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The Democratization of UX Research in Product Development

August 17, 2020

The democratization of UX research is an approach that centers on empowering various teams within an organization to conduct UX research, analyze the results, and take action on them. Leaders in the industry of UX research—such as Carol Barnum, in her article “The State of UX Research,” (PDF) and UserZoom’s Alfonso de la Nuez, in his UXmatters article “Democratization of UX Insights: What Does This Really Mean?” and his talk at BetterUX London 2019 “Why and How to Democratize UX Research”—have discussed various approaches to the democratization of UX research, touching on its value and benefits, as well as the possible dilution of the practice of UX research.

As businesses create more and more applications, new startups get launched, and organizations hire more UX team members, the need for the democratization of UX research has become clear. UX professionals and teams must take responsibility for empowering other individuals and teams to conduct UX research.

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In this article, I’ll focus on methods by which UX team members can drive some elements of the democratization of UX research and take responsibility for making sure UX research is part of the development process and gets adopted throughout the organization.

Democracy and Equal Voices Within Organizations

Alexis de Tocqueville, a 19th-century, French scholar, diplomat, and researcher observed during his travels and ethnographic observation of the formation of American culture that aristocracy was disappearing and, in its place, a new, modern world was arising in which equality would benefit the society as a whole. As de Tocqueville stated in his book Democracy in America, maintaining a democracy, or a society in which different voices help advance the whole society, would create an ideal society. Just as our having equal voices helps progress an entire society and is at the root of a democratic society, an organization can benefit from the value of having multiple perspectives and voices that push it forward.

Increasing UX Maturity

An organization’s UX maturity represents the degree to which members of that organization focus on the user at all stages of the product-development process. In endeavoring to increase the organization’s UX maturity, you’ll advocate for your product-team members—including product managers, account managers, developers, and quality-assurance engineers—to listen to and learn from users throughout the development process and assist you in evaluating your product’s usability.

UX maturity models, which highlight different stages of UX maturity within an organization, have been part of UX culture since the 1990s. You can use such models to assess how well an organization’s teams work together to create user-friendly products. Such models help an organization gauge their UX maturity. The UX maturity models of Jonathan Earthy, [1] Jakob Nielsen, [2, 3] Bruce Temkin, [4] and Leah Buley [5] comprise from three to eight stages.

At MSTS, we employ a scorecard system that helps us measure how much customer research product teams are doing and, thus, the degree to which they’re focusing on the customer. To increase UX maturity within an organization, measuring the amount and importance of the UX research that teams are conducting can be a key driver. Focusing on listening to the customer, testing new concepts and designs, and measuring post-launch value can help drive the UX maturity of your product teams forward.

Coaching and Mentoring Others

Share your knowledge! UX team members should work to coach and mentor product-team members to improve their knowledge of User Experience. Make UX research and design a team effort. Bring product-team members along when you’re conducting field research and encourage them to learn from customers. The more your product team listens to and uncovers the needs of the customer, the more your knowledge about customers can drive product design and ensure that you fulfill their needs. Invite your product-team members to attend usability-test sessions. Train product managers on conducting usability and concept tests. Conduct design workshops as a team to leverage your findings from research in creating user-centered designs.

Teamwork and Workshops

I have found working with various members of my product teams to generate and assess ideas, analyze research findings, and implement designs to be highly beneficial. Matthew Eng, UX Research Team Lead at IBM, gave a fantastic talk at the 2018 UX Midwest Conference on building trust within the organization through shared research. His talk “Research Is the Glue” highlighted the practice of embracing all team members’ knowledge, insights, and perspectives to align on a unified goal when creating product solutions. Eng focused on aligning all members of the team behind the UX research so everyone’s focus is on creating a great product rather than on pursuing methods that tend to cause friction between team members. Research can bring teams together and help focus them on what everyone wants—creating a great user experience.

One example is working together as a team to conduct a usability study. Encourage the product manager to conduct the user interviews, with the UX researcher present to assist with notetaking, listening, and learning. Invite the engineers who are going to code the design solutions that result from your discoveries to attend the sessions, so they’ll understand the whys behind the ultimate product solution. Once you’ve collected the data you need, hold a workshop to collectively unpack the research findings with the product managers and the UX designers. Finally, create a report and share it with all of your stakeholders to ensure all of them are aware of both the process and the resulting findings.

Doing at Least Some Research

About 20 years ago, in his article “Why You Only Need to Test with 5 Users,” Jakob Nielsen wrote, “Zero users give zero insights.” If teams aren’t doing any research, they are flying blind when creating products. Doing some research is always better than doing no research. You can start by collecting insights from a single user. Working as a UX team of one can present challenges to your gaining research insights when you’re responsible for creating multiple new product-design solutions. Advocate for the need to get some feedback on new design ideas with your product teams, as well as the importance of gaining understanding that could prevent you from taking a possibly costly wrong product direction.

In this ever changing, progressive world of product-solution design, working together with and empowering your product-team members helps drive the product direction—ensuring that the product meets users’ needs, alleviates their painpoints, and centers on their goals. By inviting your account manager to your usability-test sessions, you can ensure that she really understands the process by which your product team is creating the product and appreciates that it is truly user centric.

Create the discussion guide for your research study with the product manager and leverage his knowledge to maximize your learnings from your research sessions. Present your discussion guide to stakeholders and give them a chance to ask questions, provide feedback, and offer insights that can help you optimize your learning process. Encourage your product-team members to conduct UX research, which brings them closer to users’ needs and can help them create a solid product. 

Endnotes

[1] Earthy, Jonathan. “Usability Maturity Model: Human Centeredness Scale.” Information Engineering Usability Support Centres, December 27, 1998. Retrieved August 13, 2020.

[2] Nielsen, Jakob. “Corporate UX Maturity: Stages 1–4.” Nielsen Norman Group, April 23, 2006. Retrieved August 13, 2020.

[3] Nielsen, Jakob. “Corporate UX Maturity: Stages 5–8.” Nielsen Norman Group, April 30, 2006. Retrieved August 13, 2020.

[4] Temkin, Bruce. “The Customer Experience Journey.” Qualtrics XM Institute, September 18, 2008. Retrieved August 13, 2020.

[5] Buley, Leah. “The Modern UX Organization.” Presentation at Interaction Design Association, February 11, 2015. Retrieved August, 13, 2020.

Principal UX Engineer / Researcher at MSTS

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

John KilleAt MSTS, a global fintech (Financial Technology) company that serves customers in a variety of domains, including transportation, manufacturing, retail, and ecommerce, John creates digital-payment solutions that make B2B (Business-to-Business) payments easier, faster, and smarter. Over the past decade, John has led extensive user-centered design and customer-research projects in the lab, online, and in the field, across the US and in other countries such as India, Germany, and the Netherlands. He earned his PhD in American Studies, from Saint Louis University.  Read More

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