April 11, 2024

Roy Opata Olende on UXR's strategic home base — positioning for maximum impact

Roy Opata Olende, Head of UX Research at Zapier, joined us for a Rally AMA on April 11 on UX Research’s home base and how to position for maximum impact. If you missed our live event, or want to revisit the highlights, read our recap below. If you’d like to watch a recording of the full AMA, follow this link.

Who is Roy? 

I lead research at Zapier. I live just outside of Toronto, in St Catharines, Canada. I originally hail from Kenya and I’ve spent a good amount of time there. Now I live here with my wife, who is Canadian, and our three boys, so life is always loud and hectic. Currently, I lead the UX Research team at Zapier. I initially came in to establish and lead Research Ops and it’s been interesting to be in a company that has grown quite rapidly over the last 4+ years. Now I've circled back to UX. Before that, I spent a lot of time in UX Research and service design. It's been a really interesting career path. 

Today, I want to dive into the ideal home for research within organizations and how we can have an impactful presence. Everyone thinks about how to have a bigger impact in their roles, and in UX Research, there's this interesting flavor of impact anxiety that manifests in various ways. We've evolved from just doing usability testing to integrating and connecting more with product teams and doing more quantitative and strategic work. 

All through these different flavors of UX Research and the iterations of how teams work and are positioned is this question of: How can I position myself and my practice to have a lasting impact in the company? 

This question keeps coming up and I don’t think it’s going away any time soon. My experiences across different reporting lines — from operations to product to strategy — have made me frequently wonder about where UX Research fits best to maximize its impact. The following are some additional questions and considerations that run through my mind and come up in my real-life experience. 

  • What’s the ideal home for UX Research? 
  • Why does it matter where Research sits?
  • How do you work through this and apply strategies based on your own unique context and setting? 
  • I believe UX Research and data are siblings, whereas UX Research and Design are cousins – what bearing should this have on where Research lives?

All these answers I’ll share today are my based on my perspective, and that doesn’t mean it’s the right one. Now let’s further explore these dynamics and think about how to position UX Research effectively. 

What are examples of org structures you’ve seen work best for driving research impact?

First, context is crucial when considering effective organizational structures. In a smaller software company with fewer than 100 employees, connections are naturally easier to foster. In one of the roles I held, research reported into an operational role, which provided significant insight and context into the most important business factors. This setup was akin to reporting to a CEO or Chief of Staff, where there's a strong focus on business strategy. The kinds of strategic discussions that happened in those leadership meetings provided valuable context, making research impactful at a strategic level. This reporting line enabled effective follow-ups with leaders, allowing research to align closely with business objectives. It can be quite powerful to have someone focused on the business.

However, there were downsides with this reporting structure. There was sometimes a lack of context around the work that was valued and important to the business. This meant a lot of effort was focused on being more efficient in our research and delivering quicker insights – both important things, but not the only things you should be focusing on. Despite these challenges, reporting to someone with a laser focus on the business could significantly enhance awareness and direct communication about business-relevant issues. 

When it comes to the ideal home for UX research, what are your nonnegotiables?

This question sort of assumes we can do something about it, right? Which sometimes we can, and sometimes we can't. Let me unpack that a bit. There are times, especially if you're more experienced and skilled in advocacy, where you can actually bend the road, so to speak, and assert your nonnegotiables. Other times, you might find yourself in a sudden reorganization you didn't see coming — like waking up on a Thursday to find out you now report to a new person. That's just the reality, and sometimes you have to figure it out even if it's not ideal.

If you do have the opportunity — and I believe everyone should aim to reach this point because we aren’t powerless — it's important to think about what those nonnegotiables are. In the past, for me, it was crucial that the person I reported to understood research. But that's no longer a non-negotiable for me. That’s no longer a non-negotiable, now what's essential is that the person I report to genuinely wants to see me succeed. They should be invested in finding ways to help me and provide a platform for success.


I used to think it was critical for the C-suite or whoever I reported into to know all about research. But I've learned that even if someone knows little about research, their commitment to my success can be more impactful. For example, I've recently reported to someone who felt his neck was on the line for the success of my team and function. That kind of support can be more valuable than having a supervisor who knows a lot about research but is indifferent to our success.

