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Democratization of UX Insights: What Does This Really Mean?

August 12, 2019

In 1999, nearly 20 years ago, I conducted my first Web site usability test. Wow! I still vividly remember how it felt to conduct that type of research. That was back when no one understood how to design Web sites, let alone had any insights into what made a great digital experience. At that time, being able to conduct a usability test felt like a luxury that others had yet to experience. A large bank had commissioned that study. Of course! Only those with excess cash were running usability tests back then.

Those who have been in the field of User Experience since the ’90s know exactly what I mean. Fortunately, things have improved dramatically in the last few years. There’s much more user research being conducted and far more insights are available than ever before, which ultimately translates into better digital product experiences.

Given how critical User Experience has now become as a competitive advantage, the thirst for those insights is growing exponentially. Good UX design has become strategic. Now, it’s not just UX researchers and designers, but product managers and even C-level executives who are seeing the value of powerful UX insights in improving digital experiences.

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Great UX Design Takes a Village

The plain fact is that great UX design is extraordinarily hard. It actually takes a village—among many other things. Similar to the music a symphony orchestra creates, great design takes a lot of collaboration and synchronization among multiple teams. And it’s precisely these requirements that lead me to the true meaning of democratization of UX research insights.

The word democratize essentially means to make something available or accessible to anyone—particularly when it comes to decision making. The UX insights that we gather through research can help a product organization make wise, user-centered, confident decisions. These insights include task-success rates and efficiency ratios—determining whether users were actually able to complete what they came to do and how much time and effort it took them. Great UX design is a powerful way of differentiating products in the competitive marketplace. So everyone wants access to those insights—and to be part of the process of obtaining them—all the way up to the C-suite. Because teams across an organization now value UX insights, it’s important that these insights flow freely within the organization.

So how can we practically make this happen?

Labs in the Cloud

Thanks to the technology and automation that we have today, teams are leveraging product design and development clouds such as InVision, Adobe XD, Confluence, Jira, and Pendo. For UX research, we now have labs in the cloud rather than classic, physical usability labs. While I’d argue that UX research still requires human intervention, having research tools in the cloud means you can automate the process of conducting user research, free up your own time and budget for higher-level research tasks, share your UX insights, and enable the democratization of User Experience.

There are three major stages of UX research, as follows:

  1. Planning and designing your study—Today’s UX research tools enable researchers to plan and design a study as a team. You can create a study and share it with internal team members for review and feedback, then instantly update your study and make it accessible in the cloud. Collaboration features make it easy to preview and pilot test your study before launching it.
  2. Sourcing participants—Technology has enabled remote work, and you can now conduct user research remotely, too. While it’s great to do on-site user research whenever possible, let’s face it, most of the time, that’s neither convenient, fast enough, nor cost effective. Finding and engaging with research participants remotely removes a lot of the barriers from conducting research, while quickly providing quality UX insights. Speed is of essence if UX researchers are to match the pace of agile-development processes.
  3. Sharing results and delivering insights—Information is power, right? Last February, I attended the BetterUX event in London, where the theme was “The Democratization of User Experience.” As Paul Boag mentioned at BetterUX, stakeholders are less likely to reject a solution they were involved in creating. Plus, they’re more likely to defend it when others criticize it. That’s why this stage of the UX research process is probably the most important when it comes to democratizing UX insights. Because the results reside in the cloud, they’re safely accessible to everyone on your team via a link. So, once you’ve carefully reviewed and analyzed the results, you can easily share them with team members and others in the organization. Team members who didn’t actively participate in a study, but have an interest in the insights—such as engineers, product managers, or members of the senior-management team—can now access them, too. The ability to collaborate brings agility to the UX-research process and helps organizations to be more efficient, transparent, and most important, inclined to design using user-centered data.

Challenges: ResearchOps and the Quality of Insights

While the democratization of UX insights is a very positive thing, it comes with its own set of challenges.

As Dave Malouf put it in InVision’s DesignOps Handbook, “Organizing research activities to discover insights—then making those insights actionable—requires attention to many operational concerns. This is especially true as you scale your research organization and your org as a whole.”

