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February 1, 2023
Why top companies, forward-thinking governments, and leading UX teams are investing in Research Ops now.
If you’ve ever played Mario Kart, then you’re likely familiar with the turbo start strategy—wait for the second beep in the timer before the race begins, and hold down the acceleration button until the screen says “go!”
When you nail the timing on this technique, you’ll shoot forward with a massive head start against the competition. Somehow, I almost always managed to fumble it, stall my kart, and kick off at a snail’s pace—but my point here is, getting Research Operations right is a bit like applying the turbo start technique to your User Research practice. It allows your team to quickly and smoothly amplify its impact for a competitive edge.
In this blog, we’ll talk about:
Research Operations (also called Research Ops or ReOps) is the organization and optimization of people, processes, tools, and strategies to create repeatable systems that support research at scale and amplify its impact across an organization. Similar to operational roles on other teams, ReOps helps folks do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.
Research democratization is an organizational research model centered around empowering other teams, outside of the full-time research team, to conduct research, analyze the results, and take action.
Because democratization allows non-researchers to conduct their own research, which puts the quality, consistency, and accuracy of research across teams at risk. Some companies are getting ahead of those risks by taking a newer, assisted approach to democratization—aka Democratization 2.0.
ReOps can help organizations with assisted democratization models by standardizing, streamlining, and optimizing research practices across teams, so that no matter who is it—full-time UXRs, designers, product managers, marketers—research is being done right.
📊 Need to demonstrate the value of UXR to your stakeholders? This article breaks down the 4 most common objections to doing research using cold, hard, stats. These will help you show your team that research is worth the time, budget, and effort—even in an uncertain economic climate.
According to the State of User Research 2022 Report, more than 50% of survey respondents said researchers are embedded in their own teams but also work cross-functionally—a pattern indicative of a distributed, and at least semi-democratized model of research.
This increasing adoption of democratization may be due to, in part, an increasing recognition of research’s value, leading to more demand than there is bandwidth on traditional research teams. In some teams, non-researchers are gaining an appetite to engage with the research process directly, which is enabled by a proliferation of tools that let anyone launch research projects.
Brooke Hinton, Vimeo’s Director of Consumer Analytics & Research, said in a panel discussion for Rosenfeld Media’s Advancing Research Conference:
“The biggest reason folks want democratized access is because they want to hear from users. I think there’s this instant gratification that comes from actually interviewing and moderating that we were hoping to empower.”
Although small, scrappy teams may be democratized by default, that doesn’t mean they’re equipped to do their best work. As teams scale, ReOps can make the difference between a well-meaning democratized practice and one that is maximally effective and sustainable.
When supported by a dedicated operations manager, full-time researchers can increase their focus on research strategy and impact, while people who do research (or PwDR—folks outside the research team who perform their own research, such as designers or product people) can improve outcomes in their own roles by using insights to inform their decisions.
Roy Olende, Head of UX Research at Zapier, said in an episode of our podcast, Awkward Silences, that this ReOps support for PwDRs makes a massive difference:
“What surprised me the most is I thought I would come in and mostly work on problems we were facing with the UX research team… I actually spent the majority of my time thinking about, and working on problems and opportunities for folks who do research, but are not full-time researchers. We have lots of PMs, lots of designers, a few marketers, and a few engineers who do research sort of week in, week out. I didn't account for the fact that it would be most valuable to work on resources and services and tools that are going to help those folks as opposed to focusing full time on the UX research team.”
In fact, the State of User Research 2022 survey also found that researchers who are supported by a dedicated Research Operations Manager reported higher fulfillment at work (and greater satisfaction with everything from their tool stacks to their research budgets to their career paths) than people who reported having no such role at their company.
Faster research cycles, insights-driven teams, happier researchers, with guardrails and quality control? It’s hard to argue with the value of this ReOps-assisted approach to democratization.
So how, specifically, can ReOps help make this approach a reality?
We’re confident that mature UX research teams will continue to invest in ReOps as the demand for democratization grows. Here’s why ReOps and democratization go hand-in-hand.
One of the most common concerns about democratization is how to maintain high standards of research quality among PwDRs.
