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A comprehensive intro to Research Ops—the what, whys, and hows of starting a UX research ops practice at your own company.
There are six common focus areas (core components) of Research Ops:
You could also add budget management, event management, and people management to the list, among other things—research involves a lot of moving pieces! As Lucy Walsh from Spotify explains:
I’ve come to understand that the potential scope of Research Ops is vast, and therefore requires working closely with the team to understand their needs, and to develop and communicate a plan of attack that is both realistic to existing ops bandwidth, and flexible enough to evolve with the needs of an organization.
The field of user experience is growing exponentially; Jakob Nielsen of NN/g predicts that by 2050, there will be 100 million UX professionals worldwide (aka 1% of the population).
This growth coincides with a growing demand for UX and user research, as more and more companies fully embrace the value of UX. As it stands today, much of that growing demand is falling on existing research staff, who must develop processes to scale their research practices while still actually, you know, researching.
The field of Research Ops exists (and is growing quickly) because the current state of affairs simply isn’t scalable—especially not when you start talking about 10x-ing research. By managing the operational side of research, Research Ops frees up user researchers to focus on conducting research and applying research insights in meaningful ways. Put another way:
A successful ResearchOps function should be a force multiplier for user research – it isn’t just about making individual researchers more effective, but about leveling up how an organization does research.
As your team invests more in user research, you’ll likely find that things can get pretty complicated pretty fast. Exhibit A: this popular framework the ResearchOps community put together.
Each of those dark blue bubbles could be someone’s full time job in a large organization with a dedicated Research Ops team. That doesn’t mean each bubble has to have a dedicated research operations person right from the start—some areas will be more important to conquer than others. But each bubble is an important part of managing user research in a team of any size, whether you’re a PWDR (person who does research), a fully-devoted user research team of one, or a part of a larger research team. A dedicatedResearch Ops team can help you take each of these areas from good to great—and help you maintain that greatness at scale.
Aaron Fulmer, Research Operations Manager at Microsoft, discussed how Research Ops came to be at Microsoft:
Our researchers had been doing a great job multitasking, but as our operations scaled up, they had less and less time. We decided that we needed researchers to focus more on customer needs, partners, and research design.
Many teams start dipping into Research Ops through participant recruitment. Recruitment is one of the biggest pain points for researchers everywhere. That’s because recruitment is about more than just finding warm bodies to sit in your user research sessions—it involves finding the right people, screening them effectively, scheduling sessions at the right time on the right platform, communicating with participants, ensuring they’re properly compensated, and dealing with any privacy or legal hurdles.
Research recruiting tools (like User Interviews 😉) can ease many common recruiting pains. Large teams that do a lot of research can scale their efforts by having a dedicated participant recruiter to own the “recruitment” bubble by managing participant recruitment tools, processes, and paperwork more effectively.
Psst—Need some help getting started with participant recruitment right now? We've got you. You can launch your first study with 3 free participant credits today.
“This is all very well and good,” you may be thinking, “but I’m still not convinced our company needs a dedicated Research Ops team.”
To which we say, fair enough! Not every company or research team needs a Research Ops hire—yet. Whether or not your company needs a dedicated research operations function depends on two things: how large your company is and how much research you’re doing.
When we talked to Kate Towsey on our podcast, Awkward Silences, she explained that once your team hits eight researchers, it’s time to start thinking about a Research Ops function. It can start off small, with just one dedicated Ops person to help your researchers do better and more efficient research. But just like any team, a Research Ops team should grow as the teams they support scale up, adding more specialized roles as the amount of researchers in your organization grows.
👂Listen to the podcast. Hear what ReOps legend Kate Towsey has to say about starting a UX Research Ops practice.
In large teams, things like participant recruitment, asset management, and budget management can be full time jobs. Asking one person to address everything, or trying to address everything while being a full time researcher, would be like asking someone to have twelve part time jobs while starting a business. You can do it, but you probably won’t be doing everything well and you probably won’t be sleeping much. It’s best to start off your research operations by focusing first on the area that will make the biggest difference to your research.
Lucy Walsh, who worked to establish Research Ops at Spotify, writes:
“One person alone could not address every piece of the Research Ops pie. Ideally, ops could tackle the higher-level theoretical questions, while simultaneously managing research setup for our 25+ User Researchers. Because there is only one me, I realized that as important as it was to establish where my work started, it was also critical to have clear guardrails of where it stopped. To accomplish this, in rolling myself out as a recruiting resource, I worked to define what types of studies I supported, the markets where I supported them, and how I would divide and conquer each of the tasks.”
