Sean McKay & Kade Schemahorn

More and more people across industries are recognizing the value of research to drive innovation and make better decisions. So much so that demand for research often outpaces the capacity to get it done. In response, many organizations are looking for ways to scale research, including the trend toward “democratization of research”.

In this post, we’ll look at what this means, “democratizing research”, and what to consider in the context of your own organization.

The 3 A’s of democratizing research (who doesn’t absolutely adore alliteration?) 

Democratizing research can be broken into three main areas:

  • Access — Who can find and use existing research? And how do we give more people more access?
  • Ability — Who can do new research? And how can we help more people do more research?
  • Appreciation — What does the culture look like around research? And how can we distribute greater appreciation for research throughout the organization?

At the risk of deploying an overused metaphor, each of these areas are like the legs of a three-legged stool—you need them all to successfully democratize research.

Let’s look at each of these areas in turn.


Access

Sufficient and consistent documentation

When it comes to accessing research, a foundational question to answer is WHAT exactly people in your organization will be accessing. The quality of documentation around research can vary wildly. We’ve heard stories of researchers inheriting cardboard boxes containing a hodgepodge of research materials from the past decade. It should go without saying, that isn’t ideal.

Two targets to shoot for in documenting research:

  • Sufficient — Sufficiently documenting research is about making sure that each study has enough context to enable understanding of what was learned and why the research was done. It is also about documenting the right level of detail so that people can efficiently and effectively evaluate the relevance of any particular study to whatever it is they have a question about. As with abstracts for academic research, it is helpful to have a summary that allows people to decide whether or not it is worth digging further into the details of that study.
  • Consistent — Consistency makes it much easier to navigate and compare studies (how were they done, how relevant is each to my current question, etc.). It also makes it much easier to compare related findings across studies. As much as possible, make it apples to apples.

While you may be interested in more robust documentation, we suggest the following as a core set of elements to achieve sufficient documentation for any research effort:

  • Research plan — research objectives, methods, and participant criteria
  • Questions and Results — provide access for traceability and potentially even reuse in a future study
  • Detailed analysis — provide access for traceability, to be able to reference how the researchers came to their conclusions (Like in school it’s best to show your work! It builds credibility to the findings)
  • Insights — individual insights, each with sufficient context so that their implications can be well understood
  • Related artifacts — any maps, diagrams, image galleries, etc. that were generated during the study and help communicate the findings
  • Summary of findings — relatively short, often single page, overview of what was learned, containing key findings with some narrative that ties them together

Curation 

Now that you have your documentation in order, we need to avoid the problem of having a single massive pile of studies to dig through each time someone has a question. Curation to the rescue!

In its most basic form, curation is about organizing your research and insights so they can be found by others in your organization. This can be as simple as tagging each insight with the topic(s) they relate to. With simple tagging, using topics that are meaningful to your organization, people get to use those topics to search for and find all related studies and insights.

But basic curation through tagging is manual and can be time consuming. It’s best if your repository can help make your insights more easily findable by automatically indexing the content of the studies and their related metadata. This “natural curation” creates a richer repository of data for stakeholders to search and lightens the load for researchers.

More advanced curation involves practices that are usually led by more senior researchers or even dedicated ResearchOps roles, such as a “research librarian”. This may involve selecting insights and adding narrative context around them to identify themes across studies, across teams, and across time. This is a sense-making process that goes beyond any particular research effort and zooms out to look at what is being learned across the organization. This is an area that we at Handrail are really excited about. Stay tuned for upcoming features!

Distribution

You now have well-documented, well-curated research. How do people actually find this research? After all, research can only have impact if people are really engaging with the findings.

There are lots of creative ways that people distribute research findings. Here’s a key principle to consider when thinking about what might work for you and your organization:

Meet people where they are.

If everyone is on Slack, post links to your insights to keep them aware of what you’re learning. If your stakeholders are heavy users of Confluence or Jira, drop a link in those tools to your findings summary. Integration with existing workflows rather than asking people to change their behavior greatly increases your chances of meaningful engagement and buy-in.

