At this point, you know a ton about DesignOps. And the fundamentals of DesignOps are transferable to thinking about research operations (ResearchOps). ResearchOps gets its own chapter here for two reasons. First, it’s tightly related to design. Second, research calls for very specific approaches to people, workflow, and business operations.

The mission of research

Research helps gather data from inside and outside the organization to derive actionable insights that drive both strategic and tactical decision making.

The data that feeds research comes from a variety of sources:

  • User research
  • Ethnography
  • Interviews
  • Remote and in-person moderated and unmoderated testing
  • Journaling
  • Participatory design
  • User activities (purchases, usage, site, and app analytics)
  • Market research
  • Analyst reports
  • Support and sales logs
  • Customer interviews

Organizing research activities to discover insights—and then making those insights actionable—requires attention to many operational concerns. This is especially true as you scale your research organization and your org as a whole.

In this chapter, we’ll discuss the considerations and special needs unique to user research, as well as how it intersects with design and other parts of the organization.

People operations

The difference between the people and community operations for DesignOps and ResearchOps is organizational structure. Though there are many ways to organize research in an organization, the context and makeup of your team will determine the right path.

Some questions that might help you shape your research structure include:

  1. Is research a practice unto itself, or is it practiced by people tied to other functional roles (like design, product management, or development)?
  2. Who leads which types of research activities?
  3. Do researchers plan and execute all the research for the benefit of others?
  4. Do designers and product managers lead their own research initiatives?
  5. Who do researchers report to?
  6. What other types of research does the organization conduct—market research, data science, and analytics?
  7. If market researchers or data scientists are conducting research, who do they report to?
  8. Does research function as a service agency to the entire org, or are individual researchers assigned to specific teams?

The different answers to these questions changes both the people operations (PeopleOps) and ResearchOps contexts. To illustrate, let’s imagine a scenario that will allow us to create a scaling team structure:

You’re the head of design for a growing and maturing design team. When you joined, the design team was eight-people strong, and the team lacked a dedicated researcher—all the designers did their own research.

Now the team is up to 10 folks, and you’re ready to start adding dedicated research practitioners. You need them to:

  • Scale design research, especially in areas that are horizontal to all products
  • Operationalize research so designers can more efficiently and effectively do the research they were already doing
  • Evangelize and coach research, analysis, and synthesis methods to make results more accurate and actionable

This first person you hire is a lead researcher. This is a senior role that will convert to a manager in a short period of time. This hire might be at the management level now, but wants the challenge of building a research organization from the ground up and is willing to be an individual contributor for a short while until more headcount arrives.

The lead researcher’s first hire will most likely be a junior, focusing on partnering with designers for their larger vertical research efforts, and for managing discrete aspects of the ResearchOps process.

A research team might start out as part of the design organization, since the designers already practice research in their work and likely come from a traditional UX background with a healthy respect for qualitative research. Alternatively, research might work as part of a data science group, or parallel to design, or as part of a product management team.

Once the team is large enough, the design research team might even run parallel to both design and product management. At scale, this team might run parallel to the entire product organization as a new “Insights” department that includes data science and market research.

For the purposes of this chapter, we’ll assume research is part of the design organization as we discuss operationalizing research.

With a structure in place, the next consideration is the ratio of researchers to the rest of the organization. Let’s jump ahead three years:

There are now 25 designers across 15 product teams, each with its own product manager. Each product team may have at least one scrum-based agile team of eight people. To serve this product organization, you spin up a new design research team made up of the following people:

  • A manager of design research
  • Four senior design researchers, two of whom handle qualitative methods (interviews, ethnography) while the other two tackle usability issues
  • Two junior or associate design research generalists—likely recent graduates

This team is about one-third the size of your design organization, but you will need to adjust this based on capacity planning, how extensive your research initiatives are, and how much non-user research your design research team needs to be doing (quantitative studies, analytics, market research, and analyst reports).

Physical and virtual space

Research and design share a lot of the same space parameters. Both want workshop spaces with whiteboards and room for Post-its. Both want a flexible space that can be reconfigured to meet their needs with minimal effort. And both require space that can be reserved for the length of a project and possibly beyond. Physically, it should be easy enough to “get a room,” so to speak. Virtually, there are plenty of tools and systems that can facilitate research when team members are not in the same room.

Physical

One space unique to research is the usability lab. A lab calls for equipment that needs to be selected (measuring, recording, and communication devices), a space architected into a proper test environment (proper lighting and sound set-up), and ongoing maintenance to keep everything humming.

Eventually this might call for a lab manager who keeps the space in tip-top shape and administers all the equipment. A lab also serves as a storeroom for equipment like cameras and microphones that are used both in the lab and the field.

Along those lines, you might require a mobile device lab stocked with different devices and configurations of software and hardware. This is especially true if you maintain legacy platforms.