So, my biggest shift over the last six or seven years has been to focus on this non-negotiable: my manager must be fully invested in the success of the research team. Sometimes you get the chance to advocate for this, and other times it lands in your lap unexpectedly. But it’s a critical factor to discuss with whoever you report to — how committed are they to the success of the research team? It really matters how deeply they care about and support your work.


How have you built research champions at a higher level, especially when they might not know much about research, but you still want them to be highly supportive of your goals?

In one experience I recall, it really came down to delivering strong work that made that person look good. If a researcher or a research team can focus on the most important areas where there's risk or potential to add value, and produce compelling, actionable work, it naturally enhances the visibility and reputation of their function. It might sound a bit crass, but everyone, from the most junior employee to the most senior executive, wants to look good and have an impact. They want their contributions to be beneficial to the company. 

In that particular instance, it was with a smaller team, but taking that approach really helped shift the perception of research. It demonstrated the tangible impact that our work could have, which in turn reflected positively on the entire team. That’s how we managed to build a research champion — by aligning our success with their success and showing the direct benefits of our efforts. That’s one way I’ve seen it work, and it’s a strategy that stood out to me.


Where do you think is the best vertical for Research Ops to roll up to?

Results based off a live poll during the AMA answered by 24 live attendees.
Results based off live poll during the AMA answered by 41 live attendees.

I’ve seen Research Ops reporting into various structures, like directly under UX or a Design Ops function. I've also spoken to people who have had Research Ops report into a broader operational function, not just confined to Design Ops.

The best vertical for Research Ops to roll up to depends on the goals and the iteration of ReOps within your particular context. For example, if there’s an established Design Ops organization, having Research Ops under that umbrella might enable ops in general to have a larger impact, which in turn helps research perform better. This really requires an assessment of what’s happening in your company. If there’s no existing ops at all — no Design Ops, no Product Ops, and it’s more of a general Business Ops type of situation — then it could be challenging for Research Ops to have a significant impact if they're just sitting within Business Ops and detached from the research team.

I can't really envision many scenarios where it would be advantageous for Research Ops to be positioned outside of the research team. So, it’s important to consider the context:

  • What does ops look like outside of research? 
  • What’s the maturity of research within your organization? 
  • Do you have a one-person Research Ops team or is it larger?

All these factors need to be considered. However, I do think it's risky when Research Ops is very detached and living in a different “home” than, say, the “research neighborhood.” By research neighborhood, I mean something like Design Ops or perhaps a function akin to Product Ops. This is the point where you need to ensure that the type of work being done and the ways in which you’re working are both going to align with what research needs to be effective and what the business needs to thrive.


How does Research Ops best collaborate with its counterparts in Design Ops and Product Ops? 

At my current workplace, I’ve observed a consistently positive alignment between different operational functions like Engineering Ops, Product Ops, Design Ops, and Research Ops. We create spaces where we can discuss the problems we're seeing, focus on current priorities, and leverage existing frameworks or tools that have proven effective within our company. This approach helps ensure that we aren’t starting from scratch when a solution already exists that could be adapted to fit new challenges.

We haven't formalized a single umbrella structure for all Ops, which includes functions like Engineering Ops — not the technical side, but more about process optimization, like Agile coaching. Instead, these groups are loosely coupled and maintain frequent communication. This setup helps us stay aware of ongoing work, avoid redundancy, and capitalize on what’s already working well.

From what I've seen and discussed with others in larger organizations, the dynamics can be quite different. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft operate at a scale I haven't experienced, and their processes might not be directly applicable to smaller settings, though the principles can still be informative.

Are there specific stakeholders that you would suggest leaning on to advocate for research initiatives and growing research teams?

The stakeholders that come to mind aren't necessarily the ones you might expect, like product or design leaders. Of course, if you have an insight leader high up in the organization, you'd expect them to advocate. But really, it’s about identifying who has influence. This can include influential individual contributors (ICs) or those in leadership positions. When I joined Zapier, there was an IC who had a lot of influence. This person was not in a senior role or part of the C-suite, but they frequently interacted with the chief product officer and their findings were highly regarded. So, one strategy is to identify ICs within your organization who have significant influence — those whose opinions are respected and listened to.