Outside of direct communication (meetings, presentations, etc.), here is a short list of key distribution channels to keep in mind:

  • Project deliverables — reports, presentations, etc.
  • Product/project management tools — Jira, Aha, etc.
  • Communication tools — Slack, internal email newsletters, etc.
  • Centralized repositories — like Handrail! 😀

Controlling levels of access

Each organization has their own preferences and needs regarding appropriate use of data, including policies around the use of personally identifiable information (PII). Democratizing research means that more people will be collecting and handling data that may or may not contain PII.

Ask yourself, who should have access to the full details of a study (including the names and contact information of participants) and who should only have limited access (perhaps only to a summary of findings and the individual insights).

It’s important to consider how your processes and tools can make it easier (or harder) for people doing research to comply with your organization’s data use policies.

Tools

If your organization and the amount of research you are doing is relatively small, using general purpose tools (Excel, Google Docs, Evernote, SharePoint, etc.) can get you by. As you distribute the responsibilities of research to more people, more purpose-built tools can help to provide the structure necessary to sustainably manage research at scale.

When evaluating tools, consider ways that they provide support across the entire research process:

  • Identifying and recruiting the right participants
  • Creating and storing research plans, data, analysis, and findings
  • Curating insights to enable discovery
  • Sharing research to generate impact

Ability

Roles and responsibilities

On every team, there is a range of experience with doing research. You can think about people in your organization being divided into the following groups:

  • People who do research — the people with some training, experience, and expertise in doing user research
  • People who participate in research activities — the people with little training or experience in doing user research but who stand to benefit from being involved in various research activities (advancing their skills or developing customer empathy)
  • People who don’t do or participate in research — you want relatively few people in this group, because almost everyone can benefit from participating in research at some level

Democratizing research generally involves the following goals regarding the different groups of people above:

  • Goal 1: Increase the amount of research done by people already doing research. This can be achieved by streamlining workflows and increasing efficiencies within your research processes or even consolidating research processes under particular research-ops roles.
  • Goal 2: Increase the number of people doing research. This can be achieved through coaching/training and providing accessible templates, guidelines, and tools for executing core research methods.
  • Goal 3: Increase participation in research activities by anyone who stands to benefit from being involved. This can be achieved by identifying low barrier ways to involve non-researchers (observing and taking notes during research sessions, participating in debrief sessions, attending regular readouts, participating in affinity mapping activities, etc.). Check out Will Myddelton’s great post, User Research is a Team Sport, for more inspiration in this area.

A word of caution…

While we certainly want to encourage broader involvement in research across organizations, but there are potential risks involved if you are not careful. We don’t want to simply increase the amount of research being done. We want to increase the quality of research. Some would go as far as to say you should skip user research unless you’re doing it right. That’s because doing research poorly can lead to the following outcomes:

  • Loss of perceived credibility of research in the org
  • Plain ol’ bad decisions

And nobody wants that… but there are ways to avoid these pitfalls. You just need to be thoughtful on how and when you involve people new to research. And it’s important not to be too precious with the research process as others get involved. Being protective is the fastest way to limit engagement, trust, and ultimately adoption of new methods and approaches. It’s important to focus on being practical and open in your approach so people can contribute in appropriate and meaningful ways.

Scaling Expertise

So you already have a bunch of product managers, dev leads, and designers ready and willing to start doing research themselves? Then one of the things you can start with is reallocating some of your researchers’ time towards coaching others in the organization through “meaningful involvement”. This approach can help involve various people in your organization:

  • People new to research — It’s important to involve people new to research so they can grow their skills and better understand the craft. Having these “researchers in training” help review research guides, sit in and observe interviews, take notes, contribute to data analysis, etc. is a great way to foster engagement and learning. Then, give them more and more responsibility until they’re out of the nest. Yes, researchers will be taking on some extra responsibility up front, but a talented apprentice quickly pulls their weight.
  • Active collaborators — Product owners, developers and other that you collaborate can benefit from being involved in research activities. Not only can it help build customer empathy hearing comments and observing behaviors first hand, it can also build trust and appreciation for the nuances of the research process.
  • Stakeholders — This is an important group to get involved early, from the planning stage to key milestones and activities throughout the process. Having their involvement from the start, as you are defining research objectives, is a good way to get not only “buy-in” but a sense of shared ownership in the success of the research project.