Indeed, this was one of the challenges Brooke Hinton and her team faced in the early stages of democratization at Vimeo:
“In the beginning, what we didn’t plan for was the fact that, in a democratized model, stakeholders aren’t ready to write their own briefs, they’re not ready to actually get going on the recruitment and monitor it to make sure the folks we’re bringing in are right for their specs.”
Creating research plans and recruiting the right folks aren’t the only challenges faced by democratized teams. Analysis by non-researchers can also be tricky, as Roberta Dombrowski, User Interviews’s VP of User Research, explains:
“I don’t worry about the team moderating their own sessions… but I worry about the analysis, because that’s where the bias comes in. Is this an observation or are you just validating an assumption based on what you heard?”
ReOps can mitigate these concerns by providing onboarding, educational materials, and training around research, ensuring high-quality, standardized work from non-researchers. In an assisted model of democratization, the most delicate aspects of research strategy is still funneled through an experienced team.
Kara Pernice, Senior VP at Nielsen Norman Group says:
“Some may assume that research democratization means that anybody can do any type of research. Wrong! Complex research-related tasks—like determining the best research method, identifying research questions, planning a contextual inquiry or quantitative study—will be done well only by someone with education, experience, and skills.
For example, the research enablement practice at User Interviews includes fireside chats with trained UX researchers, educational workshops, research playbooks and guides, office hours with our head of research, and a #research-hotline Slack channel where folks can ask questions and get quality checks from the research team.
Insights are only useful if they’re organized, easy to understand, and accessible by those who need them. Typically, research insights are shared and archived using some combination of insights repositories and share-out reports, but this process becomes complicated as more and more teams begin conducting their own research.
Brooke Hinton of Vimeo observed, collecting and consolidating insights from democratized teams can be a challenge:
“I would say 75%+ of the democratized studies that we kick off and successfully launch and close from a recruitment standpoint don’t see reporting. They kind of leave it at the note-taking grid level, and that’s definitely a challenge for us, because ongoing, we want to build benchmarking from this, we want to build broader insights stories from this.”
Likewise, Brigette Metzler, ResearchOps Lead at the Australian Department Of Agriculture, Water, And The Environment, needed to address insights management challenges when she started in ReOps. She explained on the This Is HCD podcast:
“When I started Research Operations, I was sort of brought in by a team to look at data. But quickly you could see that actually what they had was a data and knowledge management issue… They didn’t want me to do their analysis. They wanted me to help them find the data, make sense of the data, feel safe with the data, know how to share it, and give them a mechanism for sharing.”
ReOps can help teams standardize the knowledge management and sharing process, increasing research visibility and ensuring that insights are used to inform decisions. By giving non-researchers access to insights archives, you can reduce duplicate effort, allow every team to make research-driven decisions, and allow PwDRs to build off existing insights in their own research.
And, as Emily DiLeo, Sr. Design Research Specialist at SAP, says of research repositories, your approach to managing and archiving insights can transform the way your organization thinks about and practices research:
“Using a repository will likely bring about changes to the way research is done at your organization. You will see new opportunities, but also gaps and problems with the way things are done. Report formats, research quality, and research impact (or lack of it) will be put in the spotlight. Be ready to engage in those conversations!”
As researchers and research advocates, many of us would love to believe that the value of research is obvious and self-explanatory—but the reality is that some folks need to be warmed up to the idea.
As Behzod Sirjani, Founder of Yet Another Studio, says in Maze’s Democratizing Research Playbook:
"Unfortunately, it seems that most organizations care about building a culture of knowing, not a culture of learning. It's something that we're conditioned to from an early age and rarely encouraged to break away from—we get rewarded for what we know, not what we question. But if you look at the challenges that organizations face and think about ones that have succeeded over decades, success does not come from regurgitating answers about the past. It does not come from being an organization that knows—it comes from being an organization that learns."
For a research practice to mature, researchers need to advocate for a learning culture at their own organizations. Small research teams may struggle to maintain a robust advocacy program on top of their day-to-day responsibilities—but overlooking advocacy can hinder the growth and impact of research. And so, one of the jobs of a ReOps Manager is to help UXRs evangelize research and socialize insights.
Laura Oxenfeld of Drift describes one strategy her team uses for evangelizing research—hiring and promoting team members who fold research into their other responsibilities:
“When it comes time for growth and promotions, research is always a part of the conversation. Having that as part of the career ladder is obviously an incentive—if people want to grow, they have to flex the research muscle… You need to have some good role models in your organization.”
