Research operations (or research ops) teams are designed to support researchers in delivering the research and product development at the heart of their work. Many tasks obstruct UX researchers from getting on with the crucial part of their work—conducting research—especially as more organisations recognise its value and scale research operations to take full advantage.
The research ops team alleviates pressure and frees up the time and resources of key players by managing the user research practices other or new team members can carry out for them. Today, we will look at what a research ops framework looks like and the operational tasks that allow researchers to facilitate research effectively.
The importance of Research Ops in the current digital landscape
As UX research grows in recognition of its value—to the products it examines, develops, and improves, as well as the bottom line boost for stakeholders—we’re seeing more UX research processes conducted in more areas. You can’t expect that growth to continue without seeing changes in how we structure and organise the work and the people managing the process.
As research practice scales, and UX research teams take on more work, they have to grow, and with more researchers to manage, it’s essential to define the research operations process and discuss which roles are relevant to which staff.
Research operations look a little different to in-house teams than to agencies. As a particular product or operation team expands, research ops ensure everyone stays connected and that the system is adapted to communicate each project, practice, results, and how each research project benefits everyone better. For an agency, research ops have to focus more on resource management and utilisation, given the restrictions on their time in ways where their clients typically aren’t as limited.
Whichever the angle you’re approaching the rapidly developing research practices in your team, an effective research operations program is a must to allow your UX researchers to carry on the work—doing what they do best—without getting deflected by the admin and organisation behind the many research sessions their busy workload must cater to.
What is Research Ops and its key components?
The Neilson Norman Group define research operations as:
ResearchOps refers to the orchestration and optimization of people, processes, and craft in order to amplify the value and impact of research at scale.
It’s described as a specialist area of DesignOps, and a collective term covering the many efforts to support user research practitioners in planning, conducting and applying research insights.
How? By standardizing research methods, carrying out participant recruitment and screening, ensuring all studies, information, and data are catalogued and available across the entire team and operation, that ethics and regulations are consdiered and met, and finally, that all of their valuable user research is shared and promoted in a way that those outside of UX research teams can understand and see its value in the bigger picture.
Common Components of Research Ops
Going back to the Neilsen Norman Group‘s outline of research ops, they define the common components as:
- Participants: Recruiting, screening, scheduling, and compensating participants
- Governance: Processes and guidelines for consent, privacy, and information storage
- Knowledge: Processes and platforms for collecting, synthesising, and sharing research insights
- Tools: Enabling efficiencies in research through consistent toolsets and platforms
- Competency: Enabling, educating, and onboarding others to perform research activities
- Advocacy: Defining, sharing, and socializing the value of user research throughout the organisation
It’s considered a cyclical model, with interrelated factors that create a need for each other while also influencing each other.
However, given the complexity of the field, the list is by no means exhaustive. Every team will encounter specialist or unique areas requiring the expert oversight and governance of their research operations team or research ops manager.
Participant Management: Best practices for recruiting and managing research participants
Participant recruitment and management is one of the biggest areas of practical assistance that research operations step in to provide.
An effective research ops team removes pressure from the research team and support researchers by locating, screening, selecting, and recruiting participants for their studies. As any busy UX research team or department will know, recruiting and scheduling participants is one of the areas where they’re most stretched, and a well-organised and efficient management system is indispensable.
- Researching potential participants
- Databasing potential research participants and external recruiting platforms and opportunities
- Screening and recruiting participants and approving them for studies
- Managing and communicating with participants
- Creating fair frameworks and incentives relative to participant expertise and time investment
Governance: Establishing guidelines and processes for research operations
Governance is crucial in the digital world, especially when working with vast numbers of participants. Research ops, therefore, must cater for data privacy regulations (understanding how to navigate GDPR, for example) and provide uniform templates and data storage systems for every study and participant.
- Understanding data-privacy regulations within the UX research process:
- Which details constitute personally identifiable information (PII)?