Establishing a Research Ops team can work wonders for your research practice as a whole. In a large organization, having a team in charge of the facilitation of a research practice is, really, a necessity in order to do effective, efficient, and in-budget research.
A research operations function can help you deliver and evangelize your research and insights more effectively. It will help enable full-time user researchers and PWDR alike to be more efficient in their efforts.The goal of research is to make better decisions through better insights, and Research Ops ultimately helps your business make better decisions.
All that said, you may not be ready for a dedicated Research Ops person yet. Maybe the budget to hire just isn’t there, or your team doesn’t do enough research to justify adding a specialized operations person. That doesn’t mean there’s no place for Research Ops in your company—it just means the work will have to be done by UX researchers themselves.
The tips below will help you get started with Research Ops, whether you’re forming a team or just trying to make your own research processes more efficient with better operations.
👂 Thinking about a career in Research Ops? Hear what Roy Olende, Research Ops Manager at Zapier had to say about making the transition to operations on our podcast.
For starters, you need a good research framework. This is incredibly important to the effectiveness of your research as a whole. A framework lays out what your research practice can and will accomplish. It can also help determine who will do what within your research practice, clearing up misunderstandings before they happen. Your framework does not necessarily have to look like the #WhatIsResearchOps framework, Siva Sabaretnam’s Designing a Better Career Path for Designers, or Clearleft’s professional development framework, but they’re all good sources of inspiration as you create your own.
When creating your framework, think about how your team approaches research and product development right now. Then ask yourself questions like:
Answering these questions can help you build out a framework that reflects growth for your organization. This also helps establish what your research ops team will be responsible for vs. what your researchers will cover. Clear lines and defined responsibilities make it easier for everyone to do effective and efficient research that moves your business forward.
There are lots of different ways to create your framework, so choose whatever is easiest for you and your team to understand.
Mind mapping tools, like MindMeister, MindMup, Scapple, SmartDraw, LucidChart, and Mural can help you create a framework similar to the #WhatisResearchOps framework. These frameworks start with a central idea and create branches off of that central idea. Mind maps can be as fluid or as rigid as you want them to be, and you can add and subtract things as you see fit.
Kanban tools, like Trello, MeisterTask, Kanban Tool, and Airtable can help you lay things out in a more linear manner, with categories and subcategories that each have their own card. You can shuffle the cards around as you see fit, and add and take away from what’s included in each card’s category. This is similar to Clearleft’s professional development framework.
You can also get creative and use design tools, like Adobe Illustrator or Sketch to create your own version of a framework. You could create something that looks like Siva Sabaretnam’s Designing a Better Career Path for Designers, or make something totally unique to your team.
If you’ve ever presented your research findings to a room of blank-faced coworkers, you know the importance of getting your whole team involved in research, right from the start. As a researcher, having the entire team involved means getting feedback from stakeholders, designers, engineers, marketers, support, and anyone else who your research may affect.
Of course, sometimes when you’re focused on doing research, involving the whole team isn’t your first priority. This is where a Research Ops team can help. Research Ops professionals can be responsible for how research is shared, stored, and presented to the rest of your team. They can also put practices in place that ensure the entire team is involved in research right from the start.
All of those ideas above take time and effort, which is why they’re easier with dedicated Research Ops. But if your team isn’t ready for that hire, you can make owning the socialization of research a responsibility for one or more of your existing team members.
Good research is like brushing your teeth. Only a lot more fun. Research should be something you do regularly and often. It should leave your team feeling ready to take on your business challenges, armed with information from your customers that will help you make smarter, more confident decisions.
But the problem for most people who are committed to a habitual research practice is... it’s hard. There are so many moving pieces and doing it right requires a lot of up-front work to make sure everything goes off without a hitch.
Well, I’ve got a not-so-well-kept secret for you. Just like those singing toothbrushes make it easier for kids to brush their teeth for two whole minutes, Research Ops can help make research feel more like a habit and less like a chore.
Because in order for it to be effective, your team needs to do research pretty regularly. Research should back up new designs, product changes, customer acquisition initiatives, business strategy—pretty much all major changes that affect your customers. But it’s hard to get excited about doing research if your research team is spending more time fighting through logistical roadblocks than they are actually working on research strategy and doing the research.
