Research Ops in an organization: when and how. Part 1

You might have heard about Research Ops. Maybe your organization already has some Research Ops roles or plans to introduce the function and practice soon. Or maybe you are doing or are about to wander into Research Ops type of role yourself. If so, then this post is for you and I hope you find some info helpful and something to take away.

Where to find Research Ops?

No matter if you are located in Silicon Valley, Berlin, London, or another technological hub. No matter if you are in software development, mobility, fintech, food tech, construction, or any other evolving and fast-growing industry — it is still a rather small crowd who could call themselves Research Operations (Ops) experts or professionals. At the beginning of 2021 barely anyone can say that they have infield research ops or leadership for 5 years or more.

Research Operations are however an emerging and growing function in organizations, especially as UX and product teams start to grow and become increasingly remote and distributed geographically. Thus it might happen that at one point Research and UX teams are starting to support more and more parts of your organization or even new business units. Those parts and units of the organization might be turning into more diverse, complex, and specialized structures themselves, and thus entropy and siloed efforts might become stronger as well as new or old challenges arise to the productivity and effective collaboration.

The research efforts themselves, as a result, might grow in complexity and thus require integrating more and different types of practices and tools to serve and support the growing demand across the organization with as few hiccups as possible.

And so once your research team has grown to a few people, it starts to become stretched, or more and more teams across the organization are able and willing to do their own research — a case for Research Ops might arise. Or, if you are in an organization whose business model or competitive advantage is built on finding ways to work smarter, more effectively, and learning faster than your competitors — again a case or need for growing Research Ops function might arise or already be there.

How an early Research Ops setup & function might look?

So your organization has scaled or a bigger or smaller ‘hypergrowth’ is happening. New people have joined, teams have grown in size, and the complexity and the amount of research work have increased or are about to increase — this is when talks about the introduction of Research Ops function and type of roles might start to be voiced somewhere within the organization.

If those voices are coming from research or UX teams, it might be because there are already too many research requests in the backlog, the workflows have slowed down or show gaps, and too much time is spent on numerous side-tasks and efforts. Some small-scale hacks and adjustments might have already been tried, but things have reached a point when it is neither helpful nor healthy to think and hope that if simply everyone does their job well or just tries a bit harder — things will fall into their place and stay that way.

In such a scenario, the Research Ops function might start with an extra pair of hands, most likely in the form of an entry or mid-level Research Ops-type of role — usually to support recruitment and keep those collective workflows streamlines and those agile and sprint wheels oiled and rolling. Or maybe, there might be a need to help with knowledge management and research insights so that all those user research and user-testing efforts don’t become a one-time deal that gathers dust somewhere or becomes scattered and disjointed all over the organization. Or maybe more acute help might be needed with other operational and supportive tasks that prove to take too much time and energy in the day-to-day work of researchers and non-researchers and could benefit from an enthusiastic and dedicated pair of hands. Yes, it might be a bit messy at the beginning.

In another scenario, your organization is scaling or planning to scale, the UX team is growing or about to grow and research efforts have scaled or are expected to scale. And thus before the floodgates are opened and growing pains start to be felt all over the organization, your organization might decide to invest in the Research Ops function. It might anticipate that it would help not only to keep those growing pains to a minimum but also to strategically and purposefully build effective ways to extract the most value out of the shared research efforts and help teams to repeatedly build those right products and deliver those desired experiences.

In such a scenario, a Research Ops function might start with a Research Ops lead or a Research Ops Manager whose main task might be to build a team and develop Research Ops functions at your organization. If so, that person’s job will be less about trying to put out every-day fires, but instead, focus on defining a longer-term vision and infrastructure for research and lay down the groundwork to maximize the output and impact of workflows to achieve those large scale business and product goals within your organization.

How exactly that Research Ops setup and function might look will depend also on where in the organization it will be embedded and to whom it reports, It might be embedded in the Research team, UX team, or somewhere in the product. It might go by different job titles and role descriptions and the function itself and where it goes might be very much shaped and defined by the strengths and agency of the person who wanders into or is assigned to the role.

There really are not yet that many examples to follow from other organizations. Though for some idea you can see some experiences and examples shared E.g. Aaron Fulmer — Microsoft or Sofia Walsh — Spotify. It is truly an emerging and experimental terrain at the moment (see an upcoming post on the topic soon)

What Research Ops might do?

Research Ops have much in common with Service Design. It is essentially the same nature of the work and in the case of Research Ops, those services make the infrastructure and processes that help researchers, non-researchers, and organizations as a whole to do research better and learn more effectively.

