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Research Operations: The Practice, The Role, and Its Impact

A comprehensive intro to Research Ops for scaling and forward-thinking teams: ReOps frameworks, a list of resources, and how to get started.

According to the 2022 State of User Research Report, one in five (22%) researchers now have a dedicated Research Operations Manager (or the equivalent) to support them in operational tasks.

The same study found that these researchers were more satisfied with their jobs overall (rating their satisfaction at 4.10 vs. 3.35 out of 5 for those without a ReOps teammate). 

So what’s contributing to this growth in the Research Ops field? And why does the presence of dedicated ReOps managers seem to correlate with happier, more fulfilled research teams? 

To put it simply: A dedicated Research Ops team can help you take your user research practice from good to great—and help you maintain that greatness at scale.

In this article, we’ll talk about:

  • The definition of Research Operations
  • The rise of Research Ops and how it all started
  • The role and responsibilities of a Research Ops Manager
  • Why Research Ops is important for effective user research
  • When to hire a Research Ops Manager 
  • How to implement the Research Ops framework at your org

What is Research Operations (a.k.a Research Ops or ReOps)?

Research Ops refers to the people, processes, tools, and strategies that support efficient, impactful UX research at scale. 

Or, to borrow a definition from the ResearchOps Community:

“ResearchOps is the people, 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 of the craft across an organisation.”

The UX pros over at Nielsen Norman Group qualified the term further:

“ResearchOps refers to the orchestration and optimization of people, processes, and craft in order to amplify the value and impact of research at scale. ResearchOps is a specialized area of DesignOps focused specifically on components concerning user-research practices. It’s a collective term for efforts aimed at supporting researchers in planning, conducting, and applying quality user research.”

Some companies hire dedicated Research Ops managers to execute these strategies and frameworks, while others divvy up operational work (equally or unequally) among full-time researchers. 

Regardless of who’s doing it, ReOps acts as the grease in Research’s gears, enabling more efficient work, better outcomes, and improved job satisfaction overall. 

The origins of Research Ops—from tweet to global community to in-demand career path 

User researchers have been trying to improve efficiencies for as long as they’ve been researching, agonizing over everything from the logistics of participant recruitment to the snares of legal documentation. 

With the DesignOps movement came an increasing recognition of the value that research can provide to design, as well as the difficulties of getting research done right. In-house user research teams, feeling the pressure of handling all the operational aspects along with the research itself, were looking for new ways to handle the ever-growing work of maintaining research repositories

So when Kate Towsey created a Slack community that allowed people to get together and discuss the difficulties of this emerging discipline, there was an explosion of interest. Since Kate first tweeted about the ResearchOps Community on March 8, 2018, it’s grown into a thriving global community with thousands of members. More than that, the field of ReOps has turned into a high-demand career path, and a pillar of many UXR teams.

tweet from kate towsey about researchops: I've started a ResearchOps Slack channel so we've got a place to share, learn and be geeky about #userresearch operational stuff. Let me know if you want to join. #ResearchOps

What does a Research Operations Manager do?

the research ops core components and framework: participation management, governance, insight management, tooling, enablement, and advocacy
From Building a Research Practice 

There are six common focus areas (core components) of the Research Ops framework:

  • Participant management includes recruiting, screening, scheduling, and distributing incentives to research participants. This is primarily what many people think of when they think of “research operations.” 
  • Governance involves the safety, legality, and ethics of research. Research Ops supports governance by creating processes and guidelines for consent, data privacy, and asset/information storage. 
  • Knowledge management. Closely entwined with governance, knowledge management involves the processes and platforms for collecting, interpreting, and sharing research insights. Often, this is managed with an insights repository
  • Tools. Researchers use a lot of tools. Research Ops is responsible for the strategic procurement and management of tools and platforms to increase efficiencies and scale research.
  • Competency involves enabling and educating others (including those outside of the core research team, such as designers, product managers, or marketers) to perform research through guides, templates, training, and onboarding. 
  • Communication and advocacy. Finally, Research Ops plays a role in sharing, socializing, and evangelizing the value of user research throughout an organization.

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.”

👂 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.

Why Research Ops matters—and why it matters now

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).

linear graph predicting exponential growth of ux profession

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—but the things get complicated pretty fast. 

Exhibit A: this popular framework the ResearchOps community put together.

research operations framework from re+ops community
The #WhatIsResearchOps framework, created by the ResearchOps community.

