The operationalization of disciplines is a trend that has happened in the last decade, driven primarily by big technology and software companies. These organizations invest billions across functions like software development, IT, design, sales, marketing, and more. As these teams grow within an organization, so does the need to define processes, systems, and strategies to ensure efficiency, consistency, and quality at scale.
We’ve seen the operationalization of software development and IT teams with Dev Ops, design teams with Design Ops, and sales teams with Sales Ops. As organizations have realized the importance of research, and as the practice of research—particularly user and customer experience research—has matured, so has the need for processes, systems, and strategies to support the user and customer experience research function.
Many organizations including Atlassian, Airbnb, Deliveroo, Microsoft, and Spotify have individuals who specialize in operationalizing research. As more organizations hire for specialized research ops roles the discipline is continues to evolve, driven significantly by the efforts of the Research Ops community and their work to further define the role and best practices. The community was founded by Kate Towsey, Research Operations Manager at Atlassian, and has since grown to over 3,000 members.
In 2018, the Research Ops community facilitated several workshops and surveys to help define the emerging practice of Research Ops. I quite like the definition they arrived at:
Research Ops 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 organization.
The output of their research was a map of the elements, attributes, and activities that are involved in the Research Ops discipline (download a PDF version here).
A successful Research Ops 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. Research Ops achieves this in the following ways:
The challenges and pain points that a team is facing should guide how Research Ops focuses and operates. Depending on the size of an organization and the maturity of the research team, Research Ops may be responsible for a variety of areas, including:
Research activities can be a risky endeavor for organizations, especially among increasing consideration for data security and privacy legislation. Research Ops is responsible for ensuring that data is collected, stored, and processed in a way that protects participant privacy and is compliant with relevant legislation (including the GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act). Research Ops can also be responsible for outlining the ethics and guidelines that govern how research is conducted and policies for how research data is accessed and retained.
Research carries a lot of operational expenses – there are fees or paid incentives for recruiting participants, ongoing costs of software licenses and tooling, travel expenses for field research, and more. Research Ops is responsible for tracking operational spend, allocating budget and resources amongst research projects, and negotiating the necessary budget approvals within an organization.
As the body of research produced by an organization grows, so does the need to have a thoughtful strategy for how research data and insights are captured, analyzed, standardized, archived, and shared. Research Ops is responsible for driving this strategy, usually through overseeing and managing an organization’s research repository, which is one central place, or source of truth, where people in an organization can go to find the latest research insights and reports from the research team.
Almost all research requires the engagement of participants to act as research subjects. Depending on the nature of the research activity, sourcing participants can be an involved and time-consuming activity. Research Ops is responsible for sourcing participants from an appropriate demographic and sample, building a pool of people willing to participate in research and facilitating scheduling and payment of incentives.
Research sessions—especially evaluative research methods like usability testing—often rely on a physical space or lab for conducting the research, available and functioning IT / AV equipment, and software like Lookback to record and analyze the research data. Research Ops is responsible for liaising with other teams like IT and office experience to ensure that researchers have what they need to do their job.
Scaling a research team requires guidelines, templates, and processes to ensure that research is efficient, consistent, and high quality. Research Ops is responsible for driving this documentation and might work on producing training for teams in areas like participant recruitment, ethics, customer contact guidelines, how-to guides, and more.
In large organizations with sizeable research teams, there’s often a need to communicate internally with peers and stakeholders what the research team is working on and to socialize the findings from research activities. Research Ops is responsible for managing this communication and might take responsibility for internal email newsletters, blog posts, or monthly updates that are shared within an organization.
While a research operations role might not necessarily have direct reports, Research Ops may be responsible for supporting research managers and helping to upskill the research team by identifying opportunities for mentorship and training, onboarding new hires, and facilitating team offsites and internal meetings.
As the research team grows and the organization does more research, so the need for Research Ops will grow. When researchers are spending significant time on operational tasks like participant recruitment, scheduling, and budgets, instead of talking to customers, it might be time to consider a thoughtful strategy for operational work.
At Deliveroo, Research Ops Lead Saskia Liebenberg describes the need to operationalize research after it became obvious that researchers were only spending a fraction of their time doing actual research:
The team at Deliveroo spend up to half of their time on set-up work like booking a venue, sourcing participants, scheduling it all in, setting up contracts and consent forms, scanning the forms after the session, …
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.
Instead of tackling every aspect of Research Ops, most organizations start by solving for the biggest challenges that the research team is facing. Fulmer focused Microsoft’s Research Ops efforts on addressing their largest pain point: participants weren’t on time, studies were starting late, and there were frequent technical issues with lab spaces.
At Spotify, Research Ops Lead Lucy Walsh talks about how her role shifted from handling participant recruitment to kickstarting the entire operations function in her blog The Evolution of Research Operations at Spotify:
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.
She explains that by starting out with a clearly defined scope for the research operations function, she was able to execute on the day-to-day tasks to support research activities while also starting to work on the highest-priority process improvements, like digitizing consent forms.
Walsh was careful not to bite off more than she could chew when starting off with Research Ops, acknowledging that “although there were opportunity areas for expansion of ops support, this starting point was manageable with our existing resources.”
As organizations do more and more research, so will the need for specialized individuals who can support researchers to deliver and scale the impact of their work. Research Ops is an emerging and maturing discipline, and the role is being pushed forward by the thousand-strong passionate community of Research Ops practitioners.
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