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Scaling Research

Scaling user research through democratization

7 minute read

UX researchers have always advocated for the value of our craft. However, in many organizations, it’s taken time for cross-functional partners and executives to understand the crucial role that user research plays in creating outstanding experiences that customers love. 

Doing right by your users is not only ethical but has an enormous impact on a businesses’ bottom line: Forrester determined that superior user experiences increase visit-to-lead conversions up to 400 percent; Dr. Susan Weinschenk reports that the average cost of fixing an error post-development is 100 times more than compared to beforehand; and overall, Forbes cited that every dollar invested in UX returns $100 on average. 

Scores of user researchers find themselves in the enviable position of their services being too desired. The result? An inability to keep up with daily demands. In a perfect world, unlimited resources would enable UX research teams to scale indefinitely. In reality, budgets mean we must do the best with what we’re given. 

Constraints keep our work engaging. Thinking through how to overcome obstacles sharpens our problem-solving prowess. 

In response to this common scenario of having too much to do in too little time, a new concept has emerged in user research: the democratization of our responsibilities. In other words, educating and empowering your colleagues to orchestrate user research activities. 

Clear benefits

Consider these positives when evaluating whether to democratize user research at your organization and pitching it to stakeholders. 

  • Productivity at greater scale. Additional people supporting user research planning, execution, and analysis means higher output. As a bonus, the extra time freed up will enable you to focus on higher-impact projects

  • Reduced friction and increased influence. As colleagues gain more exposure to user research, they tend to build empathy towards its practitioners. Their firsthand experiences can transform them into allies for research at your organization. You might notice greater cross-functional harmony while campaigning for buy-in for research activities and find that garnering support for your recommendations becomes easier. More people performing and discussing research will also increase user research’s influence within your organization, opening new doors and granting opportunities to conduct research along with increased resourcing

  • Better user experiences. More members of your team collectively focusing on your users will result in a clearer understanding of their needs, a stronger emphasis on human-centric designs, and better overall product experiences

Starting small

If you don’t feel ready to create a program for training non-researchers to conduct research (we’ll get to that soon) or prefer to take baby steps, here are smaller initiatives to consider: 

  • Host lunch and learns. Schedule time for your research team and cross-functional partners to break (virtual) bread while learning more about user research. Perhaps highlight approachable yet valuable topics like User Research vs. Market Research, Favorite Research Methods, and Analyzing Research Findings

  • Hold office hours. Set aside regular days and time where user researchers are available on a first-come-first-serve basis to answer questions about user research and provide light consultation for projects 

  • Highlight research findings. Amplify your user research work’s visibility and impact with regular share-outs such as an email newsletter or a dedicated Slack channel. Also, use repository tools like to increase the visibility of research insights

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Steps to scaling 

Let’s say you’re ready to get serious about scaling user research at your organization. Where does one even begin? A great way to start is to learn from those who have already done it—drawing inspiration from the likes of LinkedInNerdwallet, and Fidelity. At the same time, keep in mind that each company’s needs are different—here’s a framework you can tailor to your context. 

Step 0: Validate the need for a user research training program for non-researchers

What type of UXers would we be if we didn’t validate the need first? Before delving into creating a democratized user research program, consider: 

  • Is there a steady enough stream of work to sustain the need to scale, or is this just a busy period in the product life cycle? 

  • How well does the nature of our research lend itself to being conducted by non-researchers?

  • Do we currently have the time and resources to build out this program? 

Step 1: Identify the right individuals to participate in the program 

After validating the need for democratizing research with your teammates and leadership, begin thinking about cross-functional colleagues who are eager to learn more about user research and have the bandwidth to do so—don’t forget to receive their manager’s approval too. Historically strong participants include: 

  • Product Designers. As natural allies of user researchers, designers already possess a human-centric mindset and understand the importance of integrating user needs into their work. 

  • Product Managers. A great fit given their massive responsibilities for the timeline, feature set, and ownership of a product’s success or failure.

  • Engineers. Many never have the opportunity to interact with actual users despite being responsible for building the product, ideating creative technical solutions, and caring deeply about their work meeting people’s needs. 

Step 2: Delivering an engaging, practical, and educational experience 

Once you’ve screened and selected willing participants, the fun begins. It’s time to equip them with the knowledge to conduct user research. A standard curriculum involves: 

  • Planning a study: defining objectives, crafting questions, and selecting methods 

  • Running a study: best practices on the dos and don’ts of moderating, strategies for taking effective notes, and what to expect during the sessions

  • Analyzing data: how to organize raw data, tag data based on frequency or severity, generate data-supported insights, and synthesize findings into recommendations.

  • Sharing findings: format, expectations, and recommendations on presenting your research. 

Step 3: Provide tools and templates

With the foundational knowledge accounted for, you can move on to equipping participants with the artifacts and access they need to execute a research study successfully.  

Templates

Processes

Step 4: Field experience 

There’s no substitute for hands-on research experience with live users. It’s also crucial to identify the right projects for non-researchers to tackle. Start them off with internal pilot sessions as practice, then identify projects that they can lead while reserving mission-critical projects for your dedicated user research team. 

  • Early design exploration and exploratory interviews

  • Design concept testing

  • Small-scale usability testing

Step 5: Reflect and iterate 

Once your newly minted researchers have completed their first research study, remember to debrief and revise your training program. Things probably won’t go perfectly the first time, but we can always learn and improve. 

  • Highlight what was most and least useful in the curriculum.Trim unnecessary content and add in more of what people loved. 

  • Identify gaps in the program. Understand what elements your program participants wish were concluded. 

  • Improve the artifacts provided. Besides sharing the materials from the training, think about creating playbooks and cheat sheets to aid knowledge retention. It’s also worth sharing resources for those who are eager to continue developing their skills.


How to influence leaders and communicate the value of research
Sean Bruce with Brian Swift

Risks and concerns  

Democratizing research does not come without its potential downsides. Here are risks to be mindful of: 

  • The devaluing of research. Detractors state researchers have worked too hard to get where we are today to relinquish our responsibilities to non-researchers. It indirectly creates a notion that “anyone can do research.” This reminds us to take extra care as we pitch user research democratization programs—we’re not training our replacements. Rather, we’re meeting the increased appetite for research by empowering more people to practice our craft on the right projects.  

  • Decrease in research rigor. Another concern cited by those opposed to democratizing research is a rise in poorly executed, low-quality research from non-researchers. Though the research from your newly trained colleagues might not match those of a seasoned user researcher, they will still be trained to your standards. Mistakes can and will happen, yet non-researchers will be executing work on projects that might have otherwise been delayed or never even happened. That in itself can be a major win. At the end of the day, you and your team will still own major research activities. 

  • Creating additional work for the user research team. Democratizing user research will likely yield increased productivity in the long run, however, crafting, executing, and tweaking a training program requires a sizable investment of time, energy, and resources. It might not always be the wisest decision depending on your organization’s current needs (i.e., working towards urgent deadlines to deliver an MVP). Consult with your fellow researchers, colleagues, and leadership to ensure it is the right time to be building such a program. 

Your turn

The future of UX Research is bright. The fact we’re even discussing having too many research requests is exciting and cause for celebration. All indicators point to this trend continuing.

We look forward to seeing our field continue to flourish. In the meantime, we wish you all the best with your efforts to democratize and scale research in your org. We’d love to hear about your experiences and continue the dialogue on the Dovetail Slack

About the contributors
Picture of contributor to Method in Madness, James Vinh.
James Vinh
President, San Diego Experience Design Professionals
Expert user researcher and San Diego fan.
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