Every one of those dark blue bubbles could be someone’s full-time job in a large organization with a dedicated Research Ops team. 

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, democratized research team

With all of these different areas to manage, the current state of affairs (leaving ReOps work up to full-time researchers) simply isn’t scalable—especially not when you start talking about 10x-ing research. 

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.”

That’s why the field of Research Ops exists (and is growing quickly): 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.”

👀 Looking for the right tool to support your new or growing Research Ops function? Check out User Interview’s Research Hub. Built for ReOps, loved by researchers, trusted by participants, we’re the #1 panel solution for teams that research at scale. 

Does your company need a dedicated Research Ops team?

“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 does need a Research Ops hire—yet. Whether or not your company needs a dedicated research operations function depends on two things: 

1. How large is your research team?

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.

According to the State of User Research Report, the majority of teams begin to hire ReOps roles when they reach 12 or more full-time UX researchers: 

graph showing growth in ReOps occurrence by team size, from 10% with 1 UXR to nearly 50 with more than 12

However, User Research leaders may want to start thinking seriously about hiring for Operations well before the team reaches 12 or more members. 

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.

2. How much research are you doing?

As your research practice scales—either within the core Research team or with other teams taking on additional research, as in a democratized research model—it becomes increasingly difficult to process and facilitate research effectively. 

No matter who’s conducting them, higher volumes of research projects require more time, cross-team coordination, and strategic oversight. A dedicated Research Ops function can ensure that this oversight and coordination happens effectively, efficiently, and without fail. 

How to get started with Research Ops

If the goal of research is to make better decisions through better insights, then Research Ops ultimately helps your business make those decisions, faster and with fewer headaches.

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.

1. Create a Research Ops framework that works.

For starters, you need a good research framework. 

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.

colorful creative ux research  ops 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?

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—which is an important line to draw to ensure the ReOps manager doesn’t become overwhelmed, either. 

As 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.”

Clear lines and defined responsibilities make it easier for everyone to do effective and efficient research that moves your business forward.

🛠 Tools to create your research framework

There are lots of different ways to create your framework, so choose whatever is easiest for you and your team to understand.

Here are a few different types of tools to choose from:

  • Mind mapping tools, like Miro, Scapple, and LucidChart. 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 Asana, Trello, Airtable, and the aptly named Kanban Tool 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.
  • Design tools, like Figma, Adobe Illustrator, or Sketch can help you get creative and make 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.

2. Get the whole team involved.

If you’ve ever presented your research findings to a room of blank-faced coworkers, you know the importance of getting your whole team to collaborate with research, right from the start. This could involve designers, engineers, marketers, support, and anyone else who your research may affect.

Research Ops professionals can be responsible for creating scalable, repeatable practices for sharing, storing, and presenting research to the rest of your team.

Ways to share and socialize your research include: 

  • Regularly sharing insights with the wider team via newsletters, lunch-and-learns, or workshops
  • Creating case studies that showcase the impact of research on business metrics
  • Communicating research findings directly to stakeholders with reports or live presentations

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, the responsibility of socializing research will fall to one or more of your existing team members—scope your team’s bandwidth accordingly!

📚 Learn how to write effective reports and presentations in the UX Research Field Guide

3. Pick one area to master, then branch out. 

Remember all those blue bubbles from the #WhatIsResearchOps framework?

Each of those bubbles (or ReOps focus areas) could use some TLC—but don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to perfect everything at once. It’s best to start off your research operations by focusing first on the area that will make the biggest difference to your research.

Many teams start dipping their toes into Research Ops through participant recruitment and panel management

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. 

And if you’re recruiting from your own customer base, this process somehow becomes even more difficult. Existing customers offer a limited pool of participants to recruit from, and that pool dwindles as more research is conducted. When multiple teams are conducting their own research, it’s easy to lose track of who’s contacted whom, leading to irritated customers and participant fatigue. 

Research recruiting and panel management tools (like User Interviews 😉) can ease many of these common 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 recruitment and panel management tools, processes, and paperwork more effectively. 

Psst—Need some help getting started with participant recruitment right now? We've got you. Sign up free today

4. Build a habitual practice. 

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.

🤔 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 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, continuous research. This can be through streamlining participant recruitment and management with tools and automation, creating templates for running sessions, organizing incentive payments for participants, and establishing plans for storing and organizing your research team’s findings.

5. Make your research 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 a presentation, then never refer to it again) 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 on 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 can access and will use. 

