ICYMI Event Recap: Building Research Ops from the Ground Up

On October 20, we hosted our very first Rally webinar, “Building Research Ops from the Ground Up” with Research Ops leaders Crystal Kubitsky and Tiffany Stanfield. We dove deep into topics like making the case for Research Ops, when to hire your first Research Ops role, and how to prioritize your work.

In case you couldn’t make it, or want a refresher, we’ve compiled some highlights from the event and a few of our favorite insights from Tiffany and Crystal. If you’d like to watch the full webinar, click here and we’ll email you a copy.

Key Takeaways

🔑 To build the case for Research Operations, investigate how and where your researchers are spending their time.

🔑 When measuring value and impact, start small. Look for things you can easily count and start tracking.

🔑 “Use your own skills as a researcher to figure out where those biggest pain points are and where your biggest impact could be.” - Crystal on advice for Research Leaders or Research Ops teams of 1 with no dedicated Research Ops support

🔑 One indicator that it’s time to hire a Research Ops professional is when non-researchers are asking to do research themselves or starting to do it anyway on a regular basis.

🔑 Utilize built-out frameworks like Nielsen Norman Group’s to create your own set of priorities and goals.

🔑 An important thing to remember when making the case to scale research: Time is currency. Look closely at how much your researchers are dedicating to various areas and tasks.

Who are Crystal & Tiffany?

Crystal Kubitsky is the UX Research Operations Lead for MongoDB. Research Operations is fairly new to MongoDB, though research has been a practice there for a while. “We have a small but mighty research team,” she said. And a very large design team that is encouraged and enabled to do their own research.

“Research Operations at MongoDB is intended to support optimizing the practice of research and enabling quality insights from both our research team and from the designers who are enabled to do research,” Crystal explained.

For Crystal and the team at MongoDB, participant management is a major focus and “the biggest issue that every researcher faces.” Crystal is also working on establishing and reinforcing efficient, compliant, and ethical processes to ensure the quality and impact of research “has the best footing.” One of the end goals for Crystal — and most research teams — is the amplification and socialization of research insights.

Tiffany Stanfield leads Research Ops at Pendo. Pendo has a research team of 7 that works closely with a larger design team. “Research Operations at Pendo is about providing support for the research initiative across the product organization, not just within the UX research team.”

In her Research Ops function, Tiffany supports UX researchers, design, brand design, product marketing, and sometimes the marketing team. “A large part of my day-to-day is maintaining our research panel, teaching and training the orchestration of recruitment, and helping to share the impact and insights of our research team.”

Their paths into Research Ops

“My path was nontraditional, which is not unusual,” said Tiffany, who has an academic background in physical sciences and began her career in academic research. Tiffany started exploring market research and got a position in B2B consulting.”I was always the one in the room that was identifying when the team was being a bit hasty and not thinking about all the small details that not only make a project successful but also ensure it’s done responsibly and in a repeatable way.”

These traits fit very naturally into research and Tiffany was able to find an Ops position and build her career to where it is now.

For Crystal, her role at MongoDB is the first time she’s exclusively focused on Research Operations. Before joining MongoDB, she spent 10 years managing research teams and UX teams that included researchers as well as people who do research (PWDR).

“I’m no stranger to the challenges of Research Operations,” she said. “None of my teams had a dedicated Research Operations function as it’s designed and defined today.”

Crystal has spent many years establishing practices, guiding researchers, and facing the need to scale. “There’s always more research that needs to be done than there are researchers to do it  and the need to move faster than we’re able to,” she said. In her previous experiences, Crystal addressed the challenges of scaling and ensuring research was done ethically and delivering quality insights, an undertaking that led her into her current Research Ops leadership role.

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Making the case for research

“When making the case for scaling research, you’re advocating for a Research Operations role,” Tiffany said. She recommended visualizing the current process when preparing to make the case for a Research Operations role or senior research roles.

“It’s a lot of researching with your researchers to know how much time they are dedicating to these different areas in their day-to-day,” she said. “Time is currency.”

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Once you’ve identified the areas that are taking up the most time, document it and share that with leadership. “Then you can recapture that time for your researchers and designers to perform their craft and do what they were hired to do.”

How to prioritize your work

Crystal has leveraged Emma Boulton’s Eight Pillars of Research Ops, but has found more success in adapting the Nielsen Norman Group’s framework. The framework, shown below, is displayed as a cycle. Crystal has taken that cycle and stretched it out into a line, beginning with Participants and ending with Advocacy, prioritizing left to right.

Crystal will take one of those categories, say participants, and ask questions like:

  • Who is involved in this today?
  • Where are the cracks and gaps?
  • Where is there duplication?
  • What’s the opportunity for efficiency?
  • Where’s the risk?

After completing this exercise for each category, Crystal explained you should be able to identify and prioritize opportunities, while still leaning toward the most common challenges researchers and PWDR face. “Then just try to do one thing at a time — one thing that’s small enough to provide the best impact. You can’t do everything at once.” This, Crystal explains, is how to find the opportunities that will have the greatest impact and success and how to set yourself up for more enhancements later.

