In 2012, when we moved back to Barcelona after five years in London, the bulk of my work consisted in helping international clients to carry out user research in Spain. They needed to test Spanish versions of their digital products, or to understand local customers via interviews and contextual research.
My clients didn’t lack researchers or skills, quite the opposite, I generally worked directly with other researchers in their team. What they didn’t have was the capacity of organising fieldwork in Spain, either because of language barriers, difficulty of accessing vendors or because they had limited time. They hired me because I was a fluent Spanish moderator and because “I knew the ground and made things work smoothly”.
In the beginning it was hard, I had to do everything from scratch. But with time, I started putting together little shortcuts that made my work that tiny bit easier for next time.
Things like establishing a good relationship with a recruiting agency that also had the perfect interviewing rooms, creating a template email to give them heads up when a new project came in, a Google docs template for a research field guide, and a list of things that an interpreter needed to know about the logistics and contents of the project.
A couple of years down the line I started a small UX & Research agency with two partners in Madrid, we opened two (!! I know…) offices and got a team together. The need to coordinate everyone and make sure we were not wasting precious time and effort became my obsession because the little margins we had then were what fed my growing family.
I created more templates, checklists and a Trello board with a step by step process with everything from brief to report. Any new team member could follow it and make sure they were not leaving out any small, but important detail of a research project. This Trello board even included lists of hotels and restaurants, because, what do you know, clients wanted a recommendation for the best Catalan restaurant with vegan options at nine o’clock at night, after I had run eight sessions in a row and my brain had already turned to mush.
Having these artefacts and processes in place helped me make my work easier and more profitable. It meant that I didn’t have to spend so many extra hours working on the same niggly things, and that we had a better chance of guaranteeing everything was flawless. I couldn’t allow for a team to come all the way from the US or the UK and find out that the participants were not there, the rooms weren’t ready or that we didn’t have food for them to eat in between sessions. It also meant that my clients had a much much better experience during their fieldwork. They enjoyed it, and so did I.
Well, sort of.
What actually happened was that I landed in front of my first participant totally exhausted. The templates and processes helped, but on the first day of fieldwork I still felt that mix of relief that all scheduling, software, recruitment, rooms, cables, food, observers, stimuli and cameras were working; and that all-too-known anxiety — what if I had forgotten something?
Looking back, I can see how the pre-study workload affected my performance as a moderator. I know now that had I been more focused, not having to run around like a crazy rabbit after the different strands of that production, I would have done a better job as a researcher. But what I find most striking is that I never ever thought twice, because this is what researchers do: all of it. We make it happen.
But, no, not anymore. Because of Research Ops.
My sense of belonging towards the ReOps community since it started last year has been overwhelming. Finally we are naming and organising the ‘invisible’ work of research, and giving it a long-overdue space for debate, sharing and improvement.
Last January my small consultancy was acquired by Sngular, a Spanish tech and innovation company with offices in Spain, Mexico and the US. My partners and I are now leading the UX department, where I am a Research Director. Part of my job is to take User Research to the next level, and make it part of business as usual for all our clients.
Having ReOps as a support framework has been enormously helpful in this (rather mammoth) task, because it guides me towards achievable results.
For example, we have created a custom-made system to ask for research participants consent, store and anonymise user data that is GDPR compliant — and very easy for anyone in the team to use. We have made templates for tools, and secured fixed price packages with recruitment companies that can speed up and reduce the cost of doing prototype validation. We are compiling a step by step guides of the different techniques we use and will publish them on a web-based format so everyone has access to it.
The framework helps me put a tick on those things, and get on with the rest. There is a lot of work to do, but I know where I am going.
Needless to say, the company’s interest in ReOps has rocketed: not only we are doing a fantastic job internally, but we are also helping our clients to get organised as well. In the end, we all want the same thing: more efficient research, done more often.
In a conversation with a colleague the other day I was trying to explain what ReOps is, and this is what I told her:
I want you to think of your favourite theatre actress. Now imagine her job is to liaise with the venues in all cities the play will be shown at, decide on the price and manage the ticketing system, create and send out all advertising materials, make her own costumes and procure shoes, write the play script, manage lighting and sound, open the doors and welcome the public… and then she needs to go up on the stage and rock it.
Now think of a researcher who, apart from actually doing research (acting!) has to deal with software licences, venues, recruitment, incentive, budget, legal documents, knowledge sharing, databases… It is easy to see how the play here would benefit of a production team.
Research Ops comes in to manage all that indispensable part of every project and free up space for researchers to do what they actually need to do and do best: help companies make better decisions with real-world insights.
So, fellow researcher, next time you feel exhausted and overwhelmed at the first day of fieldwork, have a look at where your processes can be improved and where you can be more efficient, but maybe ask for help too.