Christopher Nash on the do's and don'ts of democratization
What democratization is (and isn’t), risks and rewards of democratization, the essentials of a democratization program, and more.
Christopher Nash, Research Democratization Lead, joined the Rally team on April 13 for an AMA to discuss the do’s and don’ts of democratization. Nash covered topics like building a thriving democratization program, measuring the success of democratization, picking the right tools, and the role of Research Ops in democratization.
If you missed it, or want to revisit the highlights, read our recap below. If you’d like to watch a recording of the full AMA, check out our YouTube channel.
🔑 A robust democratization program requires guidance, guardrails, and oversight.
🔑 An ideal environment for a robust democratization program is a mature research team where you have a single person dedicated to building democratization processes.
🔑 In all your democratization efforts, you do not want to become a barrier or an obstacle.
🔑 The more face time people have with real customers, the more likely they will think about real people when making business decisions and designing products.
🔑 You do not need to launch your entire program at once. Work with one team first, get your processes in place, and refine as you go. Grow into it a little bit at a time.
🔑 If you are running democratization, Research Ops is your best friend.
🔑 The best tools to democratize research are ones that are easy to learn and have built-in guardrails.
Who is Nash?
Nash learned the craft of User Research by working in agencies for about eight years. After spending time at Wells Fargo, Nash transitioned into a research role at Dropbox. At the end of his time there, he was working on building “a solid democratization program for folks who are not researchers that would enable them to do their own research effectively and responsibly.” After leaving Dropbox, Nash joined the Airtable team for a role entirely focused on democratization.
What is NOT democratization
“A lot of the controversy around democratization comes from varying definitions of what democratization is — and isn’t,” said Nash. To begin, Nash shared four things democratization is not.
- Democratization is not stakeholder engagement. “Having stakeholders observe sessions that are run by researchers, being involved in debriefs, etc. is just a best practice for research.”
- Democratization is not research anarchy, where you let anyone talk to any customer for any reason and call it research. “Research anarchy leads to bad product decisions, which we do not want.”
- Democratization is not just another way to squeeze more work out of your already overworked researchers.
- Democratization is not something to be taken lightly. “It requires a lot of attention.”
3 common fears of democratization
“There are many fears and anxieties around democratization and those fears are perfectly natural and frankly really healthy,” said Nash. Often, stakeholders don’t fully understand research, how it gets done, or the rigor that’s necessary to complete it. “So, of course the idea of handing the keys to research to folks who don’t understand research is scary,” he said.
Nash shared few common fears many people have about democratization:
Democratizing research will result in poor research. “There’s a worry that non-researchers will use leading questions and draw the wrong conclusions.”
Democratizing research will overburden the research team. “How am I supposed to support another 10 or 100 people trying to do research? There’s no time for that.”
Democratizing research will make researchers irrelevant or no longer needed. “This is one fear that is not justified,” he said. “Almost every person I’ve ever worked with in a democratization program at some point says, ‘I have so much respect for what you do now, I really understand why we need you.’”
Ideally, after going through a democratization program, stakeholders, partners, and non-researchers will have a better understanding for research and the work it takes to do good research.
Benefits of democratization
⭐️ Democratization gets more people in your company direct exposure to customers. “The more face time people have with real customers, the more likely they will think about real people when making business decisions and designing products.”
⭐️ Democratization allows you to get more evaluative research done. “A proper democratization program can set you up to be able to accomplish more valuable usability testing, which should be conducted on every new feature and product.”
⭐️ Democratization frees up researchers to work on more strategic research. “Researchers will have more time to tackle big research questions and problems that we would never expect our partners to be able to do,” he said. “It’s also where many researchers want to spend their time.”
Should you build a democratization program?
A democratization program often thrives within a mature research team. For those who don’t have mature research teams, here are two things to look for as indicators that it’s time for a democratization program:
- Capacity — Do you have enough people that you can dedicate someone specifically to democratization?
- Strong cross-functional partners — Do stakeholders and cross-functional partners have an understanding of research and see its value?
“I would be wary of doing this in an organization where your stakeholders don’t understand research,” said Nash. “Successful democratization requires partners who care about research. If you’re in a place where you are still trying to convince stakeholders that talking to users matters, then it’s unlikely they will be willing to go through all the effort to do research on their own, even with your extensive help.”