By setting up frameworks for how research gets done at your organization, a Research Ops team can make it easier to get in the habit of doing ongoing research. This can be through making participant recruitment easier to access, creating templates for running sessions, organizing incentive payments for participants, and establishing plans for storing and organizing your research team’s findings.
The ResearchOps Community has a growing list of forms, templates, guides, and tools that you can use to standardize and speed up your research. If you’re not ready for a full-time Ops team member, consider putting someone on your team in charge of maintaining a similar library for your own researchers.
If no one ever sees your team’s research (or if people only see it for a moment during a presentation) it’s unlikely to make a lasting impact. In order for research to have lasting effects on your company’s processes and decisions, it needs to be easy for everyone to access, sometimes even long after the research is complete.
Take a holistic view when it comes to a research repository. Don’t neglect passive feedback like support tickets, NPS scores, and social conversations. And of course, we’re big believers in combining qualitative and quantitative data.
A Research Ops team can take some of the responsibility for organizing and storing this information in a way that is easy for your whole team to access. There are tons of tools designed to make this easier but it’s most important that your team chooses a method everyone who interacts with research can access and will use.
Your Research Ops team can choose a tool (or a combination of tools) that best suits the needs of your team. The ResearchOps Community has a long list of user research tools, including ones for storing and managing assets and insights. For a more curated view of the use research tool landscape, check out our 2020 Essential UX Research Tools Map. If none of the existing tools are a good fit for your needs (or your security standards) you may choose to create something proprietary.
These are tools that can help your team create a central hub of research findings. All of these tools offer different solutions to the problem of how to store and categorize research findings, but it’s up to you to choose which works best for your team. For more information on pricing and reviews from real live users, check out our UX tools list.
Airtable is a powerful spreadsheet/kanban/database hybrid. It offers a lot of flexible features for researchers, so you can use it in many different ways. You can use the kanban style layout to plan upcoming research, the form feature to collect survey responses, and the spreadsheet style to keep track of it all.
Tomer Sharon, head of UX at WeWork, shared his example of a nugget-style research repository built on Airtable here.
Google Sheets is a familiar way to organize data. Its powerful spreadsheets are made better if you’re already using GSuite as a team. You can create Google Forms that automatically populate to Sheets, and organize your data in creative and powerful ways.
Dovetail is built specifically for user researchers, so it comes with a few out-of-the-box features other options lack. One of the most notable is the ability to tag notes from your qualitative research. For example, if multiple participants bring up a certain usability difficulty during your research, you can easily tag each instance with that issue and refer to them later.
Dovetail outlines how UNIQA Insurance Group uses their product as a repository for qualitative research data on their blog.
Productboard is built specifically for product teams that want to keep track of user insights and link them up with a product roadmap. At User Interviews, we currently use Productboard to process and tag insights from NPS feedback, Zendesk tickets, and proactive research we gather. In fact, if you use User Interviews and have some product feedback for us, we’d love to hear it.
Productboard outlines the way iAdvize uses their software to keep track of qualitative research on their website.
Trello is a kanban-style organization tool that you can use to create boards for all kinds of research. Many researchers like Trello for its accessibility and ease of use—it’s very easy for stakeholders to glance at a board and get an overall understanding of research insights.
Pivotal Labs shared their Trello setup for a qualitative research study, which you can just copy/paste for your next research study.
Zapier is the ultimate communicator. Its entire job is to make tools talk to each other automatically, so you don’t have to worry about moving around data or organizing it manually. Want your Google Forms to push data to Trello? There’s a zap for that. Want all your incoming email attachments organized in Airtable? That’s right, there’s a zap.
Zapier is almost endlessly powerful in its ability to link apps that don’t have native integrations. Zapier outlined their own research process, using a variety of apps and zaps to link them together.
Ensuring research is executed with care and quality is possibly the prime responsibility of Research Ops. When researchers have to handle everything themselves, it’s difficult to execute every step of the research process with the level of energy, excellence, and attention to detail that it deserves..
The important things—like ensuring participants show up to their sessions, storing research findings, and executing research on time and on budget— are probably going to get done, even without a Research Ops team. But adding a Research Ops layer will make all of those things happen more smoothly, and better. With Ops, you can make sure your research is taking place with quality participants, research findings are being stored safely and effectively in an easy-to-access place, and that your research is done on time, on budget, and often.
Long story short, Research Ops can take your research practice from good to great.
Note: This article was originally published in 2019. It has been updated in 2021 with fresh content and insights.
Carrie Boyd is a UXR content wiz, formerly at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.