There are a wealth of dedicated research (and research-adjacent) tools available that UXRs use to support and streamline their work.
Andy Garber-Browne, VP and Design Operations Program Manager at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., describes on the ResearchOps Podcast that the sheer number of these tools can be overwhelming:
“When I first found the [ResearchOps] toolbox, I was kind of overwhelmed and super impressed. You know, it's kind of like being dazzled by the sheer number of tools out there. As we know, the vendors in this space have been innovating so fast in the last couple of years, and the tools are just coming in. The capabilities are increasing so fast, that really quickly, we found that it was too voluminous.”
On a democratized team, researchers and PwDRs alike might be logging in and out of each tool on a daily basis, creating an added layer of complexity for whoever’s tasked with evaluating different solutions.
Brooke Hinton of Vimeo explains that the tools need to be sophisticated enough to support research projects, but straightforward enough that even non-researchers can use them:
“We have to find tools that are easy, that have great UX, that don’t feel cumbersome, and that don’t generate any huge blockers for stakeholders during the process.”
ReOps can help UXRs choose, onboard, and maintain the right tool stack—along with developing airtight systems and processes that support the effective use of each tool, by any team member using them.
As Joey Encarnacion, Senior Research Operations Lead at Slack, says on Awkward Silences:
“Research Ops methods should be focused on connecting disparate systems, both within and outside of research. And what I mean by that is, think about all the tools that you have at your disposal. As a research org, maybe you use User Interviews, maybe you use UserTesting, you use Zoom, you use Slack, you use email. What are the ways that you, as an operations team, can connect those pieces to make sure that the work your researchers are doing or the people you're supporting don't have to do any heavy lifting between the systems? How do you essentially erase the seams and create a seamless space?”
One of the ReOps team’s key responsibilities is working with the legal team to handle governance-related tasks, ensuring safe, legal, and ethical research wherever it takes place in your org.
The ReOps department, of course, shouldn’t be the sole owner of governance—the legal team should be involved whenever safety, legality, or ethics comes into play—but ReOps professionals can create helpful guides, templates, and checklists for researchers and PwDRs to reference when sending out consent forms and NDAs, managing and storing participant data, and performing other tasks that might be required, whether by law or simply by good conscience.
Kasey Canlas, UX Research Operations Manager at Genesys, says on the ResearchOps Podcast that secure, legal data management is not only a requirement, but also a way to create and maintain good relationships with your participants:
“You never know what [participants are] going to tell you when you're having interviews. It might seem like the conversation is going in one direction, and then they might bring something out that's personal, or they might bring something out that really touched them. And so it's always important for them to feel comfortable with your researchers and to feel comfortable with you.”
But Lucy Sutton, User Research Operations Lead at DfE Digital, explains on the ResearchOps podcast that you likely won’t need to spend too much time educating or advocating for safe, legal, ethical research practices. Rather, focus on providing step-by-step frameworks, checklists, templates, and other resources to help guide researchers and PwDRs through the process:
“Don't focus your energy into ethics. There's a lot of people out there who already have a really good understanding…. A lot of it was just people just wanting to know, am I doing the right thing? And a lot of the time, they were doing the right thing, they just want something written down that they could refer to. And that's where we focused a lot of our energy on the past 18 months: guidance and templates and pointing people to the stuff when they first come in…. Doing it that way built a lot of trust…. There was a document that they could point to and say ReOps have done that.”
When she kicked off the democratization process at Drift, Research Lead Laura Oxenfeld asked the team what they envisioned for the future of research there:
“The resounding pain point I heard across the board is, recruitment is so difficult, especially because we’re a B2B product.”
Recruitment is often the first step into a traditional ReOps role—because finding participants, screening them, collecting the necessary forms, scheduling sessions, and sending compensation takes a lot of time, effort, and paperwork.
A dedicated ReOps Manager can streamline this process for both UXRs and PwDRs, ensuring that all teams recruit high-quality participants, implementing and managing the right recruitment tools, and following up with important administrative tasks like distributing incentives.