For example, here at User Interviews, our Research team chose EnjoyHQ as our repository tool. It allows the whole team—including researchers, product managers, designers, and the marketing team (I reference it quite often myself!)—to search and discover passive and active insights about our customers from one centralized location, so that they can make better decisions for our customers.

Here are some other popular repository tools you could choose from:

  • Condens offers a secure, centralized UX research repository for scaling teams. With customizable fields, powerful search, and a global taxonomy, it supports the entire insights management process, from collecting data to sharing findings. Learn how WATTx, a Berlin-base venture builder, uses Condens here.
  • 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. 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. 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. 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—it’s easy for stakeholders to glance at a board and get an understanding of 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. 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.

ReOps helps you do UX research with care and quality

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. 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. 

Need help getting your Research Ops practice off the ground? User Interview’s Research Hub is your software partner to set and uphold recruitment standards as you scale research org-wide. Any team member can self-serve their recruit, while Research Ops have unparalleled control to set guardrails and governance standards for the entire organization. 

Eager to learn more? Browse the full list of our Research Ops-related articles, templates, and podcast episodes below. 

For quick references, guides, tips, and templates, here’s a full roundup of all the ReOps content on the User Interviews blog.

🔎 Don’t see what you’re looking for? Request new ReOps-related topics via marketing@userinterviews.com. 

What is research ops and how to get started

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

So You Want to Be in Research Ops? How Roy Olende of Zapier Made the Switch

Kate Towsey on Starting a Research Ops Practice

Agile Research Ops with Joey Encarnacion of Slack

Democratization and enablement

Democratization 2.0: The Assisted Model

How Research Ops Support Scaling and Democratizing UXR Teams

Research Operations for Democratization at Scale with Garett Tsukada of Intuit

Distributed, Decentralized, Democratized: Finding a User Research Model to Support Your Org

Making Research a Team Sport: 5 Key Takeaways

Scaling Research Through Enablement: A UXR Leader's Approach to Democratization 2.0

A Framework for Decision-Driven Research

Templates, how-to’s, and best practices

UX Research Methods Launch Kits

144 Best Customer Journey Map Templates and Examples

128 Best Prototype Templates and Examples

​​Usability Testing Best Practices

How to Hide Participant Names in Zoom Recordings

The Low-Down on Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) for User Research

Consent Forms for UX Research: A Starter Template

Tools and software

🌟 Research Hub for Powerful Panel Management and Recruitment Automation

Digital Ethnography Tools for Remote UX Research

Optimizing Your User Research Tool Stack for ROI

7 Tools for Recruiting Your Own Panel

The Best Video Conferencing Tools for Remote User Testing

25 Tools to Create Stunning Customer Journey Maps

6 of Today's Most Popular Prototyping Tools

15 Card Sorting Tools for Remote UX Research

Ethnio vs. User Interviews: How Do the UX Research Recruitment Tools Compare?

How to Use Miro for Collaborative UX Research

Recruiting guidelines and best practices

The UX Research Field Guide: Recruiting for UX Research

Building and Managing a Participant Panel for Faster, Easier Research

9 Research Recruiting Tips from UXR Experts—How to Recruit Participants Like A Pro

7 Common Screener Survey Mistakes Even Experienced Researchers Make—and How to Fix Them

In-House vs. Agency UX Research Recruiting

Incentives and budget management

The User Research Incentive Calculator

The Ultimate Guide to UX Research Incentives

How to Do User Research On Any Budget

How to Save Money on User Research Recruiting

The User Interviews Cost Savings Calculator

Repositories and reporting

It’s Spring Cleaning Time! How to Organize, Automate, and Tidy Up your User Research

How to Create An Effective Taxonomy for UX Research

What Librarians Can Teach UXRs about Insights Repositories with Nada Alnakeeb of DoorDash and Joanna Perez of Netflix

Building Better UX Research Habits: A Framework for Simple, Repeatable Reporting

How to Track the Impact of UX Research

31 Creative UX Research Presentations and Reports – Templates and Examples

Showing the Value of User Research: The Ultimate Guide

UX Research Field Guide: Reports and Deliverables

Industry insights

The State of User Research 2022 Report: Highlights, Themes, and Takeaways

The UX Research Yearbook of 2022

People Who Do Research: A Discovery Study

Additional research guides, templates, and tools

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.

Note: This article was originally published in 2019. It has been updated in 2022 with fresh content and insights.

Lizzy Burnam
Product Education Manager

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.

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