Keys to a robust democratization program
“To do democratization well, you need a robust program that includes guidance, guardrails, and oversight,” said Nash. It’s important to note, Nash continued, that a robust program does require a relatively mature research practice. You’re obviously not going to be able to do everything. “If you’re a research team of one, this will be a different scenario. You want a program to be properly resourced. It’s not going to be something you can tack on as an afterthought.”
A good democratization program requires education on basic evaluative research methods and techniques. Education can be whatever is helpful to get someone started. You will want to make these resources modular, approachable, and really targeted.
“Throughout any democratization program, one of the best ways to help people learn is to let them create their own discussion guide and research plan,” said Nash. “By doing this, you’ll learn what they know and immediately have a sense for how much you’ll need to oversee this person. It also identifies opportunities for you to teach the person.
You need to be really intentional about:
- the type of research you want partners to conduct
- the tools they can use
- the types of customers they can contact
It’s important to have multiple checkpoints throughout a project. You or a researcher should be constantly checking in and able to ensure good work is being done. Someone should always be aware of what non-researchers are doing and be ready and able to provide feedback and instruction.
How to kick off your democratization program
Ultimately, “every company is a snowflake,” said Nash. “It’s hard to make blanket statements on how to get started. But what I always try to do is find someplace where I can give immediate value.”
Another important step is to get an understanding of the lay of the land. This will likely be most beneficial for those in a mature research program. He shared four questions to investigate before you begin building your democratization program:
- What’s the relationship between partners and research?
- Where are the gaps?
- What are things the partners are looking for that they aren’t getting from research?
- What does the research team want to be able to do that they can’t?
Once you understand the situation you are working with, ask the following:
- What are the immediate needs of the company?
- What do you want democratization to look like?
It’s essential to make sure the research team and leadership are on board with what you’re doing. What does it look like to have everyone on board?
- full alignment
- understanding of goals
- realization of value of democratization efforts
Tips from Nash
💡 Since you will be asking people who are not researchers to take on a research project, prioritize making your process as turnkey as possible.
💡 Consider early on setting up a rolling research program. This will help alleviate the burden of recruitment.
💡 Create templates as much as possible.
💡 Get leadership buy-in. Leadership support will provide motivation to those who may be hesitant about democratization efforts.
💡 Pilot everything. You do not need to launch your entire program at once. Work with one team first, get your processes in place, and refine as you go. Grow into it a little bit at a time.
Is it working? How to tell if your democratization efforts are successful
TL;DR — Evaluate your success by answering these three questions:
- Are you saving the research team precious time?
- Are more decisions being made that are backed by research-driven data?
- Are more people developing a greater understanding of research and seeing its value?
For Nash, one measure of success was how many projects he was able to consult on each year. For example, at Dropbox, he consulted on 100 projects per year. “Basically those were 100 projects that either would have gone without research or would have drawn extra time away from the research team.”
Another measure of success is increased awareness and education about research. “All of the people involved in the projects I consulted on learned a lot about what research is and its importance,” he said. “But the biggest thing was they learned a ton about their customers.”
☁️ Democratization Dream State 🌈
Here’s how Nash described his dream state of democratization:
“Research is easy for folks to successfully conduct in a responsible and effective way. Ideally, this is enabled through repeatable processes that people can plug into. A thriving democratization program will further build a robust research practice and grow and spread the demand for research throughout your organization.”
Democratizing with a small research team
“I really do believe you need one dedicated person to run a successful democratization program,” said Nash. Unfortunately, not every team or organization will be in a position to dedicate an entire role to democratization.
In situations where you are a small research team or a research team of one, Nash recommends the following:
- Set aside a chunk of time to focus on setting up this program, developing education, and providing guardrails.
- Limit how many projects that can be going on at once. For example, provide time slots for people to sign up and get help on 2-4 studies per month. This will help keep the volume down to a manageable level.
- Rely on Research Ops to answer questions like:
- How do you help folks understand the tools?
- How do you aid folks in recruiting?
- Where is their work going afterwards?
“I’m not saying don’t do it as a single researcher,” said Nash. “I’m just cautioning that it’s a big job.”
If you are in a situation where you can dedicate a single person to the democratization role, Nash offered two things to keep in mind when making the case for the role:
- Focus on how it would help researchers do more strategic work and be more influential in the organization.
- Show examples of how researchers get pulled away to last-minute projects or research that could be done by others.
