The Democratization of User Research: Good or Evil?

WEVO Research Leadership Forum Weighs in on the Benefits – and Consequences – of the Democratization of Insights

WEVO sponsors and participates in a Research Leadership Forum – a group composed of research leaders in large organizations spanning every industry from financial services to eCommerce to retail. The Forum meets for bi-monthly, two-part meetings to discuss trends and topics in the research and insights space. This blog will follow these discussions and speak to the challenges, opportunities, and questions that are top of mind. For information on joining the Forum, contact marketing@wevoconversion.com.

User research is growing more crucial by the day. Unfortunately, the supply of talented user experience (UX) researchers appears to be lagging behind. According to data from the Nielsen Norman Group, there are just over 1 million UX professionals in the workforce. By 2050, Nielsen predicts, we’ll need 100 million. 

You read that right – we’ll need 100x more user reachers in the next 50 years. That’s no easy task.

To meet this seemingly unreachable goal, industry leaders are getting creative. If we can’t get enough fully-trained research pros, perhaps we can provide non-research professionals with the right tools to conduct user research on their own. This idea is often known as the  democratization of user research. It’s inevitable, needed, and a cause of great anxiety – all at once. 

Most members of the WEVO Research Leadership Forum recognize the necessity of this democratization (and most are actively practicing it). At the same time, nearly everyone is focused on ensuring the reliability of research generated by non-research professionals.  

We need user research more than ever. 

Digital product teams are at the forefront of user research growth, as company leaders are recognizing experience design as a core pillar of new product development.  

While design thinking and user research are not new ideas and have been practiced by many companies, the pandemic accelerated what has been a steady increase in the use of digital products and experiences. Users switched to a nearly all-digital life seemingly overnight. Telehealth, online banking, and digital grocery deliveries have replaced many previously in-person tasks. This explosion of new digital experiences has exposed the need for better, more human-centered interfaces – and  upped the game of any company providing these experiences. 

Organizations want expert insights – without solely relying on expert researchers.

Most researchers welcome the rise in experience design research. However, they also worry that non-research practitioners might generate and act on unreliable data due to a lack of training and tools. 

Top of mind user research fears include:

  • Concern that the research will be set up incorrectly, including poorly written questions that frame the audience, or ones that could lead to inconclusive results
  • Anecdotal results that are then “committed to practice” as gospel
  • Incorrect or inaccurate conclusions from the research 

One leader in the Forum bemoaned the “Death of Expertise” – alluding to the book by that name. Others are looking for ways to ensure that their non-researcher teams can uncover reliable insights without UX pros. That will allow teams to more readily create the most valuable digital experiences for their users.

Forum leaders provide keys to smart democratization

As leaders and innovators in the user experience field, the Forum members are blazing a path to embrace democratization. These Forum leaders are helping their companies increase user experience research (and the number of employees that practice it) while avoiding the pitfalls of democratization. We gathered the top approaches experts are successfully deploying for research democratization within their organizations:

Embedded Researcher Advisors

The most common practice among our Forum participants is to embed researchers in the product and marketing teams they support. While these researchers don’t have the time and resources to conduct and analyze all of the research, they can advise these teams and ensure that the right questions are asked, the audience is correctly defined and that the teams have frameworks for uncovering meaningful insights from the research.

Bootcamps and Training Programs

Others are running full-out user research boot camps – especially for product teams. In one leading tech company, product teams are trained over several weeks in how to conduct research: what tools fit each need or question, how to set up the research, and how to analyze results. 

Standardized Evaluation Research Templates

Another practice our user research leaders are employing is to create research templates: providing their product and marketing teams with example questions and methodologies that they should use for their research. Product teams can slightly modify the questionnaires or scripts, but following the standardized templates can avoid some of the pitfalls outlined.

Where to democratize user research

No matter how these user research experts are democratizing, they all agree on where democratization makes sense and where it doesn’t. They are united in their belief that generative research, which is focused on exploration or discovery,is a job best left to professionals. 

The companies represented in the Forum are looking to ensure that their research teams are critical to discovery efforts. User research draws on key knowledge and interview techniques  that need to evolve during the course of the research.

However, nearly all agree that evaluative research, where users are evaluating a product or concept, is more easily democratized. Some companies are standardizing the evaluation criteria, with one leading company developing specific tests for concept evaluation and full experience evaluation. 

While there is still concern about the audience selection and the conclusions drawn from the research, there is confidence that the actual test is reliable.

The Future State of User Research Democratization

Early user research democratization tools have focused on providing “do-it-yourself” platforms for survey development, video user interviews, or behavior capture, like click maps. However, in many cases, while the tools are adequate, the practitioners using them are prone to common mistakes stemming from a lack of training. 

Today, anyone can easily create a survey or run video-based user tests. That practice, however, is the equivalent of non-medical professionals diagnosing (and treating) themselves based on online information. New SaaS and research tools need to eliminate the pitfalls and focus on making it effortless for user experience researchers and their teams to generate reliable insights.

That’s why new tools, like WEVO, are providing resources to research professionals to help them empower their non-research teams to do evaluative research and generate reliable insights. WEVO combines the best of AI and human experts, including standardized testing and scoring that eliminates bias and poorly designed research. WEVO’s team of research experts help set up the test (right audience, additional questions) and synthesize the results. All scores are normalized and benchmarked against all WEVO tests conducted — eliminating both tool and panel bias.  

See what WEVO can do to help user research democratization within your organization. Take WEVO for a test ride.

About The Author

As the Co-Founder and President of WEVO, Janet Muto is committed to helping user experience researchers effortlessly generate reliable customer insights for better customer experiences. Janet is passionate about democratizing user research, and allowing researchers to gain more insights with less time and effort.

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