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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:
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.
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.
There are six common focus areas (core components) of the Research Ops framework:
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.
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—but the things get complicated pretty fast.
Exhibit A: this popular framework the ResearchOps community put together.
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.
“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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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—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.
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:
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:
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!
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.
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.
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, 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.
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:
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Content Marketing 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.