How to deal with the admin overhead of ResearchOps

8 min read David Renwick

One of the most common topics of conversation that I come across in research circles is how to deal with the administrative burden of user research. I see it time and again – both junior and experienced researchers alike struggling to balance delivering outputs for their stakeholders as well as actually managing the day-to-day of their jobs.

It’s not easy! Research is an admin-heavy field. All forms of user testing require a significant time investment for participant recruitment, user interviews mean sorting through notes in order to identify themes and different qualitative methods can leave you with pages of spreadsheet data. Staring down this potential mountain of administrative work is enough to make even the most seasoned researchers run for the hills.

Enter ResearchOps. Sprouting up in 2018, various researchers came together to try and standardize different research practices and processes in order to support researchers and streamline operations. It may seem like a silver bullet, but the fundamental questions still remain. How can you, as a researcher, manage the administrative side of your job? And where does your responsibility end and your colleagues’ begin? Well, it’s time to find out.

Putting ResearchOps into perspective

As we touched on in the introduction, ResearchOps is here and it’s here to stay. Like its cousin DesignOps, ResearchOps represents an earnest and combined effort on the part of the research community to really establish research practices and give researchers a kind-of backbone to support them. Carrying out effective user research is more important now than ever before, so it’s key that vetted practices and processes are in place to guide the growing community of researchers. ResearchOps can also be instrumental in helping us establish boundaries and lines of communication.

But, it’s important to frame ResearchOps. This new ‘practice’ won’t magically solve the administrative burden that comes along with doing research. In fact, it’s likely that simply by having access to clear processes and practices, many researchers will identify more opportunities to run their research practices more effectively, which in many cases will mean, yep, you guessed it, more administrative work. Interestingly, Kate Towsey (one of the ‘founders’ of ResearchOps), best summed this situation up by describing ResearchOps as an API – elements you can ‘plug’ into your own research practice.

In dealing with these issues, there are some key questions you need to ask yourself.

Who owns research in your organization?

If you speak to researchers from different organizations, you’ll quickly realize that no two research practices are run the same way. In some cases, research teams are very well established operations, with hundreds of researchers following clearly set out processes and procedures in a very structured way. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you’ve got the more haphazard research operations, where people (perhaps not even ‘researchers’ in the traditional sense) are using research methods. The varied way in which research practices operate means the question of ownership is often a difficult one to answer – but it’s important.

Before we get into some of the strategies you can use to reduce and manage the administrative side of user research, you need to get a clear picture of who owns research in your organization. A fuzzy understanding of ownership makes the task of establishing boundaries near-impossible.

Strategies to manage the administrative burden of Research

Research is an admin-intensive practice. There’s no getting around it. And, while it’s true that some tools can help you to reduce the day-to-day admin of your job (typically by making certain methods easier to execute), there’s still a fair amount of strategic thinking that you’ll need to do. In other words, it’s time to look at some strategies you can use to ensure you’re doing the job in the most efficient way.

1. Know where your job stops

Understand what your colleagues expect from you, and what your organization expects from you. Knowing where your job stops (and where the jobs of the other members of your team begin) is key to the smooth running of a research practice. We’re talking about you – we’ll get to how research as a practice interacts with other parts of the organization in the next section. If you’re one of 5 researchers in your organization, a lack of alignment will lead to duplication of work, missed opportunities, and, in many cases, more admin. This is a constant issue, and it’s not one that researchers alone deal with. Needing to scramble to set up a meeting because 2 teams realize they’re both working on the same project happens all too often, in every type of organization.

2. Establish clear boundaries

Research, as a practice, can touch nearly every area of an organization. This is both by design and necessity. Research is consultative, and requires input from a number of parts of an organization. If not managed carefully, operating your research without clear boundaries can mean you’re stuck with significant amounts of administrative work.

Think about a typical research project:

  1. You might start by meeting with stakeholders to discuss what questions they want answered, or problems they want solved.
  2. Then, you may engage other researchers on your team to solicit their opinions as to how to proceed.
  3. You might test your studies with staff before taking them “live” and testing them with your target users.
  4. Depending on the research, you may need to engage with your legal department to work through risk assessments, consent forms, risk and ethical issues.
  5. At the end of your project, you’ll probably need to take your research and store it somewhere, a task that will involve more data governance conversations.

The ResearchOps community put together this fantastic framework (below) which maps out the majority of research processes.

A chart showing all of the different elements of ResearchOps.
The #WhatIsResearch Ops Framework. Learn more here.

“You can’t possibly handle any one bubble without touching many of the others, so it’s important to establish clear boundaries for what you, as research ops and as a person, cover,” Kate Towsey explains.

As for how to actually establish these boundaries – and in turn reduce the chance of an administrative overload – turn to conversations. One of the best ways to clear up any fogginess around remit is to simply pull the different parties into the same room and talk through your perspectives.

3. Outsource (if you need to)

In certain situations, it may make sense to outsource. Of course, we’re not talking about simply taking your research practice and outsourcing it wholesale, but instead taking select components that are well suited to being managed by third parties.

The obvious candidate here is participant recruitment. It’s typically one of the most time-consuming and admin-heavy parts of the research process, and coincidentally one that’s also easy to outsource. Participant recruitment services have access to tens of thousands of participants, and can pull together groups of participants for your research project, meaning you can eliminate the task of going out and searching for people manually. You simply specify the type of participant you require, and the service handles the rest.

Of course, there will always be times where manual participant recruitment is preferable, for example when you’re trying to recruit for user interviews for an extremely niche subject area, or you’re dealing with participants directly from your customer base.

4. Prioritize your research repository

Taking the time to establish a useful, usable repository of all of your research will be one of the best investments you can make as a researcher. There is a time commitment involved in setting up a research repository, but upsides are significant. For example, you’ll reduce admin as you’ll have a clear process for storing the insights from studies that you conduct. You’ll also find that when embarking on a new research project, you’ll have a good place to start. Instead of just blinding going out and starting from scratch, you can search through past studies in the repository to see if any similar research has been run in the past. That way, you can maximise the use of past research and focus on new research to get new insights.

What a good research repository looks like will depend on your organization’s needs to some extent, but there are some things to keep in mind:

  • Your research should be easy to retrieve – There should be no barriers for researchers needing to access the research data.
  • You should be able to trace insights back to the raw research data – If required, researchers should be able to trace the outputs of a research project back to the initial findings/raw data.
  • It should be easy for others to access the findings from your research – Thinking beyond your cadre of user researchers, your repository should be fairly accessible to others in the organization. Marketers, designers and developers alike should be able to retrieve research when required.
  • Sensitive data should be secure, or deleted if it’s not necessary – Your entire research repository should only be accessible to those within your organization, but you may need even tighter restrictions within that bubble. For example, you don’t want even the slightest chance of sensitive data leaking. By that same token, delete sensitive information when it’s not absolutely essential that you keep it.

Wrap-up

User research is always going to require a fair amount of administrative work, but there are actions you can take to minimize some of these more arduous and repetitive tasks – you just need to know where to start.

For more research strategy content, stay tuned to the Optimal Workshop Blog.

Happy testing!

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