What is ResearchOps?

6 min read David Renwick

Back in early 2018, user researchers from around the globe got together to try and define an emerging practice – ResearchOps. The project eventually grew into a significant research effort called #WhatisResearchOps, involving 34 workshops, a survey that garnered over 300 responses and reams of analysis.

The goal was quite simple. Generate conversation around the work that researchers do in order to support them as research grows, with an eye toward standardizing common research practices. It’s an important undertaking: a report back carried out in 2017 found that 81 percent of executives agreed that user research made their organization more efficient. Further, 86 percent believed user research improved the quality of their products.

It’s clear that many organizations are starting to understand the value that user researchers bring to the table, it’s now up to the researchers to operationalize their practice. 

But for the uninitiated, what exactly is ResearchOps? And why should you care?

What is ResearchOps?

To start off, there’s not a lot of literature about ResearchOps as of early 2020. Right now, it’s a practice that can certainly be classed as ‘emerging’. This is partly why we’re writing about it. We want to add our own kindling to the ResearchOps conversation fire.

ResearchOps as a practice has 2 main goals:

  • Socialize research: Make it easier for the people in an organization to access the insights generated by user research, and allow them to actively take part in research activities.
  • Operationalize research: Standardize templates, processes and plans to reduce research costs and the time required to get research projects off the ground.

Or, as Vidhya Sriram explains in the post we linked above, ResearchOps “democratizes customer insights, takes down barriers to understand customers, and makes everyone take responsibility for creating remarkable customer experiences.”

ResearchOps certainly hasn’t achieved anything close to ‘mainstream’ understanding yet, so in order to give ResearchOps the best chance of succeeding, it’s quite helpful to look at another ‘Ops’ practice – DesignOps.

As 2 ‘operations’ focused initiatives, DesignOps and ResearchOps share a lot of the same DNA. According to Nielsen Norman’s DesignOps 101 article, DesignOps “refers to the orchestration and optimization of people, processes, and craft in order to amplify design’s value and impact at scale”. Author Kate Kaplan goes on to flesh out this description, noting that it’s a term for addressing such issues as growing or evolving design teams, onboarding people with the right design skills, creating efficient workflows and improving design outputs. Sound familiar?

The world of DesignOps is a veritable smorgasbord of useful learnings for researchers looking to grow the practice of ResearchOps. One particularly useful element is the idea of selecting only the components of DesignOps that are relevant for the organization at that point in time. This is quite important. DesignOps is a broad topic, and there’s little sense in every organization trying to take on every aspect of it. The takeaway, DesignOps (and ResearchOps) should look very different depending on the organization.

Kate Kaplan also touches on another useful point in her Nielsen Norman Group article; the idea of the DesignOps menu:

Source: Nielsen Norman Group | Caption: The DesignOps Menu.

This menu essentially outlines all of the elements that organizations could focus on when adopting practices to support designers. The DesignOps Menu is a useful framework for those trying to create a similar list of elements for ResearchOps.

Why does ResearchOps matter now?

It’s always been difficult to definitively say “this is the state of user research”. While some organizations intimately understand the value that a focus on customer centricity brings (and have teams devoted to the cause), others are years behind. In these lagging organizations, the researchers (or the people doing research), have to fight to prove the value of their work. This is one of the main reasons why ResearchOps as an initiative matters so much right now.

The other driver for ResearchOps is that the way researchers work together and with other disciplines is changing fast. In general, a growing awareness of the importance of the research is pushing the field together with data science, sales, customer support and marketing. All this to say, researchers are having to spend more and more time both proving the value of their work and operating at a more strategic level. This isn’t likely to slow, either. The coming years will see researchers spending less time doing actual research. With this in mind, ResearchOps becomes all the more valuable. By standardizing common research practices and working out ownership, the research itself doesn’t have to suffer.

What are the different components of ResearchOps?

As we touched on earlier, ResearchOps – like DesignOps – is quite a broad topic. This is necessary. As most practicing researchers know, there are a number of elements that go into ensuring thorough, consistent research.

A useful analogy for ResearchOps is a pizza. There are many different components (toppings) that can go on the pizza, which is reflected in how research exists in different organizations. The real point here is that no 2 research operations should look the same. Research at Facebook will look markedly different to research at a small local government agency in Europe.

We looked at the DesignOps Menu earlier as a model for ResearchOps, but there’s another, more specific map created as part of the #WhatisResearchOps project.

Source: Medium/Mural |  Caption: The ResearchOps components map.

Like the DesignOps Menu, this map functions as a framework for what ResearchOps is. It’s the output of a series of workshops run by researchers across the globe as well as a large survey.

Who practices ResearchOps?

By now you should have a clear idea of the scale and scope of ResearchOps, given that we’ve covered the various components and why the practice matters so much. There are still 2 important topics left to cover, however: Who practices ResearchOps and (perhaps most interestingly) where it’s heading.

As the saying goes, “everyone’s a researcher”, and this certainly holds true when talking about ResearchOps, but here are some of the more specific roles that should be responsible for executing ResearchOps components.

  • User researchers – Self-explanatory. The key drivers of research standardization and socialization.
  • UX designers – Customer advocates to the core, UX designers follow user researchers quite closely when it comes to execution.
  • Designers – Add to that, designers in general. As designers increasingly become involved in the research activities of their organizations, expect to see them having a growing stake in ResearchOps activities.
  • Customer experience (CX) and marketing – Though they’re often not the foremost consideration when it comes to research conversations, marketing and CX certainly have a stake in research operations

There’s also another approach that is worth considering: Research as a way of thinking. This can essentially be taken up by anyone, and it boils down to understanding the importance of a healthy research function, with processes, systems and tools in place to carry out research.

What’s next for ResearchOps?

As Kate Kaplan said in DesignOps 101, “DesignOps is the glue that holds the design organization together, and the bridge that enables collaboration among cross-disciplinary team members”. The same is true of ResearchOps – and it’s only going to become more important. 

We’re going to echo the same call made by numerous other people helping to grow ResearchOps and say that if you’ve got some learnings to share, share them back with the community! We’re also always looking to share great UX and research content, so get in touch with us if you’ve got something to share on our blog.

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