Table of contents

1. Overview of research democratisation
2. Commonly discussed challenges
3. Unveiling the unspoken challenges and how to overcome them
4. Making UXR open to everyone: A new way to think
5. Conclusion

1. Overview of research democratisation

User researchers are facilitators as much as researchers. A common user researcher’s fallacy: “My job is to learn about users”. Truth: “My job is to help my team learn about users”. — Caroline Jarrett

When people with zero knowledge about these complexities dive into research, things can go south. It’s like expecting anyone to whip up a gourmet meal just because they’ve watched a cooking show. The truth is that complex research tasks, like crafting a research plan or conducting a quantitative study, require education, experience, and UX skills

But there’s hope. Research democratisation can work if done right. In my experience, being the only researcher on the team requires me to take charge. I get myself involved in every step of the research process. Firstly, I need to identify what research is needed and prioritise it. Then, with my project manager, we figure out who in our team could handle the research tasks, considering their skills and abilities. As a design researcher, I conduct UX workshops to fill the gaps with UX training, coaching, and collaboration. Finally, my project manager and I ensure responsibilities are clear and constantly assess and improve the process.

We carry out this process because the benefits of research democratisation are clear. When you open the doors to research for all, you’re more likely to get things done. In organisations where there are no dedicated research roles or where researchers are spread thin, democratisation can be a lifesaver.

2. Commonly discussed challenges

So, we’ve established that doing research is better than not doing any research. But now, let’s talk about the common hurdles you might face when you throw open the doors to research for everyone. There are several common challenges, and some of the big ones revolve around data privacy, participant selection bias, and ethical considerations.

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2.1 Data Privacy

When you let non-researchers engage in research, you need to be super cautious about data privacy. Research often involves collecting personal information, and it’s critical to handle this data with care. Non-researchers might not be well-versed in data protection regulations, such as non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and consent forms, which can put the organisation at risk. I personally conduct training and awareness workshops on data privacy and protection for all individuals involved in the research process. This is where I emphasise the importance of adhering to data protection regulations and protocols.

2.2 Participation selection bias

When you open the floodgates for research, you might end up with less-than-ideal participant selection. Non-researchers might not be experts at recruiting diverse and representative participants. They could inadvertently introduce biases into the research process. A study can fail quite easily based on incorrect participant selection. This is why when working with non-researchers I conduct research planning workshops. This is where I organise a workshop focused on inclusive research planning, where non-researchers can learn about the significance of diverse perspectives in shaping research outcomes. I teach them the importance of crafting a research plan in particular highlighting participant screening and selection.

2.3 Ethical considerations

Research often deals with sensitive issues and personal stories. Non-researchers might not be well-prepared to handle these situations ethically. They could ask inappropriate questions or misunderstand participants’ emotions. Ensuring that everyone involved understands the ethical implications of their actions is a significant challenge. Similar to participant selection bias and to control for data privacy I host a UX workshop on how to conduct user interviews. Ensuring that non-researchers understand the soft skills of user interviews such as empathy, active listening, and communication.

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3. Unveiling the unspoken challenges and how to overcome them

Now that we understand the more common challenges, let’s look at the lesser-known challenges of research democratisation. I will cover five lesser-known issues around research democratisation and how to avoid them:

  1. Credulity
  2. Dogmatism
  3. Bias
  4. Laziness
  5. Vagueness

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3.1 Credulity – Beyond direct questioning

Have you ever noticed that as soon as you mention research, people tend to ask what users want? It’s as if they believe users are the all-knowing oracles of design. But here’s the catch: users don’t always know what they want. They might say one thing and do another. Psychologists like Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson have shown that people often don’t understand their own preferences.

So, asking users directly what they want can lead to unreliable results. The key to reliable research is observation, not interrogation. Instead of asking what users want, we should watch what they do. That’s where the real insights are hiding.

Solution: Instead of asking users what they want, place more emphasis on observational research. Go beyond direct questioning:

Contextual inquiry workshops: Conduct workshops to educate non-UX researchers on the importance of contextual inquiry. Show them how to observe users in their natural environments to gain deeper insights into their behaviours and needs.

User journey mapping sessions: Organise collaborative user journey mapping sessions that allow non-UX researchers to visualise the entire user experience. This process helps them understand user pain points, motivations, and touchpoints more holistically.

3.2 Credulity – Embracing methodological diversity

Have you ever worked with a non-researcher who’s absolutely convinced there’s only one right way to do research? They might believe that surveys are the golden ticket to understanding user needs, dismissing other methods like diary studies and user interviews. This kind of dogmatism can limit the richness of the research. Surveys can provide valuable quantitative data, but they can’t give you the deep insights you get from talking to users or observing them in their natural environment.