Lab time is coveted by researchers, so you’ll need a system for managing access. While first come, first served on a shared calendar can work, you’ll likely need to implement some evaluation criteria based on project priorities.

When you bring folks into a lab, you need everything to run smoothly. Your lab manager or tech support might need to be on standby in case of any unanticipated glitches. And don’t forget to be hospitable—where will visitors wait for their interviews or tests? Will you provide drinks, snacks, or lunch? The user experience extends to the lab.

Virtual

For research that doesn’t take place in a lab or dedicated space, you might use services like Optimal Workshop, UserTesting, UserZoom, or Validately, among others. These are paid platforms that allow you to run a mix of moderated and unmoderated tests of interfaces, scenarios, and content. You may also use data capture software like Mural, Optimal Workshop, AirTable, Smartsheets, or others.

Note that you’ll want someone to keep track of which platforms you’re licensed to use, and when those licenses expire. Similarly, you’ll want to track which platforms you no longer use to avoid recurring charges that eat into your research budget.

Some usability testing teams simply rely on video conferencing services. However, you might want to juggle more than one conferencing service—many enterprise organizations don’t allow individuals to install their own apps on their work computers. Keep this in mind if your research will require you to speak to members of an enterprise organization, and have conferencing options in mind.

Workflow process and tools

The biggest parts of operationalizing research revolve around workflow and tools.

Project intake

You’ll need to give your team a transparent intake process for the evaluation and prioritization of projects. This ensures that everyone—stakeholders especially—can see the right projects are prioritized based on sound business reasoning.

The people who request research don’t always know exactly what they need, so your intake process might require a discovery process. Discovery is often run against a template that frames the criteria required for moving a project to a planning stage.

Recruitment

Participant recruitment, scheduling, and incentive management are probably the hardest things about user research. How do we get people to invite us into their homes or offices or workspaces, where we can observe them performing the activities we want to design for?

Participant database

Around your fifth or sixth usability test, you start to see the need to manage your subjects in a database. Any spreadsheet works; I prefer Airtable because it’s incredibly easy for creating relational tables that mesh lots of different data and metadata.

Why a participant database?

  • A pool of customers who have opted in to research projects makes it quick and easy to recruit participants and provides you with a better response rate than contacting people you have no information about
  • A database helps track schedules and incentives
  • In a system like Airtable, I can track participant information across multiple projects to build a richer analysis of each person
  • Finally, tracking participants ensures that we don’t go back to the same customer too often

Engagement tracking

An engagement is a single session (a usability test, interview, etc.) that a team has with a user or customer during a project. Engagement management is similar to project management, on which we add a layer of engagement data to track.

These are the engagement data points I recommend tracking:

1. Project information

The project information is analogous to what you’d find in typical project management—project name, project description, current project status or phase, research type (exploration, generative, evaluative), research methods, expected project duration, budget, and team.

2. Engagement information

All of the above could be managed in a project management tool like Trello, but this system doesn’t readily extend to the additional engagement data points we want to add or link to.

For each engagement, we’ll want to state (or link to) the project name and participant (who is ideally in our participant database!). If we could get the participant data out of a company Salesforce account, even better, as this would likely include contextual information like the participant’s company, role, and tenure at their organization.

As for the actual engagement, we’ll log the date, location, and duration of the engagement, as well as who was there and what their role is. Be sure to note where the engagement took place (lab, field, somewhere else), and which of your products or services this engagement related to (if any). If you took photos or collected artifacts, be sure to link to those assets, as well as your own notes.

Speaking of assets—consider how these are stored and shared. Every engagement offers an opportunity to add visual and audio documentation, which should be connected in some way to your engagement tracking system.

Data curation and consolidation

One of the biggest issues a scaling research team faces is that the data is everywhere. In Seeing the Elephant: Defragmenting User Research, Louis Rosenfeld recounted the fable of the blind men and the elephant. In this story, a group of blind people are near different parts of an elephant, trying to guess what animal it is based on what they can feel. Individually, they can’t understand that it’s an elephant and fail to identify it. (Personally, I always thought the smell would give it away…but that’s just me.)

The fable illustrates that when trying to understand an enterprise organization, the data comes from many equally relevant sources: marketing, sales, support, product management, usability tests, analytics, data science, and, of course, user research. Each source comes in different formats, from different lenses and points of view, and via different data collection methods.

Repositories

To ensure your research synthesis has considered the entirety of the problem space, it’s important to aggregate all of these data sources. Not only does this provide you with the complete picture and minimize that your insights are offbase, but it prepares you to answer critiques of your findings from those versed in those various data points.

A repository of research data also prevents you from the Groundhog Day scenario of repeating the same queries and answering the same question. When you store data, and make it easy to access (with help from solid metadata), you make it easy to find and reuse existing information.

