Best Practices

Research Ops: What It Is and Why It's So Important

Research can get pretty complicated. Research ops is here to help.

Carrie Boyd
/
May 3, 2019

What is Research Ops?

It’s time for a little history lesson. We’re gonna take it all the way back to March 8th, 2018. On that fateful day, Kate Towsey tweeted out that she had started a Slack channel devoted to chatting about all the operational woes of doing user research.


The ResearchOps community was born, and soon community members had organized meetups, workshops, and even put together a framework for what exactly ResearchOps is. Together, they defined ResearchOps as “the mechanisms and strategies that set user research in motion. It provides the roles, tools, and processes needed to support researchers in delivering and scaling the impact and craft across an organization.”

Research ops didn’t start as a discipline when Kate sent that tweet though, there were already people working in the operations of research. From the logistics of participant recruitment to the snares of legal documentation, people were already trying to sort out the most effective ways to do great research. The DesignOps movement had recognized the value research can provide to design, and the difficulties of getting research done right. In-house user research teams were feeling the pressure of handling all the operations of research along with the research itself. People were creating new ways to handle the ever-growing work of research repositories and talking about what Research Ops looked like at scale. So when Kate created a community that allowed people to get together and discuss the difficulties of this emerging discipline, it was an explosion.

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Why do we need Research Ops?

As user research becomes more important to create meaningful products and businesses, research teams are on the rise. And as your team invests more in research, you’ll find that it can get pretty complicated. Exhibit A: this popular framework the ResearchOps community put together.

The #WhatIsResearchOps framework, created by the ResearchOps community.

Each of these little 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 will be more important to conquer immediately than others. But each bubble is an important part of managing your user research in a team of any size, whether you’re a PWDR (person who does research) like me, a fully-devoted user research team of one, or a part of a larger research or even research ops team. But once you start building out a full research ops team, you can take each of these things from good to great by putting a research ops person in place.

For example, many teams start dipping into research ops through participant recruitment. It’s one of the biggest pain points for researchers everywhere. Recruitment is more than just finding warm bodies to sit in your user research sessions. It’s finding the right people, scheduling them at the right time, ensuring they’re properly compensated, and dealing with any privacy or legal hurdles. You can use an outside service to handle your recruitment (like User Interviews 😉) or, if your team is large enough, you can hire a dedicated participant recruiter to handle it. The dedicated participant recruiter would work in research ops, tackling the “recruitment” bubble.

Does my company need a dedicated Research Ops team?

This largely boils down to how large your company is and how much research you’re doing. On a recent episode of our podcast, Kate Towsey said there is a bit of a magic number. When your team grows to 8+ researchers, it’s probably time to start thinking about a research ops team. It can start off small, with just one research ops person to help your research team do better and more efficient research. But just like any team, a research ops team should grow as the teams they support scale, adding research ops professionals as the amount of researchers in your organization grows.

In large teams, things like participant recruitment, asset management, and budget management can be a research ops team member’s entire focus. 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 on one area that will make a big difference. 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.”

How Research Ops can help you do more effective and efficient research

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 a near necessity to do effective, efficient, and within budget research.

A research ops function—a person or a team—will help you deliver research and insights effectively and efficiently. It will help empower researchers and PWDR alike to be more effective in their efforts. If the goal of research is to make better decisions through better insights, research ops should ultimately help your business make better decisions to be more successful.

Create a framework that works

A research framework is incredibly important to the effectiveness of your research as a whole. A framework basically lays out the map of 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 framework.

Siva Sabaretnam’s Designing a Better Career Path for Designers Framework, which is laid out as a fun map 🗺️

When creating your framework, think about how your team approaches research and product development right now. Then ask yourself questions like…

  • What research does my team do already?
  • Are there internal or external deadlines that could affect the way they view research?
  • Why does my team do research?
  • What are the logistics of my research as it stands today?

This can help you build out a framework that reflects growth for your organization. This also helps establish what your research ops team covers vs. what your researchers will cover. Clear lines and defined responsibilities will make it easier for everyone to do effective and efficient research that moves your business forward.

Tools you can use to create your framework

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.

Involve the whole 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, ops, and anyone else who your research may affect.

Sometimes, when you’re focused on doing amazing research, involving the whole team isn’t the first priority, doing the work is. 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, allowing researchers to focus on the work of getting the research done.

Build a habitual practice

Good research is like brushing your teeth. Only a lot more fun. On second thought, it’s like brushing your teeth with one of those toothbrushes that sings your favorite songs. Either way, 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 to make smart decisions with.

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.

Why is it important to make research a habit? 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 most 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, setting up templates for how to run sessions, organizing incentive payments for participants, and establishing plans for storing and organizing your research team’s findings.

Make it easy to access in the future

If no one ever sees your team’s research, or if people only see it for a moment during your presentation, it’s unlikely to make an impact. In order to do research that has lasting effects for your company, it’s important to make it easy for everyone to access, even long after the research is complete in some cases.

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 that make this easier but it’s most important that your team chooses a method everyone who interacts with research can access and will use. The best tools will help your team categorize and store research findings, from every source, with relative ease. Knowing this, your research ops team can choose a tool (or a combination of tools) that best suits the needs of your team. If none of these suit your needs, or meet your security standards, you may choose to create something proprietary, just for your team.

Collection-Style Research Repository Tools

These tools can help your research ops 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

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

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

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 a 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 UNIQA Insurance Group’s use of their product as a repository for qualitative research data on their blog.

productboard

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, dear reader, 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

Trello is a kanban-style organization tool that you can use to create boards for all kinds of research. Researchers who love Trello may flock to it for its accessibility. It’s very easy for stakeholders to glance at 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.

Extra Tools

Sometimes, you need more than just one tool to get the job done. That’s where these handy extras some in.

Zapier

Zapier is the ultimate communicator. It’s entire job is to make things talk to each other automatically, so you don’t have to worry about moving around data or organizing it. 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.

Do research with care and quality

Ensuring research is executed with care and quality is possibly the prime responsibility for research ops. When researchers are handling everything themselves, it’s difficult to execute absolutely every step of the research process at 100%.

The important things, like ensuring participants show up to their sessions, research findings are stored, and research is executed in a timely manner, are probably going to get done, even without a research ops team. But adding a research ops layer can ensure your research takes place with quality participants, hand-picked for your study, research findings are stored easily, in a place everyone can (and will) access them for future reference, and it’s done in a timely way, on-budget and at a cadence that’s manageable.

Long story short, to take your research from good to great, consider adding a research ops person or team to help everything go right.

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Carrie Boyd

Carrie Boyd is a Content Creator 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.

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