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Tiffany has spent a lot of time evaluating the needs of her researchers and designers at Pendo. With so many priorities, Tiffany found herself often tackling them ad hoc. As time has passed since she joined Pendo, she’s tried to align her priorities with the democratization goals of her organization.

How do you "benchmark" the team?

“It’s so great that you say that,” Crystal said. “Because I am a researcher! I didn’t have to throw that away by stepping over to the operations side in my new role.” To benchmark her team, Crystal is doing a lot of evaluation, analysis, and charting.

Crystal said she’s been leveraging insights from Toluwa Awodiya, the Product Research Manager at Momentive, who shared a benchmarking survey tool earlier this year at the ReOpsConf22. Toluwa’s survey template is serving as a starting point for Crystal as she builds something similar that is more suited to MongoDB.

Crystal hopes to use her version of the benchmark survey to learn and measure:

  • How confident her team feels in performing the capabilities and activities of research without assistance
  • How helpful those avenues of assistance that exist today are to her team
  • What areas her team wants to prioritize and address
  • What training and resources her team may need or want

The hope is that this survey will give Crystal some baseline data to utilize as she builds Research Ops at MongoDB. How quickly she and team are able to make measurable and reasonable improvements will determine how often she will run this benchmarking process.

At Pendo, Tiffany and her team have built a curriculum they are rolling out that will help train researchers and non-researchers on best practices, evaluative methods, and training for research tools. Her team is currently planning to host the trainings monthly. “We don’t want to annoy people or add too much to their plate.”

The evolution of Research Ops

“I am anticipating more growth of Research Operations teams as well as more specialization and focused attention,” said Crystal. She shared 5 areas that she is wanting to dedicate her efforts and attention to, listed in order of priority:

  • Participant management and participant experience
  • Democratized research program management
  • Insights and knowledge management
  • Tool management and optimization
  • Research practice governance

Participant Management & Experience

“I’d love to provide a lot of focus and attention to making being a research participant at MongoDB and giving feedback feel good.”

Democratized Research Program Management

“People are going to do research, let’s make sure that research is done in the best way it can be.” Crystal said having someone dedicated to discovering how to do that in your organization is a great thing to prioritize.

Insights & Knowledge Management

“There is a lot of work that we can do to make sure that the quality and availability of insights can reach farther and have more impact.” With her library science background, Crystal explained that this specific space is super exciting and “like a fun, little nerdy thing for me.”

Tool Management & Optimization

“There are so many tools out there,” Crystal said. “And it can be difficult to be able to pick up those tools and learn how to use them efficiently.” Crystal explained that she wants to invest in her team's understanding of how best to use the tools they have and how to leverage them in a variety of ways.

Research Practice Governance

It’s important to determine competency, she explained, as well as investigate questions like “how can we onboard?” and “how can we make sure that the process is clear?”

Tiffany sees a lot of growth in the Research Ops role revolving around the research repository. “How can we make a repository useful?” she asked. “Insights grow stale. How do you write a real and durable insight?” It’s important to make a repository cross functional and not just limit the repository to research and design.

Advice for those with no dedicated Research Ops support

“Find your biggest pain points. Use your own skills as a researcher to figure out where those biggest pain points are and where your biggest impact could be,” Crystal shared. “Pick the one thing that sets you up for success to tackle the next thing.”

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Crystal also shared some good questions to ask when evaluating your biggest pain points and potential impact:

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Hiring the first Research Ops role

Crystal shared some signals she thinks indicate it’s time to hire a Research Ops hire:

  • The number of projects requiring research exceeds the capacity of the team on an ongoing basis.
  • When evaluative concept research is either getting less attention or forcing the team to not give attention to other generative topics.
  • When non-researchers are asking to do research themselves or starting to do it anyway on a regular basis.

For the last signal, “having an operations function will help protect and enable that to happen with the impact and quality it needs,” Crystal said.

Tiffany gave great advice to Research Ops and Research Leaders dealing with change management: “Identify someone in the research team or on the design team that can champion research and ops.” She also recommends seeking out leadership support as soon as possible. “Change happens from the top down and having that support is critical.”

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Tiffany & Crystal's impact on research

Tiffany said the participant panel they built is the most impactful thing she has done at Pendo. Pendo’s users are fairly easy to recruit, “but we still needed a solution for recruiting participants and needed to have a pool of users who are dedicated to research.”

The panel Tiffany helped build mitigated the risk of an echo chamber effect that the team was experiencing, made participant management more streamlined, became the hub for all emails and communications between researchers and panelists, and enabled and enforced guardrails and rules for contact frequency.

“Participant management is so important as a foundational piece for any research practice,” Crystal explained. At the moment, since Crystal is still early in her time at MongoDB, she’s starting with step 1 of the Nielsen Norman Group framework and evaluating all things participant management.

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Participant Management = 🔑

Participant management truly is a foundational and critical aspect of user research. At Rally, we’ve built a User Research CRM that helps teams better manage their participants and enable researchers to do what they do best. If you want to learn more about how we’re doing this, join our waitlist!

We’re so grateful to Crystal and Tiffany for sharing their insight and experience in building Research Ops from the ground up. If you’d like to watch the full webinar, follow this link to get it sent directly to your inbox.

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