Scaling Research Through Enablement

My teammate Brendan, Director of Customer Success, recently wrote an article about democratization 2.0: the assisted model. It surfaced many of the questions that I have been wrestling with over the last 9 months, as I’ve been building the research team here at User Interviews.

A brief reflection on democratization at User Interviews

The concept of democratization is not a new one. It is built upon the belief that empowering others to conduct and lead research will result in better business decisions. 

User Interviews was born by Basel Fakhoury, Dennis Meng, and Bob Saris in 2015 after shutting down their idea for a mobile travel app. During their initial venture, the team realized that their biggest mistake was only building a product that they themselves cared about. The second time around, their number one priority was making sure they were conducting user research around their ideas.

Because of this, the decision to democratize research began organically at User Interviews. By the time I joined in July 2021 as the first user researcher, Product Managers, Designers, and Marketers were already leading research to help inform decisions across the business. My job as an incoming Research Leader, therefore, was different from what it would be in most organizations. Instead of spending my time evangelizing the importance of research,  I would be spending my time enabling research through systems, infrastructure, and tooling. This would be critical to help the team as we continued to scale.

This was exciting! Leadership was already bought in, resources were available, the wider team had an appetite for research knowledge—in many ways, the scenario was a UXR’s dream. 

It would also turn out to be quite daunting.

Wrestling with the need to scale myself

The reality soon set in that there was 1 of me and 101 of my new teammates. I needed to scale my knowledge and experience, fast!I 

As Erika Hall explained in her book Just Enough Research, research is a tool that can be used to acquire knowledge. At the end of the day, what we learn through research can help inform decisions.

While that sounds wonderful in theory, the reality is that I, like many other researchers, are craftspeople. We’ve spent countless years honing our craft and the idea of opening up our work to others can be a really scary concept. 

At the same time, as a designer-turned-PM-turned-User Researcher, I believe that there’s much that researchers can gain by dipping their toes into the waters of democratization. There is power in seeing an engineer ask a customer a question, then immediately hop off the call to explore their answer in order to make a tangible improvement to the user experience.

I believe that it is part of our jobs, as Research Leaders, to explore and create systems, structures, and processes that empower not only ourselves but our teammates (full-time UXRs and others alike) to conduct research that will enable better decision-making for our companies and customers.

At the same time, I—like many researchers I’ve spoken to—have plenty of fears about what could happen if research goes wrong. What about quality? Rigor?  Bias? 

These feelings of excitement and fear can co-exist at the same time. And of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to democratizing research if you choose to do so. 

Should my organization democratize user research?

Here are a few self- reflection prompts that I used when onboarding onto the User Interviews team. These questions can help set you and your team up for success when determining whether it is right for you.

First, reflect on how you, personally, think about research and democratization:

  • What does research mean to me?
  • How do I currently do research?
  • What are my personal views and perceptions around democratization?

Next, reflect on your how your organization views research and democratization:  

  • What type of decisions happen at your company?
  • What type of data has your team previously used to make decisions (qual, quant, a mix)?
  • What level of evidence do you need to inform your decisions?
  • What is the current level of demand for research on my team? Is there any that I was not able to fulfill?
  • What could go right if we open up research to others? What could go wrong?

The questions above should help you determine whether democratization is the right framework for you and your team. If it is , the next step is determining the level of tools, training, and education that your team will need to successfully democratize.

Consider the following:

  • What is the current level of research knowledge, skills, and abilities on my team?
  • What would I want my teammates to know, do, and feel, regarding user research?
  • What education, training, and support can I provide my team to get them there?
  • How will I measure and evaluate the progress of my team?
  • How frequently will I need to revisit my approaches? 
  • Where should I create guardrails or checks when it comes to research?
  • What resources will I need to do all of this?

The research enablement model at User Interviews

Informed by the answers to those questions regarding myself and User Interviews, my team set up a working model around the type of work the User Research team would lead and the type of work we would enable others to drive.

The Research team at UI is responsible for driving company-wide strategic research. This includes work that focuses on foundational learning like mental model studies, competitive analysis, strategy and vision decisions.

Our research team is also responsible for enabling others to learn about UXR, and ensuring that they are focusing on the right things. To support this, I designed and implemented a research enablement program for our team at UI. 

When teammates are learning about research for the first time, they can attend:

  • Monthly fireside chats in which one of our customers is featured. I’ll lead a live interview so our team can learn more about a day in a life of the researchers we serve.
  • A 4-part Research Fundamentals workshop that introduces them to best practices.

screenshot of a zoom fireside chat
Example of our Fireside Chats

The goal of these 2 offerings is to help ground everyone’s conceptual understanding around research. Once people are more familiar with UXR, they can expand their knowledge and begin applying what they’ve learned, by:

  • Receiving personalized coaching and guidance from a member of the Research team
  • Accessing an internal research playbook that contains templates and best practices around research
screenshot of our research playbook
Example of our research playbook

Finally, if anyone needs on-demand research support or guidance, we have:

  • A #research-hotline channel in Slack, where our teammates can ask questions and get a speedy response

screenshot of a research question on slack
Example of a question on our research hotline

What are the outcomes?

Since implementing the model over 9 months ago, we’ve witnessed a few outcomes among the team at UI:

  • The Research team is able to focus on more strategic projects, like longer-term foundational studies 
  • The wider team’s confidence around research is increasing.
  • More research is being conducted, applied, and used to make decisions within the team.
  • Customer empathy (which was already strong) is increasing!
  • Demand for research is growing.

What does the future hold?

Our research enablement program is a work in progress. Over the next few months, I hope to focus on:

  • Formalizing the coaching work we’re already providing to many on the team.
  • Establishing multiple Research touchpoints for different types of projects.
  • Introducing additional research methodologies—like diary studies and evaluative methods—to the team.

Our enablement programs are constantly changing, adapting, and shifting. We’ll be continuing to iterate and adjust our ways of working as the needs of our business and our teammates evolve. As always, it’s what you learn on the journey!

Psst—to hear more thoughts from UXR leaders like Roberta, check out the User Research Yearbook of 2022—a directory of thought leaders, change makers, and essential voices in user research and design.

Read the full article here

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