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The growth of experience research and ResearchOps

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher June 2, 2023
Researching for better customer experiences...


You have heard about user experience research, usability, customer experience research, and even human-centered design, but have you heard of experience research? Well, to be honest, it’s similar to - and just another way to say – customer research.

The overall idea of conducting research into customer expectations, feedback, and insights is critical for companies today. So critical there’s even an ops team to support it. 

UserTesting recently published its annual industry report on experience research and insights and found that budgets are growing and the demand is even greater for customer research. It makes sense. 

The shift to digital has pushed us into a new world where customers are in control, and their wants and needs seem to change almost daily. You think you have them figured out, and then something new pops up - a new social channel, a new consumer tech, a pandemic - and you need to shift your product and marketing strategies fast. 

The best way to shift is to go in the direction your customers expect you to go. Customer research is how you do that. In the Experience Research report, 82% of respondents said user feedback is embedded into their everyday processes and decision-making. In addition, those respondents noted not only digital transformation is impacting the user experience industry but also accessibility, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), AI, and even new research technologies are driving the need to ask and get feedback from customers.

Another interesting point from the report was that research doesn’t happen only with existing customers (42.4%). It also happens with prospective customers (36%) and competitor customers (21.6%). You might think doing research against competitor customers is hard, but there are ways to do it. Katelyn Bourgoin of Customer Camp talks a lot about researching non-customers, including competitor customers, to help you improve your marketing or product experiences. 

The benefits of experience research

There are many reasons experience research helps companies. In the Experience Research Industry report, customer satisfaction was a primary benefit stated by 75% of respondents. Other top benefits include brand perception, revenue, and increased speed of product adoption.

But even though experience research is seen as necessary, the report noted that budget constraints were still a key challenge, along with time constraints. 

Measuring the benefits of experience research is also important to know if the feedback and insights you are getting are being applied and making a difference. Obviously, customer satisfaction and brand perception are top metrics, but according to this report, you can also track improvements in revenue and reduced costs. 

The growth of ResearchOps

Years ago, user experience research was found in one group, usually a web team trying to build a better website or web application. However, research teams are popping up across the company today, including product management (especially for SaaS applications), marketing, market research, and customer experience. That can make for a complicated and sometimes confusing organization-wide research strategy. This is why ResearchOps is a growing practice in many companies. 

Neilsen Norman Group defines ResearchOps as a subset of DesignOps:

ResearchOps refers to the orchestration and optimization of people, processes, and craft in order to amplify the value and impact of research at scale.

The ResearchOps Community, created by Kate Towsey, former Research Operations Manager at Atlassian, is credited with defining this new discipline in 2018. The community defines ResearchOps similarly:

ResearchOps is the people, mechanisms, and strategies that set user research in motion. It provides the roles, tools and processes needed to support researchers in delivering and scaling the impact of the craft across an organisation.

Scale is probably the key word here. If experience research was only happening in a small team, they could probably handle all the research logistics themselves. But if you really want to weave the voice of the customer into everything you build, whether it’s a marketing campaign, a support function, or a product design, then you need to make customer research a part of everything, and you need to do it continually. That requires a lot of effort, from finding the right participants (and everything that comes with the recruitment of participants) to storing and sharing that research with everyone who needs it (when they need it).

Towsey gave a presentation at People Who Do Research 2023 on the topic of scaling research. She talked about two types of people in research: those who do research and those who need research. 

Not everyone is involved in conducting customer research. But those who are, need access to the tools, participants, and other things that will help them do their research. ResearchOps is designed to support people who do research and those who need access to the research done. Towsey says: 

It’s a combination of two things: giving people ways to find out and giving people ways to understand.

The ResearchOps Community defines 8 pillars of Research Ops:

  • Environment
  • Scope
  • People
  • Organizational context
  • Recruitment and admin
  • Data and knowledge management
  • Governance
  • Tools and infrastructure

We often don’t think about everything involved in user experience research properly. It’s not just about conducting the survey, focus group, or interview. It’s also about ensuring the consent and privacy of respondents while, at the same time, making sure the insights provided are available to everyone who needs them. It’s also, Towsey says, putting in place the tools, training, and processes to democratize research. 

My take

I’m not sure everyone appreciates the effort that goes into conducting useful customer research. Or that it’s shared across a company to give everyone access to the customer insights needed to provide better customer experiences. 

Although the UserTesting report shows that most are doing customer research, I wonder if it’s as widely accepted as it sounds. Because if it was, we wouldn’t have as many poor customer experiences and product usability issues as we do. 

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