centralized research ops team that enforces data governance and supports product teams with research self-service. Then, we've also got researchers embedded in prioritized lines of business, working directly with product owners." 

So far, this approach has proven a great success, with the use of UX soaring at Capital One. However, as Jessa notes, juggling two research teams requires a careful balance. 

"We're a big company, and there are some challenges to managing this at scale," she shared. "We need to be careful about data quality—defining when it really matters and when it's ok to be a little loose." 

Frameworks, she’s found, are one of the best ways to enable democratization at scale. Here's more on that and Jessa's other top tips. 

  • Scale your practice by leaning on data-based frameworks: We all know that generative research is best left to your UX team, while evaluative research is easier to democratize. Even so, ensuring data quality and usable insights is vital. So, consider systematizing the research process through pre-defined processes and guide rails that non-UX researchers can follow. Not only will this help you to scale democratization, but it will improve agility too. 
  • Embed researchers into your product and marketing teams: By giving your product and marketing team direct access to dedicated researchers, you can ensure that your non-UX-researcher teams ask the right questions, choose the right audiences and use the right frameworks—all of which lead to a higher chance of garnering meaningful insights.
  • Embrace research ops: A research operations program is concerned with the people and processes elements of UX. For companies in highly regulated industries like Jessa's, centralized research ops are crucial to data governance and security. As well as this, the ops team helps to maximize resource usage and productivity so that teams aren't duplicating work. 

Kendall Avery — Rider and Maps Research Team Lead, Uber

An important question all UX researchers will have to answer on the road to democratization is: what should their UX researchers take on, and what tasks can be executed by other team members? 

Kendall answered this question at Uber with a risk-based approach, enabling her team to spread user research education and insights across their department. 

She said: "Initially, our research team owned all research processes. As things started to grow, we realized we couldn't staff and support all the different projects. We analyzed the kinds of research we could potentially enable other departments to take on." 

From there, Kendall and her team created a wealth of resources for users unfamiliar with UX research, giving them a step-by-step guide to conducting self-service research. 

"We built templates and playbooks. This was to ensure that everyone followed our standards and practices," she stated." 

One of Kendall's most significant takeaways from developing these templates was the importance of collaboration. Her top tips are: 

  • Collaborate with non-UX-researcher business users from the start: As your UX team designs templates for non-UX-researchers to use, it's vital to collaborate. UX researchers often forget how much they know. So, bring designers, marketers, and people from other business units into the self-service research development phase to ensure you create accessible resources. 
  • Standardize your research templates: The more oversight and guidance you can give people upfront, the more efficient the research process will be. Consider using tools like standardized research templates featuring example questions and methodologies, so it's easy for teams to get started. You can also deploy intuitive plug-and-play solutions that make it simple for anyone to learn about and get started with UX. 
  • Know when you need to scale: Scaling your democratization program doesn't have to feel like a significant momentous shift. In fact, democratization is best done in incremental steps. You'll know you're at a scale moment when you feel your resources are starting to get stretched. This is the time to readjust, reprioritize and recalibrate. 

What you can do next

While each of our three experts is at a different maturity level for UX democratization, they're all steadfast believers in the importance of scaling research across the organization. 

So, whether you're just developing a UX research practice or already have an established team, now is undoubtedly the time to optimize your UX practice through democratization and unleash the potential of shared insights. 

For more on the democratization of UX, read our dedicated democratization content bundle or get in touch with us today. 

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