People Who Do Research 2023

Democratization by Researcher, Not of Research

With Zoë Glas, Senior UX Researcher at Google

Jack Wolstenholm
February 27, 2023
Democratization by Researcher, Not of Research

Zoë Glas believes research democratization should be led by researchers, not replace them.

“Democratization is not something that happens passively. It’s something that requires a ton of intention and work.”

But the Senior UX Researcher from Google also understands why some are still hesitant. When research lacks a clear role in an organization, fear of democratization is high. Junior researchers worry about their jobs, while senior researchers struggle to differentiate themselves from democratized work and sustain impact.

That's why it's time to reframe to conversation. At People Who Do Research 2023, Glas broke down the core arguments against democratizing research and shared the four commitments that are required to make research democratization successful.

Watch the full session and read our recap below.

Why not democratize research?

Research democratization sounds great on paper. More access to valuable insights for everyone. Less work for researchers themselves. Everyone wins, right?

Opponents say it’s not so straightforward. Two core arguments against research democratization include:

  1. UXR is hard. Researchers spend years studying, developing skills, and understanding the nuance of their profession, the same way developers and designers do for theirs.
  2. Democratization cheapens UXR. If anyone can do research, why bother hiring trained researchers at all? Democratization of research poses the risk of reducing industry headcount and the value of the work itself.

Ultimately, both arguments lead to the same conclusion – the fear that researchers have lost control, which leads to memes like this:

But Glas believes this meme actually makes a brilliant case for democratization.

"If we have a huge apartment fire with multiple units and a trained group where every single person needs specific, high levels of training, that’s the best use for your researchers. Similarly, if you have a campfire, you're not going to call your firefighter, right? They've got more important things they need to be focusing on. With the appropriate guidance and support, they're well organized and passing those buckets efficiently so you can put out that campfire.”

Reframing the conversation around research democratization

“How do we start to think about democratization less as something that happens to research and that we are a victim of it, and more as something that we can own, power, and push forward?”

Glas proposes a reframe for getting started: Researchers are not victim to democratization. They lead it – as democratization by researcher, not of research itself.

“Proper democratization still has boundaries, support, and great research behind it. The best way to do this is by focusing on what we’re putting into the equation and what’s coming out of it.”

By focusing on the inputs and outputs of research democratization – the same way you focus on the inputs and outputs of research methods, growth, and support – you can reduce “fire risk” throughout. While Glas acknowledges there aren’t many success stories of healthy research democratization at scale on public display, that isn’t a reason to run from it.

“Just because we haven’t seen it before doesn’t mean it can’t be. It’s destructive to think so. We can actually build something pretty amazing together.”

It just has to be cautious and conscious.

The 4 commitments to UX research

Researchers can ensure democratization is healthy and safe by making four commitments – to researchers, team growth, boundaries, and support. These commitments lay the foundation for a cautious, conscious research practice.

1. Commitment to UX researchers

Democratization is not where you start; it's the final step of a mature research practice.

“Researchers deserve safety, support, and respect within an organization, and you can’t jump into democratization until you’ve made sure you have that.”

In other words: Put your own oxygen mask on before attempting to help others around you.

So, what does an organization need before it’s ready to democratize research? Glas outlines four prerequisites.

  1. A seat at the table alongside product, design, and engineering teams.
  2. Metrics for success that are clearly defined throughout the company.
  3. Headcount – because researchers are needed to lead the process and establish guardrails and boundaries.
  4. A path for growth for the individual. As the research team and practice grows, what does this look like for each researcher?

“Everyone in your organization should be able to say, ‘We’re confident in our role in this organization now and 10 years from now. There will be a job for me. There will be something awesome, exciting, and cool for me to do to drive this forward. And not only does democratization not hurt that, it helps empower that.’”

Like research methods, growth, and support, research democratization is an intentional process. If you’re not specific with what you put into it, you’re at risk for what will come out of it.

2. Commitment to UX research team growth

Junior research roles have been hit hard by layoffs. Without a clear path for growth for the individual, democratization could exacerbate the problem.

“A lot of companies don’t know how to effectively leverage their junior researchers or create space for them.”

Democratization cannot and should not replace researchers at any level; it should expand opportunities and provide support for baseline projects. But in many organizations, Glas sees a disconnect between leadership’s enthusiasm for democratization and the lack thereof among researchers.