Solution: Encourage an open-minded approach to research methods. Highlight that different research methods serve various purposes and offer unique insights. Embrace methodological diversity.

Methodological awareness sessions: Hold regular sessions to introduce non-UX researchers to various research methodologies. Encourage them to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each method and promote the idea that different approaches can yield unique and valuable insights.

Cross-training initiatives: Facilitate cross-training initiatives where non-UX researchers can shadow and learn from experienced UX researchers. This exposure can broaden their perspective and help them appreciate the diversity of research methods used in UX.

3.3 Bias – The sneaky saboteur of authenticity

One subtle form of bias in research is what we call “response bias.” It happens when the team, that conducts the research, wants a certain outcome. They might influence participants or cherry-pick results to match what they hope to hear. As researchers, our job isn’t to persuade people to like a product or service; it’s about uncovering the truth. It’s about digging for insights that might not align with our preconceptions.

Solution: Foster a culture of unbiased research by emphasising the importance of objectivity. Break down bias by:

Unconscious bias training: Conduct training sessions focused on identifying and mitigating unconscious biases during research. Help non-UX researchers recognize their own biases and understand how these biases can influence research outcomes.

Data triangulation techniques: Teach non-UX researchers about the importance of data triangulation, emphasizing the need to cross-verify findings using multiple data sources. Encourage them to integrate quantitative and qualitative data to reduce the impact of individual biases.

3.4 Laziness – The pitfall of stagnation

The sin of laziness reveals itself when teams rely on old research data as if it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. A prime example is the misuse of personas. Some treat personas as if they’re the holy grail of user-centered design. The truth is, personas don’t matter on their own. They’re just a byproduct of good research. The real goal is to understand user needs, goals, and motivations deeply. That understanding should be the driving force behind your design. Rather than recycling old data, keep user research a living, breathing part of your team’s culture. 

Solution: Continuously engage in research activities. Rather than recycling old data, encourage teams to remain curious about user needs, motivations, and behaviours. Keep research as an active part of the team’s culture by:

Regular research refreshers: Organize regular research refresher sessions to reiterate the importance of ongoing research. Demonstrate how continuous engagement with users leads to a deeper understanding of evolving needs and behaviours, emphasizing the dynamic nature of user preferences.

User-centric culture promotion: Foster a user-centric culture within the organization by showcasing success stories that highlight the benefits of ongoing research. Encourage non-UX researchers to actively engage with users and to continuously seek feedback for iterative improvements.

3.5 Credulity – Embracing methodological diversity

Sometimes, teams make the mistake of trying to answer too many questions at once. They don’t focus on a single key research question, and this leads to vague and inconclusive results. Research isn’t about learning a little about a lot; it’s about learning a lot about the critical questions that keep you up at night. It’s about finding the specific questions that matter most to your project.

Solution: Prioritise a focused approach to research. Define clear, specific research questions that address the critical aspects of a project. Avoid trying to answer too many questions at once, as this can lead to vague and inconclusive results.

Research question formulation workshops: Conduct workshops that guide non-UX researchers in formulating clear and focused research questions. Teach them how to define specific research objectives and align them with the overall project goals to avoid ambiguity.

Prototyping and testing demonstrations: Organize hands-on sessions that demonstrate the significance of prototyping and user testing in refining research inquiries. Show non-UX researchers how user feedback from prototypes can provide concrete insights into user preferences and needs.

4. Making UXR open to everyone: A new way to think

People often say we should train non-researchers when they talk about making UXR open for everyone. But let’s think differently…
If making something open to everyone means everyone can use it, are we mixing up making UXR skills available with just sharing the findings and information?
We shouldn’t just try to turn team members into new researchers. If we do, companies might end up with bad research habits and wrong information. Instead, we should help the company make better choices by understanding their users and problems better.

5. Conclusion

The journey towards research democratisation unveils both the opportunities and challenges that come with making user research accessible to all. It is not merely about providing access to UX tools and data; rather, it necessitates a comprehensive understanding of the complexities involved in conducting effective research. As we strive to break down the barriers and encourage diverse participation in research endeavours, it becomes imperative to recognise that the path to successful research democratisation lies not only in enabling access but also in fostering a culture of understanding and responsibility among all team members.

Moreover, the implementation of best practices and the continuous evolution of methodologies contribute to the refinement of the research process, guarding against potential pitfalls and maximising the impact of research efforts. As we continue on this journey, let us remember that the true essence of research democratisation lies not only in the democratisation of data but also in the democratisation of knowledge, fostering a collective understanding that drives us towards insightful and meaningful research outcomes.

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