When it comes to stakeholders, look for those who fit these two parameters:

  • Who has influence but isn’t ridiculously busy and open to connecting? 
  • Who has an appetite for and openness to research? 

These qualities make it easier to foster conversations. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer; it’s about scouting out those who are open to and can benefit from research, and who hold sway in the organization.


Another practical tip: Don’t hesitate to reach out for a 30-minute call to discuss what’s on their mind. For example, this morning, I spoke with two PMs to understand their challenges and objectives. I asked questions like:

  • What are you trying to achieve? 
  • What’s keeping you up at night?
  • What are your current goals?

Conversations like these set the stage to demonstrate how research can address their concerns and support their goals. It’s not rocket science, it’s about building consistency in reaching out. 

Here’s a tactic I’ve found useful: Schedule regular times to initiate contact. For example, every Monday, plan to reach out to one or two people, depending on the size of your organization, to learn about their goals and think about how you can support them. People enjoy discussing their priorities and challenges. This simple approach, consistently applied, can be very effective in building advocates for research within your organization.

What is the ideal relationship between research and data?

I've given this a lot of thought, and I see UX and data as siblings, while UX and design are more like cousins. Sometimes, you end up living with your cousin, and it all works out fine. Over time, I've come to understand that the ways data science teams work and make an impact — analyzing problems, engaging with stakeholders, identifying trends — are very similar to how UX seeks to make an impact. It's about uncovering something new or confirming something we suspected, providing a basis for decisions or exploring new directions.


Data scientists and UX Researchers both aim to be in the room, contributing to conversations, guiding decisions with informed perspectives. They might not always bring a specific project to the table, but they offer valuable context based on past data and experience, providing clarity and additional insights that can steer a project in the right direction.

Design focuses directly on delivering for the end user, which sometimes aligns more straightforwardly with UX, but the connection with data is equally critical. UX and design are closely linked as “cousins” — definitely not estranged — but the way UX and data collaborate can bring a comprehensive understanding to projects, offering a balanced view of what's happening and what needs to happen next.

For example, at Buffer, my previous company, we had integrated product teams that included PMs, designers, engineers, and both UX and data roles. This setup allowed my data science partner and me to regularly discuss our specific areas, enhancing our overall perspective and approach. We developed a strong, complementary working relationship, often finding ourselves with a holistic view of our focus area.

However, organizational structures can vary, and sometimes UX and data are placed far apart, reporting into different functions. This can make collaboration challenging, but not impossible. It requires intentional effort from the leaders of both teams to connect and share knowledge. At Zapier, I make it a point to meet regularly with the head of data to discuss ongoing projects and potential collaborations.

We previously had an insights monthly meeting where UX and data teams would come together to review and prioritize work, although this practice has since evolved. Now, we focus more on strategic areas within smaller groups. The key is being proactive and adaptable, understanding that what works now might need to be reevaluated as circumstances change. Ultimately, maintaining a collaborative spirit and aligning on shared goals is crucial, regardless of the organizational structure.

What have you seen as effective KPIs to objectively and quantitatively show the value of UX Research to leadership?

Gregg Bernstein, a great research leader and author of "Research Practice," has often discussed the nuances of demonstrating the value of UX Research. In terms of effective KPIs, I've noticed that it's not always as straightforward as other functions like design or product, especially when it comes to visible outcomes like product launches. The value of UX isn't always immediately obvious when something is pushed out to customers, because shipping a feature doesn't inherently mean it's valuable, though it's more visible.

One approach we've adopted, which is not strictly a KPI but rather a tracking method, is to closely monitor the actions and impact arising from our research. This involves not just connecting with stakeholders and sharing findings but also following up on whether those insights have been acted upon. If they haven't, we need to understand why and communicate this to leadership. This method requires precision and persistence in follow-ups, which our VP of Product emphasizes as having "skin in the game." If our research or insights are overlooked, we actively inquire and push for reasons, ensuring accountability from the product teams.