Whether it is about helping teams to gather and use data from inside or outside of the organization, Research Ops would focus on finding and establishing processes, infrastructure, and guardrails to complete those necessary activities with minimal friction and thus eventually help teams to repeatedly build the right products and deliver those desired user experiences.

It will try to do that by touching on some of the different pillars identified and shaped by the community of Research Ops practitioners across the globe. For a more detailed overview, (please see an upcoming post), but in few words, some of the key areas could be:

Participant management and recruiting — focusing on finding, screening, recruiting, scheduling, and compensating research participants or introducing and improving self-serving systems for pleasant and positive experiences for participants as well as users within the organization.

Knowledge management — improving the ways to store the research and insights, enable to track, synthesize and reuse them over time and share them as fast and easy as possible.

Tooling — to find the right tools, at the right time, and price for the teams to use. Especially those third-party tools and then identify and take care of licensing & budgeting, access permissions & onboarding as well as privacy & data security.

Scaling and democratizing research— optimize workflows and offer infrastructure so that researchers and non-researchers can focus on their work and crafts. Might include preparing templates, how-to-guides, playbooks, etc.

Governance — to ensure not only effective but also ethical and legal research, data storage, and usage practices. And thus make sure that organizations have consent templates compliant with existing data-privacy regulation (e.g. GDPR).

That, as the Research Ops framework suggests, is just the tip of the iceberg and there could be many other areas that require attention — coaching and socializing. event & space management for those online or onsite events; developing career frameworks and development and many more (see next post for more details)

The skillset and profile of Research Ops

Research Ops type of role and work require slightly different qualities than that of a User Researcher. If as a user researcher you might be focused on uncovering insights and finding ways to share them within teams and organizations then as Research Ops you would focus more on building services and laying down the needed structures and processes.

You will be less of an advocate, evangelist, and facilitator and more of a driver, coordinator, and restless optimizer for individual and collective workflows. Thus you will be not only doing a different kind of work from your User Research colleagues but also having a different kind of influence and ‘put yourself on the line’ more often than not.

To succeed in the Research Ops type of role be it entry-level or more on a leadership level — you will have to be, as Kate Towsey suggests a bit like a Swiss Army knife’. You will have to wear many hats and be Jack or Jill of all trades.

No, you don’t have to be a good researcher, although you will have to use some of the research skills and qualities to understand your organization and teams and spot the right problems. To ask the right questions within the company and teams — to understand the business and current setup, learn about the ways how work gets done in the organization, and identify the specific challenges and obstacles faced.

Your bread and butter will however be that pragmatic and hands-on approach combined with a people and service-oriented mindset. Many of the problems you will face could be described as complex or wicked touching upon many parts of the workflows and organization while the ways forward will look less as highways and more as weeks and months-long off-road rally raids with changing surfaces, weather conditions, and incomplete navigation.

To succeed and thrive on such a road track you will need to lean on that hands-on approach to get done those numerous detail-oriented nitty-gritty tasks while maintaining calm, composure, and continuity. You will have to stay organized, form and maintain good habits and always keep one eye on the bigger picture to make that piecemeal progress that at its best might look like two steps forward one step back.

Also, a good sense of self-awareness and communication skills will help a lot. It will help to estimate your own limits and thresholds to evaluate when to take a pause and step back and when to push forward or find a way around. It will also help to make realistic estimations of the size and effort needed to complete some tasks and overcome challenges.

If you can then also find the right approach and words to manage the expectations of others about the resources, time, and energy needed to get things to the finish line — you are set for success. And if you are able to break down those impacts and capacities numerically and connect them to the team and company objectives — you are in for a good ride.

And if things go well, at the end of the day you could take some gratification from seeing across the team and organization-wide impact — in outcomes, in workflows, in job satisfaction and wellbeing. At least that is the hope and promise.

Where and how to learn more?

There is not yet a fully formed Ops training or practice. Everyone venturing into or finding themselves into the shoes or tasks of Research Ops will have to do some learning on the job and learn through trial and error.

There is however a growing body of community and practitioner shared knowledge and experience scattered across the web. So if you are among those who like to tune into podcasts you might search for Research at Scale with Roy Opata Olende or browse the episodes of Awkward Silences that cover many research-related practices and situations. You can start with episodes #15 and #56.

If you are more of a reading type, you might start with the Research Ops Medium channel or community page. You might also browse the resources at People Nerds (dscout) or the different materials related to Design Ops practice which have been around a bit longer than Research Ops and thus often have a more articulated language to work with.

And if you want to learn in a more interactive and shared way, join the Research Ops Slack community to ask some questions or browse through its different topic-oriented channels and ongoing conversations.

Learn, try and give back. Good luck!

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