- How long can you store it?
- How is it protected?
- How do participants observe transparency of data?
- Delivering ethical processes and communications
- Creating consistent and standardised compliant consent forms, study formats, and data collection methods
- Managing, maintaining, and disposing of study artefacts, personally identifiable information, scripts, and recordings
Knowledge Management: Creating and maintaining a centralised repository for research insights and artefacts
Another frustrating area of user research operations is how often studies are repeated or requested when the required information has been covered in a previous study or gathered from an existing platform or system. Effectively catalogued and available data should ensure that this simply shouldn’t happen.
To create the most effective database for knowledge management, a research ops team should instigate standard practices for collecting and compiling the data, develop a searchable research repository, and provide access for everyone who needs it.
- Delivering templates to set user research standards within studies and data collection
- Creating a research repository as a central archive for research data and insights (read about the benefits of research repositories and how to deliver one in one of our earlier articles)
- Organising meetings to educate and promote sharing research insights
- Coordinating with teams outside UX research regarding regularly sharing insights and building significant areas of your research repository
Tools: Selecting and utilising research tools for effective data collection and analysis
UX research demands a vast array of tools and platforms for every aspect of the process. You’ll need to manage participant recruitment and screening, data compiling, PII storage and management, communication and discussion platforms—and that’s before we even get to the research itself. What software and tools are required for usability testing, analytics, survey platforms, video editing, audio transcription, and more? Then, there’s the upkeep and management of your lab components. It’s a considerable list and an essential task.
- Researching and choosing ideal tools and platforms for your management and testing practices
- Organising platform access and privileges for individuals and research teams
- Auditing the research ops toolkit to ensure everything is up-to-date and in regular use, is compliant, and is the right option for your teams
Competency: Building a skilled and capable research team
Competency relates to the depth of knowledge within the research team. From research leaders and senior user researchers to trainees and those in nonresearch supporting roles looking to expand their knowledge and skills, becoming a more useful part of the research team.
To meet the growth needs of your UX research team, education and the resources to provide it globally through your organisation are crucial.
- Ongoing training and standard skill development paths
- Mentorship programs
- Building an onboarding program for new researchers, trainees, and those outside of your usual team
- Developing standard procedures to direct user practices and behaviours for freelance or additional researcher hires
Advocacy: Promoting the value of UX research within the organisation
It might not appear as critical at first glance, but advocacy plays a huge part in scaling operations.
Ensuring the entire organisation appreciates the value of its UX research requires all of its teams to understand the true value is and how impactful it is to the running of the business.
Advocacy defines and communicates those benefits to everyone. It also closes the cyclical model by ensuring ongoing investment into research operations, resources, and teams.
- Delivering UX mission statements
- Providing and promoting case studies that demonstrate the value of UX research to the bottom line
- Developing a system that regularly promotes insights and successes
Assessing the need for Research Ops support
You shouldn’t wait until your UX research teams are at breaking point before recruiting a research operations manager or team to support them.
If you’ve got a team of five or more researchers and you’re expecting to scale further, you should already be thinking about how a research ops team could help make your research operations more efficient.
For smaller research practices, you may only need to introduce a dedicated research ops manager with the skills to relieve your user researchers of the tasks slowing them down, building a better system to keep everyone updated and effective.
Carrying out UX research is a complex task. But, when on top of conducting research projects, you’re expected to develop standards for your research methods, organise a research repository to contain your new knowledge management, ensure you’re adhering to current research ethics and regulations, and deliver and share your research findings to educate the rest of your organisation, it’s easy to see how stretching the original role soon becomes overwhelming.
Regrettably, it’s happening to many smaller research teams trying to cope with the recent growth in their research practice. Fortunately, as we’ve discussed, the cavalry are at hand. Research operations teams are on the rise, making for a happier workforce, managing the increase in projects UX researchers must cover and ensuring smoother operational tasks and education throughout their systems.