We have also used OKRs in the past, both at Zapier and my previous roles. However, the impact of UX Research can sometimes manifest long after the initial studies, making it challenging to capture immediate results in quarterly OKRs. For example, a report we produced last year became the foundation for a critical leadership meeting recently.


While OKRs can demonstrate that we've delivered on our planned research for the quarter and some immediate impacts, they often fail to capture the broader, long-term effects that our work contributes to. This is where I see a gap between the usefulness of OKRs and their potential to fully represent the impact of UX Research. I'm open to learning from others who may have found more effective ways to use KPIs or OKRs in their organizations. It could be that there are better methods out there that I haven't seen yet, or perhaps it's just a challenge we've yet to fully solve in the UX community.

Comment shared on the screen during the live AMA, made by Stessy Mezeu.

Stessy Mezeu, Global UX Researcher at Stealth Startup and a participant in the AMA, mentioned conflating the visible with the valuable, which is a constant organizational struggle. Absolutely, I agree 100%. This is an issue we face in UX because it often takes a while for the work we do to really land and become tangible. The onus is on us, as leaders and as UX professionals, to follow up on these threads and ensure we can demonstrate that impact as much as possible. But this struggle isn't unique to UX — I've spoken to folks in support, and I really feel for them. There's often a huge gap between what's visible — like how quickly you respond or resolve issues — and what's valuable, such as how satisfied people are with the product. It can be really tough to advocate for necessary changes when the results aren't immediately visible. So yes, UX is not alone in this, but I love that you called it out.


Why do some organizations embrace User Research and others are resistant to it, no matter how high-quality it is? 

I can't speak for entire organizations being resistant, but my experiences with individuals might shed some light. There are generally two main factors: the perceived threat of research and the unknown aspects of it. I had a conversation with Adam Banks, who originally came from an engineering background and worked at Google before running his own shop. He noted that initially, there was a strong reception to things done in product and design, but less so in his area of engineering, particularly in audio-visual aspects. Over time, he realized the need to connect more with users and learn about UX Research, which led him to become a UX Researcher himself.

From his discussions with other engineers, there was a sense of being experts in their field and questioning the need to consult with users. Underneath this attitude was a feeling of threat — like their expertise and roles were being undermined by needing someone else to explain user perspectives. To an outsider, this might seem absurd, but for someone deeply skilled and emotionally invested in their work, it feels significant.

Another resistance factor is simply not knowing the value of UX Research. Especially in the early stages of introducing UX practices, if people haven’t seen the output or the effects, and they're already busy, they might not see the worth in investing further. It’s our job to help them see the value, though it can be frustrating when you’re consistently delivering high-quality work and it's not recognized.

Acknowledging the emotional and soft factors at play — like feeling threatened or simply being too busy to engage — can be seen as realistic, if not entirely reasonable, reasons for resistance. It doesn’t justify the resistance, but it helps us understand it.

In one example, turning this around involved delivering compelling work that caught the CEO’s attention, demonstrating a clear win for the team led by UX Research. That success made a significant difference in how UX Research was perceived and accepted moving forward. There’s no magic, silver bullet, but understanding and addressing these underlying concerns, aligning with organizational goals, and demonstrating clear impacts of UX efforts can gradually change perceptions and reduce resistance.


What is a misconception about research that you've encountered lately that you haven't been able to shake?

A misconception that's been top of mind for me, particularly outside of our function — and to some extent within it, depending on the nature of the work — is the notion that researchers have more influence and impact through conducting projects than from activities outside of these projects. This isn't to say that conducting research isn't essential; it is vital. However, I believe the real "golden zone" for impact as a researcher occurs in the work that happens between and after projects.

The common view of research involves going out, joining a team or a squad, and engaging directly with users to gather data. While this foundational work is crucial, I don't think it’s where we maximize our impact. The greatest impact often comes after this work is done, when we synthesize these insights and tie together threads from our work and the work of other people, especially as the organization grows.


Connect with Roy

If you enjoyed Roy’s AMA:

Thank you, Roy!

We’re grateful to Roy for joining us and sharing his insights and experiences. If you’d like to watch the full webinar, follow this link