“If what you’re seeing in your organization is that leaders are stoked, and people doing the research are saying ‘this is a terrible idea – I hate everything about it,’ chances are they’re not seeing the support they need.”

Before you can democratize, you first have to empower researchers to build confidence in their skills and advance in their careers. This includes alleviating fear of replacement by clearly communicating the differences between the roles of junior researchers and democratization in your organization.

Glas offers four prerequisites for demonstrating commitment to a UX research team.

  1. A research career ladder: Outline stages in career progression, from a 3, 4, and 5, to a high-level individual contributor or manager.
  2. Impact definition: Define great work vs. ‘meh’ work, and offers guidance on how to do great work.
  3. Clear, dedicated training: Support people in moving up with guidelines for high-quality work and other tools that enable growth.
  4. Great managers: Check in on career growth, skill development, and new responsibilities so everyone understands the impact of their work.

Without a clear commitment to supporting your UX research team and their growth, democratization will likely fail.

3. Commitment to UX research boundaries

Research democratization isn't for everything or everyone. It takes time, training, support, and clarity of goal to build something sustainable in practice. It also requires setting firm boundaries.

For example, Glas says a lack of time isn’t a good reason to democratize a research project. If you as a researcher don’t have time for the project because it’s too low-impact, it’s probably not worth democratizing either. 

“Be specific in what gets this support because it is still timing and support. Make sure the outcome is worth what you’re putting into it and you can actually follow-through.”

In setting boundaries, prioritize honesty over politeness. And to determine what’s worthy of democratization, Glas shares a helpful formula.

  • Skill of the person doing the democratization and the team supporting them.
  • Support – Does your researcher have time to do this? Does it help their career progression? Does it make sense in the context of their other work?
  • Impact – do people actually run with this? Does it have the potential to change/shape direction in your product cycle?
  • Risk of how this data will be used, wasted time, offending users, burning through social capital with users (especially early in companies)
“One of your best words as a researcher who is democratizing is ‘no.’ ‘No’ doesn’t mean I reject you, I think you're bad. ‘No’ means I think there’s a better way to do this, or I think there’s something else our company should be focusing on. Leaning into that compassionate ‘no’ should always be one of your superpowers.”

This includes the ability to unplug at any point in the research democratization process.

To drive this point home, Glas shares a quote from leadership expert, psychologist, and best-selling author Dr. Henry Cloud: "A boundary lends a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom."

4. Commitment to UX research support

Commitment to UX research support isn’t a one-way street. It should serve researchers and non-researchers.

For researchers, this means formalizing training to set them up for success, rewarding their performance in the career ladder, and respecting their right to say “no”. As for non-researchers:

“Success should never be fuzzy. The greatest cause of anger is unclear expectations. Make expectations crystal clear.”

While worksheets, templates, and other tools help, people also need to be able to think for themselves. Glas advises starting with what non-researchers already know to leverage their skills and interests, and focusing on the goal – or the “why” – over the project or ask itself. 

“We don’t expect auto mechanics to fly planes, but maybe they can start to work on those planes. Find where their skills are going to connect across. Think about things they're already interested in.”

Glas then shares her recommended training necessities, like hypothesis testing and identifying bias, and how to set realistic outcome limits with your team. Because in the words of author and research professor Brené Brown: “A leader finds the potential in people and processes, and has the courage to develop that potential.”

Key takeaways

Glas’s four commitments to UXR encompass what a healthy, safe research practice should look like before it’s ready for democratization.

  • It's not either or, it's and. Researchers are not fighting democratization. You are building an army together. Look for the and within your company.
  • Your research team comes first. Prioritize your team’s safety and security first – even if you haven’t reached the point of democratization yet.
  • Clear support, clear outcomes, clear commitments. Set expectations with your team about what it means to do research well and how to do it.
  • It only happens when it creates space for something better. “Research democratization is not enabling more of exactly what we’re doing now, but more than we could dream possible right now.”

Together, they make a strong argument in favor of democratization – led by researchers, not of research itself.

Jack is the Content Marketing Lead at Great Question, the end-to-end UX research platform for customer-centric teams. Previously, he led content marketing and strategy as the first hire at two insurtech startups, Breeze and LeverageRx. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

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