Plus, company-wide recruitment funneled through a ReOps function also helps avoid participant fatigue from too much outreach from different teams. As Brooke Hinton of Vimeo said:
“We have the same target audience across the organization, so if there are ways that we can minimize the amount of outreach that contributes to those ongoing recruitment challenges and fatigue on the user’s side… planning allows us to be more thoughtful about the way we’re deploying research throughout the year.”
Speaking of recruitment, User Interviews can help. Get insights from any niche within our pool of over 1 million participants through Recruit or build and manage your own panel with Research Hub, the first CRM built for researchers. Sign up today.
One of the primary benefits of Research Ops in democratized models cited by UXRs is that it frees up their time to focus on more strategic, higher-value work. Roberta Dombrowski of User Interviews says:
“With Lily [our Research Ops Manager] focused on reducing friction around conducting research and sharing insights across the company, I could shift my focus to leading research that could inform User Interviews’s long-term vision and strategy.”
With a dedicated Research Operations function facilitating research across the org, User Interviews has seen a number of clear benefits:
Plus, Roberta’s role is moving more toward that of a research coach than a research practitioner—and she predicts that we’ll see a rise in research coaching roles in the coming years. This shift to coaching might be a natural evolution of UXR leaders in a democratized model.
Alfonso de la Nuez, CEO and Co-Founder of UserZoom, says on UXMatters:
“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.”
Ultimately, though, the widely-cited benefit of ReOps is that it improves outcomes and impact—like adding a turbo boost to your research practice. As Brad Orego, Head of Research at Auth0, says:
“I’m passionate about Research because ultimately it saves time and resources when building products, and produces better experiences for end-users. I’m passionate about Research Operations because it saves time and resources for People Who Do Research (PWDR), ultimately leading to more research (or more impactful research).”
It depends. Opinions vary among research leaders about the best time to start investing in a ReOps function.
Kate Towsey, Research Operations Manager at Atlassian, recommended hiring for ReOps once your team grows to about 8 or more people. But other teams may choose to start early, including our own research leader, Roberta Dombrowski, whose first hire for our research team was a ReOps Manager:
“As a research leader, I decided to make a foundational bet on Research Operations for our team. Since research was already being led by non-researchers, it was imperative to develop repeatable systems and strategies that would enable research to take place at scale.”
Likewise, Garett Tsukada, who leads ReOps for a democratized team of more than 14,000 people at Intuit, believes ReOps should become involved as early as possible:
“If I had a magic wand, I would say the first thing that I wish we could've done is go back 30 years and set up Research Operations at the start of the company.”
But if you’re still not sure, Roberta Dombrowski of User Interviews offers three self-reflection questions to ask to help you determine whether or not ReOps is the right next step for your team:
When you do get started, remember: you’re not going to get it perfect all at once. Try different things and see what works for your team and company.
To be clear, that advice isn’t coming from me. Take it from the research leaders themselves:
Roberta Dombrowski of User Interviews:
“It’s not always going to go perfect[ly] all the time, and we’ll adjust as we encounter those things as they come up. But I also don’t want to put in too many processes or over-engineer as we’re just getting started.”
“No Research Operations program is ever going to be the same. It's always going to be different just based on the needs of the company. But what I've found is in order to really create impact, it's being able to lead with a clear vision, being super clear about what we are solving for. And ultimately what that allows you to do is accelerate the velocity at which you're able to deliver because you have alignment.”
Alice Kiernan of the UK Department For Education [ResearchOps Podcast]:
“I think you need that blend of people, even if you don't formally work together. Have somebody there to help you prioritize. Don't try to do everything in one go. Do what you can with what you've got and who you've got around you.”
“If you're by yourself, just take note of what you could do if you had more help, and start jotting down that information, like how much more could you provide if you had headcount. Maybe it won't happen that year… But I think as Research Operations starts becoming more of a defined field… People are going to realize that if you have a good Research Operations professional on your team, they can make your researchers so much more efficient that they can… do so much more of what they're good at versus trying to handle other things that maybe aren’t their forte.”
If you’re interested in hearing more perspectives from researchers and research ops professionals, check out the User Research Yearbook of 2022, a directory of thought leaders and essential voices in the industry, with a focus on democratization, research ops, and inclusive UX.
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Marketer, writer, poet. Lizzy likes hiking, people-watching, thrift shopping, learning and sharing ideas. Her happiest memory is sitting on the shore of Lake Champlain in the summer of 2020, eating a clementine.