For a vast majority of the product and user research teams we’ve spoken with, time is the limiting factor that stops them from speaking to their users. Speaking to your users takes too long.
Starting up a UX research practice at a company is like moving into an empty house. You look at all that space, wondering what to do. The boxes start to arrive, and you realize you’d better have a system for unpacking them, a system for creating a flow in your home where life can run smoothly. Can you imagine moving into a new place and piling up all your boxes in one room, then sorting through them every time you needed an item? That’s exactly what it’s like trying to conduct UX research without Research Operations in place.
When I started in my first role leading UX research at a digital product company alongside another researcher, I was not only new to the profession – the profession was new to my company. After initial onboarding, we moved onto an internal research project: interviewing our key stakeholders. With no research structure in place, at first, we were able to improvise. We recorded interviews with our phones and used a note-taking app to synthesize our data. We created an insights share-out deck from scratch. Then things got tricky as we prepared for our first user study. We defined the scope of our first project, but where could we find users? As a B2B company, it took us a long time to find a customer willing to let us conduct ethnographic research on the premises. By then, we were also in the process of bringing more researchers onboard, and with them would come more projects, more stakeholders, and a growing need to find research participants. It made sense to prioritize the organization and standardization of our practices.
Building up Research Operations is vital to a project-based practice like UX research. Research Operations, or ResearchOps, can refer to anything from standardizing procedures and strategies to creating systems for executing research, all with the aim to scale a research practice. ReOps, a key online community founded by Kate Towsey, Research Operations Manager at Atlassian, provides the following community-sourced definition of research operations: 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. In essence, ResearchOps is everything necessary to execute a research project smoothly. When in place, it allows researchers to focus on crafting a research question, conducting, analyzing, and sharing research insights – in other words, the work they were hired to do.
A number of comprehensive how-to articles have been written about this topic and how to go about setting up a practice. For example, Nielson Norman Group provides a solid overview, and the ResearchOps community has published comprehensive resources into all aspects of the ResearchOps process. You can also find excellent examples of how various companies have set up and scaled their ResearchOps, including Microsoft and Spotify.
The table below lists common elements of ResearchOps. Each of these elements will come into play during a research project. Keep in mind: Every organization is different. The aspects covered in the table and those in the linked articles above provide a good starting point regarding which topics you’ll need to address, but also important is your expert knowledge of how things work at your company.
Much could be said about each element above. If you’re just getting started, you probably want to focus on a low-hanging fruit, one that can help in a holistic way. Creating a research project template can bring structure to the research process and provide an outline for remaining ResearchOps needs.
Because UX research work is often project-based and in collaboration with non-research stakeholders, coming up with a comprehensive research project template is an essential first step to building up your ResearchOps.
On the surface, a research project template is an essential project management tool. It helps the researchers involved with the project keep in mind all essential steps of a complex process. If you have multiple researchers on a project, it can provide clarity about who’s doing what. A research project template can include the following elements:
The research project template is more than just a way to keep your work as researchers organized. It’s also a starting point for collaboration with your stakeholders, so you are fully transparent about what it takes to conduct a quality research project. That said, it also serves the function of educating stakeholders about the research process. If you play your cards right, it may also assist in getting buy-in from leadership to hire ResearchOps staff.
I know it as well as anyone: Taking on the challenge of setting up ResearchOps – or even making the effort to get buy-in to hire dedicated ResearchOps staff – can feel overwhelming. It can be tiring, especially when your “real” responsibility – conducting research and sharing insights with stakeholders – is already a full-time job. It’s best to tackle it in baby steps. Does your team do retros at the end of each research project? This is a great moment to block an extra 30 minutes to an hour to discuss what went well, what’s missing and what needs to be prioritized for ResearchOps. This regular effort will pay dividends in the long run. Your colleagues, stakeholders and your future team members will be so appreciative of these efforts to standardize and scale the research practice.
Just like unpacking and organizing your home after a big move, getting started early with ResearchOps is a valuable investment of your time. Moving knowledge about users and research practices from people’s heads to neatly formulated procedures and intuitive tooling is a life-saver and can make or break the scalability of a UX research practice.