Seattle Global ResOps Workshop Recap: It’s a Long Road, but We Are on Our Way

We explored what it takes to conduct the business of research

Panelists Joe Munko, Amy Alberts, Matt Duignan, and John Dirks, with host Sheetal Agarwal. (Photo: Melissa DeCapua)

On June 28, twenty Seattle-based researchers, research operations specialists, and designers came together at Blink UX’s downtown office to participate in the locally held global research operations community workshop — one of many around the world — and an additional panel hosted by Microsoft Research + Insight (R+I). As the research discipline grows and evolves, professionals focused on research operations (ResOps), or running the business of research, wanted to capture the zeitgeist of this moment and connect with each other. The workshop built off the growing momentum of the ResOps Slack community and focused on answering a timely and pressing question: “What is research operations?”

While the workshop was not representative of all of Seattle’s research community because of space constraints, participants represented a mix of organizational types: large technology organizations, startups, consultancies, and academia. During the three-hour workshop, attendees defined ResOps, shared and learned from one another about challenges and successes, and discussed opportunities for growth and collaboration as the ResOps culture shifts. The outcomes represent the Seattle flavor of ResOps and will inform global findings that will be shared in the coming months.

So, what did we learn from one another?

ResOps is all the things

What is ResOps exactly, according to Seattle participants? As one person aptly put it, “It’s everything in research that doesn’t have to do with research.” It includes recruiting participants, paying gratuities, finding and implementing research tools, building teams and culture, and training non-research stakeholders. ResOps is about creating sustainable processes, sharing and scaling knowledge, and implementing tools, and its overall goal is to “let researchers be researchers.”

It’s a bumpy road

As we talked, we learned we face a lot of common challenges. Perhaps unsurprisingly, resource constraints came up right away — they affect participants’ ability to conduct research, hire strong talent, and implement the tools and processes required to make the work of research seamless. Additionally, we discussed our struggles in recruiting, communicating research’s value, and tracking insights across products and product cycles to measure and evaluate customer impact.

In terms of recruiting, discussion covered the difficulties of finding niche populations for product testing, logistical complexities of conducting international research, and creating privacy-compliant systems and processes across research engagements.

Another challenge raised was communicating the value and role of research. Participants found that product partners, such as designers or engineers, often don’t understand what it takes to complete research (e.g., lead time for planning and designing, recruiting participants, reserving lab space), which disrupts product cycles. Engaging with stakeholders in the right way, at the right time in their processes, was a priority for many attendees.

ResOps is all about scaling research, and managing knowledge and sharing insights are big parts of this work. Thus, finding tools or means to support sharing and collaboration across researchers and their product partners was another commonly raised challenge.

“It’s important to be transparent with what you’re doing, and try to encourage others to be transparent, instead of everyone going off and doing their own thing and then coming back and realizing you’ve both done the same thing.” — Matt Duignan, Microsoft R+I

Finally, there was recognition that as the role of research expands in this customer-obsessed era, researchers are being asked to train our partners in engaging with customers in situations such as customer interviews or quick usability testing. This requires time and resources to do right and do well.

We’re all still learning

In the next part of the workshop, participants shared their lessons learned in building and growing ResOps within their organizations. Some participants found success in creating:

  • “Centers of excellence,” or best practices that include documenting and templating workflows to make it easier to plan research.
  • Processes and pipelines for budget approvals and tracking program impact.

Tools, whether built internally or by third parties, were also recognized as valuable in supporting multiple ResOps efforts. They can connect researchers, encourage collaboration, and build community, as well as help us share knowledge and scale insights, set up participant databases, pay gratuities, and develop frameworks to help effectively and efficiently plan and design projects.

All participants agreed that investing energy in building high-functioning research teams was important. Related stories of success highlighted investment in training and allocating budget to focus on developing skills and building a collaborative culture. As one participant explained, “We needed to invest in people who can keep the wheels spinning and who are highly adaptable. That isn’t always a requirement for research roles, but it’s becoming more important.”

Where are we headed?

In regard to opportunities for improving ResOps inside their organizations, participants focused on creating standards to increase efficiency and consistency in everything from recruiting to reporting. Potential future efforts include:

  • Knowledge sharing.
  • Role development.
  • Communicating for influence.
  • Scaling ResOps beyond research use.

The workshop closed with reflection on what we want from our local Seattle ResOps community. We agreed that more meetings are important, and we planned on finding each other both online and offline.

Driving cultural change

We closed the event with a panel that included Seattle-based research leaders Joe Munko and Matt Duignan from Microsoft R+I, Amy Alberts from Tableau, and John Dirks from Blink UX. Together, this panel represented more than 80 years of research experience.

Duignan shared how developing an internal tool to scale customer insights within Microsoft involves technical knowledge and expertise, but also asks researchers to change their practices:

“We are trying to reinvent how we work and are building tools and knowledge systems that represent that.”

ResOps is all about creating processes, efficiencies, and flows to keep the rhythm of business. When we introduce new ways to get things done, we have to account for shifts in how researchers approach their work.

Munko reflected on whether ResOps has arrived as a momentum and pointed to cultural shifts taking place:

“Researchers can be very protective of their methods and their insights. In this new world, we have a responsibility to share.”

ResOps leaders who build tools, processes, and people are at the forefront of leading this change.

What do you think? Are you facing similar challenges and issues in your research community or organization? What solutions have you found? Leave a comment below!

Read Blink UX’s recap of the event, or watch the entire panel discussion on YouTube. If you’re interested in learning more, consider joining the ResOps community on Slack. And If you’re based in Seattle, let us know! We’ll add you to our community event email list.


To stay in-the-know with what’s new at Microsoft Research + Insight, follow us on Twitter and Facebook. And if you are interested in becoming a user researcher at Microsoft, head over to careers.microsoft.com.