Insights

Researcher and author Tomer Sharon believes that the most valuable deliverable from a research organization is not the data, but the insights that are generated from that data. To him, the ability to create and share credible insights across an organization is how a research team generates the most value.

Many teams have tried to create insight repositories that are widely accessible to their respective organization. Some examples include Mosaiq by Nasdaq and Polaris by WeWork. Additionally, products like Aurelius, Reframer, Nomnom, and Dovetail seek to fill this niche. Other organizations seek to solve for this by repurposing wikis, blogs, or visual spreadsheets like Airtable.

Synthesis

It isn’t design (or research) until there are Post-it notes, only now those post-its might just as easily appear on a screen as they do on a wall. Remote and distributed teams are becoming more common, as are digital tools to create common research artifacts like canvases, affinity diagrams, and other synthesis methods for teams separated by time and location.

If you’re thinking of operationalizing research, think about the processes that lend themselves to documentation, decision paths, and archiving. While IRL whiteboards, notes, and giant rolls of paper are great for collaborative research, digital whiteboard spaces offer advantages like commenting, history, and photo insertion… not to mention templating, version control, and easy access to older files.

Business operations

As you can imagine, for each topic mentioned in this chapter there are a host of decisions that require expertise outside the domain of the average researcher. The legal team needs to draft participant releases and non-disclosure agreements, while procurement can help secure your equipment. You’ll want to make the security team a partner if folks will be entering your building to visit your lab, and IT will be a valuable collaborator in connecting systems (and keeping them connected!).

The research team will need a liaison to work with these other parts of the organization to create and amend processes, rules, and tools that allow the research team to meet their unique goals.

Legal

Legal considerations abound throughout the research process. Your legal team can help with NDAs, participant release forms (which allow you to record participant pictures, videos, and audio), and vendor contracts. These contracts might be with recruitment services, facilities, and software vendors.

To that last point, you’ll want to collaborate with procurement and your IT team about software licenses and agreements.

Legal can also determine if any of your proposed processes break any company rules (or laws, or tax restrictions) around incentives and gifts.

Procurement

When it comes to research, there are many expenses: hardware, software, furniture, vendor services, and participant payments, to name a few. You’ll want to find a way to work with your procurement team that allows research to remain lean and agile in a high-velocity working environment.

This usually means collaborating on ways to remove rules and gain permissions for people to make their own purchasing decisions. For example, it’s much easier for a researcher to simply buy a gift card as participant compensation, rather than go through a procurement process that was designed to buy gift cards in bulk via purchase order.

IT and security

The IT department supports the installation and maintenance of software and hardware for the entire organization. You’ll want to discuss all your technology plans with both your IT and security teams to make sure that what you have in mind won’t conflict with other part of the technology stack, and that anything you propose can be secured.

You might also need IT resources to set up the services that facilitate research, like cloud resources for storing assets or server software that sits behind the company’s firewall. For testing and interviews, work with security to make the user experience of entering the building easier for participants. By establishing a plan and partnering with other parts of your org in advance of what you need, you can remove impediments and lay the groundwork for future proposals.

Final thoughts

This chapter is not meant to be a comprehensive description of everything that goes into ResearchOps. After all, the practice is evolving every day. But the information here is tightly connected to DesignOps, and can help kickstart discussions around how to work with ResearchOps.

The interconnection between design and research—as well as with other parts of the organization like business operations (BusinessOps) and people operations (PeopleOps)—increases efficiency, communication, and output, and allows everyone to work as a unified front in collaboration with stakeholders.

Closing remarks from Pinterest’s Meredith Black

While the four authors of this book have played some part in pioneering the role of DesignOps within our industry, it’s now up to you to pioneer the role within your own organization. It’s time to take all of the information you just learned and put it into play. It’s time to build your team. It’s time to show your organization how DesignOps can make an impact.

Have you ever heard of an athlete being asked to coach herself, play in the game or competition, and then follow up with the athletic organization about how many tickets were sold and how much money was made from concessions? That doesn’t happen. Let’s take a note from the wide world of sports and acknowledge that one person shouldn’t do it all—it takes a well-rounded team of different talents to succeed and thrive.

My advice as you put DesignOps into play is to hire smartly, integrate slowly, and plan meticulously. As your organization grows and scales, so will your team. Think of your DesignOps team as the chameleon in the company, always changing to support the growth and changes of the business.

There is no one way to make the perfect DesignOps team. Just like with design mockups and early stage concepts, the role of DesignOps will need to be nurtured and taken care of. There will be feedback, there will be iterations, and—most importantly—there will be small and large wins that will motivate you to keep going.

The most exciting part about DesignOps is that you can be involved in creating a practice that didn’t exist five years ago. You are at the inception of a new role that you get to help shape.