“A democratization person ideally should be a researcher,” he added. “You want someone who has a lot of experience sitting with users so that they can help coach and educate folks on how to do research in an effective, responsible way.”
Customer conversations vs. rigorous research: What’s the difference?
“It’s really important to help folks understand the difference between a customer conversation and rigorous research,” said Nash. Partners like product managers should be talking to customers. “The informal conversations they have are great for building empathy, sparking product ideas, and providing real-world examples of product usage.”
But, he cautioned, these conversations shouldn’t be the main backing for product decisions. “They often aren’t representative and not rigorous,” he continued. “Research done by researchers is much more rigorous.”
Researchers know how to ask questions and how to analyze the data. “Partners are just not going to have all those tools or skills,” he said. “They may feel their casual conversations are no different from the rigorous research being conducted by researchers, but it is different and it’s important to make that clear.”
Because of this, education is vital to a thriving, robust democratization program. Along with explaining the differences between casual customer conversations and rigorous research, Nash shared a few other essential topics to cover with partners and non-researchers:
- how to be objective
- how to take your ego out of your research
- how to be open to new ideas
- how to mitigate your bias
How to democratize ethical research
It can be challenging to build an understanding of research ethics within stakeholders without research backgrounds. Nash shared a few tips for ensuring ethical research is conducted:
- Whatever your researchers do to get consent, make sure that process is as plug-and-play as possible so that anyone can easily jump in and do it.
- Create gates not obstacles. “In all your democratization efforts, you do not want to become a barrier or an obstacle.”
- Have a researcher go through discussion guides before any research takes place.
- Have good ops in place.
Why is democratization best for evaluative research?
“The sweet spot for democratization is evaluative research, i.e. usability, simple concept tests, language testing, etc.,” said Nash. “I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to have non-researchers answer bigger foundational questions.”
Here’s why evaluative research is best:
- It’s usually a smaller data set, maybe 10-12 people at most, making it easier to analyze. It also leaves less room for analysis disaster
- It’s more bite-sized projects that don’t require long amounts of time.
- It involves techniques that are easier to teach.
- It often requires less time and can be easier for non-researchers to dedicate real time and effort.
- It can provide more immediate, relevant benefits whereas generative research may be too tangential to what non-researchers are doing.
“Overall, limiting to evaluative research is much safer and more achievable for you, your researchers, and your partners.” Read more about how Nash scaled evaluative research at Dropbox here.
Where does Research Ops fit into democratization?
“If you’re running democratization, Research Ops is your best friend,” said Nash. “Frankly, if you’re a researcher, Research Ops is your best friend.”
If you are suddenly expanding the pool of people that are doing research, then you’re exponentially expanding the pool of participants needed, he explained. This makes a lot of work for Research Operations folks. It’s also an opportunity where Research Ops can come in and set up mechanisms for recruiting to ensure researchers are not overwhelmed.
Research Ops can also help with the mechanics of your democratization program and lighten the load on the research team.
How to manage Research Anarchy
Picture this. You join an organization where the product and design teams are used to conducting scrappy research autonomously. How do you pull them back into a healthy model?
Here are four things Nash recommended:
- Don’t discourage them from talking to users.
- Give them some infrastructure that they can plug into.
- Help them continue the work they’re doing and try to up-level them, as opposed to telling them what they can’t do or giving them 35 hoops to jump through.
- Give them as much concrete feedback as possible on specific things. (For example, ask to review their discussion guides.)
“Ideally, they will realize you know more about this than they do and they will be motivated to come to you for help in the future,” said Nash.
How to pick the right tools for democratization
“When you’re running a democratization program, one of the things to keep in mind is just how learnable a tool is,” said Nash. “A lot of User Research tools are not user friendly. And if you’re going to do a democratization program, that matters.”
Nash also recommended searching for tools that have built-in guardrails. For example, an ideal tool would be one where you can give someone access and allow them to build something, but they have to wait for approval to actually launch. “Those kinds of guardrails can be really helpful and are an important thing to look for in your tools.”
Democratize responsibly with Rally
Rally’s CRM platform helps you scale up research processes, empower teams to engage with their users responsibly, and grow the impact of User Research across your company. With Rally, you can build templates, track research activity, set up SSO and user permissions, create governance rules, and more. Book a demo now.
We were thrilled to have Nash join us and share his experience building democratization programs. If you’d like to watch a recording of the full AMA, check out our YouTube channel.