Imagine your favorite TV show. What makes it so magical? Maybe it’s the jokes that force you to laugh out loud. Or maybe it’s getting swept into an alternative reality that is completely different from your own.
Whatever it is for you, every show boils down to the same ingredient: continuity. Whether it’s The Office or Game of Thrones, we believe what we’re watching because it all seems to seamlessly flow together. That continuity doesn’t happen by accident. Just looking at the screen credits reveals a whole crew of people working together to ensure the ship sales smoothly. They form what is essentially an operations team.
Just as a TV show, a company’s research org requires a seemingly invisible hand — or many invisible hands — to ensure that everything goes according to plan. Those hands are also there to ensure that there is a plan. This is Research Ops. Research, at scale, needs it. It’s about creating an ecosystem that allows the team to do exactly that—focus on the research.
Ops Is Everywhere
From design ops, to development ops, to sales ops, the operationalization of disciplines has grown from an esoteric concept into an organizational necessity over the last decade. Technology and software industries have largely catalyzed this movement. As teams within organizations grow, so does the need to organize, streamline, and define systems and strategies. Doing so helps improve efficiency, consistency, and quality at scale.
This trend has also escalated as companies recognize the centrality of research, and also the importance of the practice of research. This holds especially true for design research. As these fields have matured, the need for processes, systems, and strategies to support these motions has grown.
What is Research Ops?
Design research ops boils down to all of the tactical and logistical things that need to go into making user research happen.
Like Design Ops, Research Ops is all about creating repeatable systems and processes to support design. This frees researchers up to do the time-intensive work of crafting, conducting and analyzing research studies. Research ops takes all of the logistical aspects of research which have a lot of overhead and gives it to folks who have an aptitude for it.
The field of research ops crystallized in March of 2018, when Kate Towsey, Research Ops Manager at Atlassian, tweeted that she was starting a Research Ops channel on Slack. The channel launched the hashtag #WhatIsResearchOps, ultimately defining it as “the 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 and craft across an organization.”
Largely thanks to her efforts, a team of 60 organizers have run 34 workshops around the world to learn about the difficulties researchers face, and to ideate on what research ops should entail. Still, the concept remains somewhat opaque, even to companies who rely heavily on design research.
“I see a lot of tech companies are growing their research capabilities,” says Andy Budd, co-founder of Clearleft and a leading thinker in the area of design and research ops. “And many tech companies will maybe have teams of 10, 20, 30 or 40 researchers. And so when you've got a lot of people doing a lot of things, you generally want to maximize the time your researchers are spent doing research.”
Budd believes the goal is to take some of the more laborious administrative tasks off of researchers’ shoulders. Research Ops entails anything ops people can do to maximize the time researchers spend on research. This goes past simply recruiting study participants and gathering data. A fully built out research ops function involves multiple people and multiple roles.
Research Ops provides the framework and scaffolding for research teams by looking at the bigger picture of how research actually happens, and how to make it happen. It makes researchers’ jobs easier and more effective by dealing with logistical challenges, and making the research experience more enjoyable for participants.
In a previous organization, our research team hired a summer intern whose entire project was to create a tagging system for all the studies stored in our database. It was like unlocking a treasure box. Up until that point, hunting for the results of a particular study had meant maybe an hour’s worth of work. With the tagging system—something the researchers truly hadn’t had the bandwidth to create—suddenly we could all access this wealth of information in seconds flat.
Devising a way to catalog and store research is invaluable. If you’re sitting on research and no one sees it, what’s the point?
Does my team need a Research Ops function?
If your team is trying to scale its research, it probably needs some form of a Research Ops function — whether that’s one person or a team. Think of what goes into completing a single study:
- How are you going to find participants?
- Designing the study and figuring out the logistics becomes another full-time job.
- Is the study on or offsite?
- Who is managing the budget?
- How are we getting funding?
- Are participants receiving compensation?
- Have they signed the necessary legal papers?
Effective ops require more resources than you might assume. Towsey says even if your research team is only five people, each of the elements of Research Ops could be a full-time job. Towsey learned this lesson the hard way. When she joined Atlassian, she hired a single recruiter.
“I had no idea participant recruitment took so much time,” Towsey writes. One recruiter in charge of involving participants for studies can generally find 20 to 25 participants a month. “They’ll have time for nothing else,” Towsey says.
While some may find recruitment to be the hardest nut to crack, others may need to focus on building and managing a research library, or ensuring that assets are secured safely. Research often ends up getting lost. It sits on hard drives or languishes in the cloud, forgotten. Research Ops people are vital for maximizing the impact that research can have. For smaller companies, a simple file system everyone understands may prove sufficient. For larger organizations, an entire CRM system that enables keyword searches might be necessary.
Other teams may need help with HR. Research Ops can ensure your organization follows best hiring practices and adheres to ethical codes. They also streamline the onboarding process, and delve into company and team culture.
What makes an effective Research Ops team?
Just as researchers require specific skill sets and training, research ops specialists possess traits that let them excel. When you’re hiring for Research Ops, you’re not always looking for a researcher looking to transition into ops, or even someone with an ops background. “You’re looking for someone who is pragmatic, service-oriented, gets-shit-done and understands researchers,” Towsey writes. “You’re looking for an arch collaborator who has leadership qualities and can work hand-in-hand with the research leader (maybe that’s you) to bring their/your vision to life.”
Ultimately, you’re looking for a detail-oriented person who thrives helping others succeed.
The future of Research Ops
Effective research ops is time- and labor-intensive. But if implemented and utilized properly, an ops leader can help a research team operate at a new level of efficiency, scalability, and quality. “If you can take something that 20 people are doing poorly and centralize that into something that one or two people are doing really well, you're going to get efficiencies of scale.”
Budd says there will soon be a point where having Research Ops will become the rule, rather than the exception.
“I think the practice will become more common,” he says. “A consistent set of tools and approaches will form to the point that it will no longer be a novel thing making people ask “what’s that” but will instead be a core feature of any research team above a certain size.”