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10 things I learnt building a new User Research Operations function

After having spent 8 months building a brand new User Research Operations function and team as Head of User Research Operations in a government department, I reflect on what I have learnt. 

1. Starting with a discovery was invaluable – One of the most valuable things I did at the start of my role was run a discovery piece of work with our user researchers. Semi-structured interviews were conducted to explore and understand user researchers’ experience so far at the organisation, what challenges they are facing and how the ReOps (Research Operations) team can best help support them and their work. As this was a new government department, the researchers had only been in post for 3 months, but the environment was very fast paced with extreme pressure of delivery and constant changes. 

There were six major challenges that emerged from the data:

  1. User researchers were not clear about who to ask for help when they got stuck and how to access that help 
  2. Recruiting participants was a big challenge 
  3. There were pressing logistical challenges which made it difficult for user researchers to conduct the research 
  4. User researchers were confused about internal policy
  5. Secondary research was difficult to do as it was hard to find user research findings
  6. User researchers felt there were not aware of the bigger picture/research on-going elsewhere

Based on the findings, I pulled out the key user needs so we could identify which areas to prioritise and provide support for. One of the key underlying needs emerging was that there wasn’t clarity about how to do user research and it was not clear what processes and support mechanisms were in place to help user researchers do their job. Therefore, we decided urgently to address that (see #5 below). I also ran a diary study a month later with new joiners to assess whether we had met the user needs we had identified and identify any outstanding pain points and needs. 

2. A clear vision and strategy is critical – following the discovery research, I ran a workshop with the team to set our ResearchOps vision and strategy. Our vision was to facilitate research to flow without barriers. We felt it was important for us to clarify that we were not a service that user researchers make specific requests to, rather we were there as a hub of expertise and guidance. Co-creating a vision and strategy and plan meant everyone was aligned in the team, but it is key to share that with the wider team/stakeholders too

3. Don’t limit yourself to the eight ReOps pillars Based on the user needs and key themes identified from the discovery, we mapped them against existing ReOps pillars, but also created new pillars too (for example, inducting and offboarding user researchers which is a critical part of what we do). There were also some ReOps pillars that were out of scope for us for now, for example research spaces and capability and opportunity. We ended up with 14 different ReOps areas that were split between the team, and 8 external core areas we provided to the user researchers. 

4. Ensure the ReOps remit is clear and transparent – We shared these findings back to all the user researchers so they were clear on what our focus would be, and what areas we would be providing support on. I also put together a slide deck on ‘Research Ops – who we are & what we offer’, which included a table on the specific type of support and expertise we provide to different teams, which is shared with new user researchers joining our team and others who may want to know more about us. Due to the evolving and complex nature of our organisation, one of the challenges we faced was that we sometimes had user researchers in teams across the directorate who were not known to us, who would come to us only when they needed imminent recruitment support for example, or wanted to use our governance procedures for example, but were working in a consultancy capacity.  

5. A one-stop UR/ReOps Hub is invaluable – Based on the user insights from the discovery, I decided we needed one place where everything the URs need to conduct user research effectively is stored in an easy accessible and digestible format. Therefore, I created a UR Hub in Confluence as a one-stop wiki type website where everything they need to conduct user research is stored, including step by step instructions on how to do user research at the organisation, from pre-planning to wrapping up the research. We also wanted to test whether it could be used as a site where user researchers do their live work too, and it has become a UR library too as well as a way for us to manage our governance processes too. We also use this hub in addition to an induction deck, to induct new user researchers onto our team too. 

6. Taking time to induct user researchers to ResearchOps and ways of working, pays off in the long run – During the period of Jan-Mar 21, we had on average two new user researchers joining every week, which meant we ran induction sessions weekly. These hour-long induction sessions totally paid off in the long run, as user researchers knew where all the guidance, templates, ways of working etc was and how they could plan and deliver a research project. Our user researchers were sometimes alone working in work streams, so this became even more important, and user researchers found our one-stop confluence site resourceful and effective. 

7. We are here to serve and help, and for that we need to grow a diverse ReOps team – With new user researchers joining almost every week, we grew very quickly supporting a team of 5 user researchers to 30+ user researchers, and we became a “UR helpline”. However, one of the things we didn’t manage to do due to constraints was to expand the ReOps team at the same pace. This was very challenging, but what we did attempt to do was prioritise having a diverse ReOps team, and we now are a team of three from different backgrounds. 

8. Procurement takes much (much) longer than one anticipates – Procuring new tools and services means you have to go through various different steps of procurement, security & legal checks and DPIAs and collaborate with experts in other teams, which can often take months to get approved in government. We were starting from scratch and only had Teams available to start with (we have managed to get other specialist UR tools approved now including Zoom, DoveTail, Optimal Workshop and are working on a few others). 

9. Inclusive good quality research doesn’t just happen, it needs a clear strategy, plan and support from all – one of the areas that there was a real push for and I was personally really keen to focus on was how can we ensure we are doing inclusive good quality research and how can ResearchOps as a function support with that? I drafted a strategy on the vision in relation to recruitment (all user research is inclusive by default with 80% of all users we recruit to take part in research are the disproportionately impacted groups) and how ReOps can support, but very quickly realized that this needs buy-in and support from everyone for it to really work. For example, the user researchers needed clear guidance on which user groups they needed to include, more time to design the research, recruit and conduct the research, regular reminders & accountability to the lead/head of user research, and training to conduct user research with users with accessibility needs and disabilities. As ReOps we decided we would support by providing clear guidelines on our priority user groups, setting up inclusive recruitment channels but also providing a drop in clinic so user researchers can get advice on inclusive approaches & recruitment channels. We also outlined the importance of conducting quality checks on the research that was being conducted and recruited for. 

10. Be humble. Constantly iterate & improve on the services and support you provide. Measure and don’t assume – Every 2-3 months, we ran a retro with the user researchers to get their feedback on how we can improve as a function and the support we provide the user researchers, and I also ran a diary study with new joiners. We always had an open door policy and constantly asked for feedback, and received a lot of feedback directly from user researchers, and also feedback when we off-boarded them too. Due to limited team capacity I must admit I wish we’d had time earlier on to implement more of the improvements we had identified. Having said that, we are currently running a piece of user research on understanding the experience now, our confluence site and assess the ReOps support we provide with the user researchers, as we know there are some pain points, and like all services, we can improve and make things better. Our motto as a team is very much: do everything we can to make user researchers’ working lives easier, so user research can focus on what they do best.

I would like to thank my colleagues, especially Jess Lewes, Sophie Dennis and Desmond Kiernan.

Published in Research Portfolio User Research

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