The other challenge is ensuring the quality of the UX insights. Yes, it’s great that organizations are doing more usability testing. It’s also great that UX research is more accessible. But running successful UX research studies is not always simple. In some cases, studies can be fairly complicated. Test design can have a major impact on the quality and validity of the results. Also, it’s absolutely critical to source the right participants. Plus, it’s all too easy to misinterpret the results of research.

This is why it is essential that your efforts to democratize UX insights be accompanied by a training program, as well as a quality-check process. Formally trained UX researchers should play a big role here. But, instead of their being the sole owners of the research work, they can become coaches and enable other team members to learn more about how to conduct proper UX research.

Examples of the Democratization of UX Insights in the Enterprise

I learned a lot about the democratization of UX insights from the speakers at BetterUX. Here are three examples.

1. Setting Your Research Goals Up Front

James Barley, from Autotrader.co.uk, recommends that, before any study, UX professionals—both researchers and designers—and product managers work as a team to ensure they address the right themes and questions up front. Teams should always begin by refining their research questions because, often, what people think they want to do or know might not be what they actually need to solve the problem. James thinks using a collaborative process and a framework for analyzing UX insights is key. You can classify your right and wrong assumptions and capture new questions and ideas.

As Figure 1 shows, James has a formula for quickly democratizing UX insights and inspire, engage, and empower a user-research culture. Rather than UX researchers making design recommendations, they let the team decide.

Figure 1—Democratizing UX research
Democratizing UX research

Brooke Baldwin, UX Research Lead at Facebook, argues that it’s important to elicit clear goals from all team members, including top management, before proceeding with your research. To frame a research study properly, Brooke believes it’s very helpful to raise the question: “What are you going to do with the results?”

2. Progressing from Player to Coach

Louise Rowlands shared how her company, Moneysupermarket, is democratizing user research across the organization. One highlight of her presentation was her description of how the role of the UX researcher has changed from player to coach in mature organizations, as Figure 2 shows. I’ve consistently heard this theme in many other talks I’ve attended recently, including one from the Thumbtack UX Research Team at the recent UXPA International Conference. The company has already completed almost 20 UX-research training programs and workshops.

Figure 2—UX research maturity
UX research maturity

According to Soma Ray, UX Researcher at Booking.com, they have trained more than 80 people in User Experience this year.

3. Fluid Ownership

As Figure 3 shows, Soma also told us that UX research is not a monolithic process. It’s iterative and surfaces throughout the entire product-development lifecycle. According to Soma, at Booking.com, they approach research in phases, sharing and allowing fluid ownership of UX insights. She said team members at Booking.com, including UX designers, copywriters, and developers, are loving it! Figure 4 shows some of their feedback on the process. They’ve demonstrated a high degree of appreciation for having access to the UX insights that the UX Research team has collected. Sharing is caring!

Figure 3—UX research is not a monolithic process
UX research is not a monolithic process
Figure 4—Appreciation for UX insights
Appreciation for UX insights

Conclusion

Every company will soon be a digital experience company—if they’re not already. I celebrate the fact that great product user experiences are more important than ever. In fact, companies now widely regard them as one of the main competitive differentiators allowing them to compete successfully in their marketplace. It’s great to see the thirst for UX insights growing within many organizations—and not just for UX Research teams, but among Design, Product Management, Marketing, and Engineering teams and even in the C-suite.

Unlike in the past, when the geographic constraints of a physical lab limited UX research studies, cloud-based UX research tools today enable the free flow of UX insights across an organization, enabling the true democratization of User Experience. Of course, having increasingly quick and efficient access to user feedback also requires taking action at the operational level—through ResearchOps. Training workshops enable teams to ensure the quality of their UX insights before democratization takes place. 

Co-founder & Co-CEO at UserZoom

San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA

Alfonso de la NuezCo-founder & Co-CEO at UserZoom San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA Originally from Madrid, Spain, Alfonso has 17 years of experience in User Experience, digital marketing, ecommerce, Web design, Web project management, user-centered design, and usability testing. Before founding UserZoom in 2007, Alfonso worked for companies that include Dell Computer, Icon Medialab—now DigitasLBi—and Proxicom’s venture in Spain—now Indra. He holds a B.A. in International Business from San Jose State University. Alfonso is a frequent speaker at UX conferences, has taught usability courses at various universities, and collaborates with the Stanford University Technology Ventures Program.  Read More

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