Taking this a step further, organizations are experimenting with more formal training programs and finding success. For example, researchers at Fidelity Investments spearheaded the development of a class teaching their colleagues to plan and execute remote unmoderated user tests, analyze the resulting data, and document the findings. At the time they presented their results, they had trained 125 designers, greatly increasing the volume of research being conducted, and reducing the gap between research supply and demand in their organization.

If you just can’t fathom pulling your existing researchers away to spin up the small army of people you really need doing some type of research, there is always the option of external consultants for training/coaching. They come with a different set of trade-offs but could be a good option to kickstart your democratization efforts.

Methods and tools

One way we can increase capacity for doing research is to identify methods that most people can do and get a lot of benefit from. (Perhaps with a bit of training. See below for more on that.)

Here are suggestions for two extremely practical and versatile methods that can be taught to just about anyone interested in learning:

Facilitating research sessions is certainly a skill that must be developed, and we don’t want to downplay the challenges in doing it well. However, we also believe that the barrier to facilitating your first research session successfully doesn’t have to be all that high.

Creating or sourcing existing guidelines and reusable templates is one way to lower the barrier to conducting high quality research and increase confidence in participation. This is how many organizations are putting guardrails on the research process that allow more people to participate.

The methods above are versatile enough to be used to answer a wide variety of research questions. They can be thought of as your core workhorse methods. You can leave more specialized methods to be carried out by the people in your organization with higher levels of research training and experience.


Appreciation

Any effort to scale research throughout an organization is going to require change management, and a key piece of that is ensuring that various stakeholders are bought in and sufficiently knowledgeable about research. The final area of democratizing research is about the need to develop a widespread understanding and respect for the following aspects of research.

The value and impact of research

We’ve seen a lot of great ways to get the word out about research going on in an organization and the value that creates. Oftentimes, there is latent demand for insights, and publishing them can spark people to engage and want to learn more.

One great solution is an internal research newsletter. Allow people to sign up for a regular newsletter that rolls up some important insights from the last month. You might even do a profile on your colleague to spread the word about their new class on core methods for doing user research!

Case studies are another great tool to show the value of research in your organization. Have a study that made a difference? Write it up and throw the link in Slack. Make sure to talk about the impact it had on the organization. It can be especially compelling to show how the work moved the needle on key metrics.

Types of research and their uses

Different types of research are like different tools in a toolbox. You wouldn’t use a hammer when you need a hacksaw. As you empower more and more people in your organization with tools to conduct research, it’s common for them to grab for the tools they are most comfortable with, even if they aren’t the most appropriate to answer the questions at hand.

It’s important to provide some oversight (reviewing research plans, for example) to ensure that selected methods are aligning with research objectives. Give people an appreciation for the diversity of research methods out there and the support to identify how they can get their questions answered with the most appropriate tools available.

The challenges of doing research well

In all our efforts to democratize research, it’s important to maintain a healthy respect for the difficulties of learning about humans. They’re messy and complex. But that’s also what makes the work so interesting. Make sure your guidelines, training materials, processes, practices, and policies around research continue to reflect that complexity.

It’s also important to have the right tools and platforms for people to use as they are learning a new process. This is why we’ve designed Handrail around the research workflow, giving everyone a practical and approachable process to collaborate around. This not only helps people learn. It also creates consistency and continuity across teams — speeding up onboarding while minimizing the risk of lost knowledge.

Are you in research-ops? Thinking about how to increase research capacity in your organization? The Handrail team is committed to helping organizations succeed with research at scale. We’d love to chat with you about what you’re trying to achieve. Get in touch!

Icons in illustration from the Noun Project:
“Volunteer” by Stephen Borengasser, “Qualitative” by ProSymbols, “Qualitative research” by Yu Luck, “qualitative” by Eucalyp

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