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Don’t reinvent the wheel: What we’ve learnt from 2 years of research operations

How do you enable researchers to do their best work? Claire Holt, founder of the research operations team at NHS Digital, shares her experience of building a successful service that has now broadened its remit to supporting the whole user-centred design team.

When we set up the research operations function in spring 2020, we were given a clear mandate to alleviate pressure from the NHS Digital user research community and enable them to do their best work at a critical time for the health system and the country.  

The author, Claire Holt

At the time, user researchers were already stretched and burdened with too many non-research tasks. Then, with the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, user research had to go remote overnight, changing our standard working practices and ways of engaging users. Simultaneously, NHS Digital was hit with an avalanche of requirements for critical COVID-19 products that all required extensive and inclusive user research.  

Our research operations team quickly got started on bringing people together to help our user researchers address some of their key blockers, such as information governance, tooling, participant recruitment, and creating consistent ways of working. Here are the ways we did this and our key learnings from the first 2 years. 

'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.’

(Lizzy Burnham, ‘Research Operations: The Practice, The Role and Its Impact’, User Interviews, August 2022)   

1. Scope: Define your scope and ensure it is agreed and visible to key stakeholders 

To identify our scope, I engaged extensively with researchers and managers, drawing heavily on the 8 pillars of research operations

  1. Environment – the value of research and the context in which it takes place 
  2. Scope – how and when does research happen, using what methods? 
  3. Recruitment and admin – how do I manage all the project and participant admin? 
  4. Data knowledge and management – are ways of working consistent for our research?  What happens to the findings, data and insights? 
  5. People – who is responsible for carrying out research and how are they supported? 
  6. Organisational context – what are the internal and external constraints and enablers? 
  7. Governance – what are the legal, ethical and risk considerations? 
  8. Tools and infrastructure – what systems, tools and facilities do I need for my research? 
Focus on one pillar of research operations at a time before branching out.

Owing to the pandemic, our first priority was the procurement of appropriate tooling to support research that was now 100% virtual. We also had to put appropriate governance in place for new software for example, processes for authorised people to obtain licences, for them to be recharged appropriately, trained in how to use them, and compliant with any information governance restrictions, for example, uses of data, storage or retention.   

We set about defining the needs and value for our toolset, including:  

  • re-procuring and upscaling our Qualtrics survey tool 
  • bringing in UserZoom for unmoderated research and VWO for AB testing 
  • supporting access to and effective usage of other tools including Mural, Zoom, Optimal Workshop and Hotjar

Together, these improved the speed and quality of conducting research and the automation of subsequent analysis, which released demonstrable value to our researchers.  

The best piece of ‘scope’ advice I received was from Kate Towsey, a leader in the research operations field. She advised that we focus on one pillar of research operations at a time before branching out. That's why we developed a prioritised backlog to help us maintain a manageable scope and make what we were working on visible.   

2. Success: Collect feedback and evidence your success to make the operations function sustainable 

Another one of my early tasks was to create some key performance indicators for research operations structured around: 

  • improving the efficiency of research 
  • enhancing the quality of research 
  • raising the profile of user-centred design research 
  • supporting satisfaction and wellbeing of researchers and participants 

This enabled us to define our purpose, measure our impact and obtain continued budget and resources for our work.  

Along with some extremely positive feedback from a survey of our user research team at the end of our first year, our achievements included: 

  • improved information governance, access and user guidance for research tools helping to mitigate operational and data risks 
  • sourcing budget to make the purchase of bespoke user research software possible in the absence of a centralised budget    
  • procurement of new software to support remote research and automated analysis  
  • defined requirements for a new research lab in the Leeds Hub 

We quickly discovered that the impact of success is that it creates more demand! Sure enough, we received a steady stream of new requests for support in areas where researchers felt we could alleviate more pressure from their roles, and we needed more resource to fulfil these. 

3. Skills: Define the skills you need to deliver on your priorities  

Research operations is still an emerging profession, and there isn’t a vast pool of people with the precise skillset, interests, and experience in this area. We overcame this challenge by aligning to our organisational job professions, whilst detailing the user-centred design (UCD) specific skillset within our role profiles. What started as just one person soon evolved into a 5-strong team, enabling us to be more responsive and work in an agile way to respond to multiple, concurrent requests.   

The team is gradually becoming a product-led team, with defined internal user-facing products, alongside some business-as-usual operational activity. We have utilised external statements of work to bring in UCD expertise in inclusive design, service design and user research to complement the skills in our core team.   

The operations team is now the trusted ‘hub’ for our business unit, centrally retaining the skills and knowledge to support corporate and procurement activity. 

A fundamental principle we had from the outset was involving user researchers throughout our work to ensure it is user-centred and outputs are sustainable. Thanks to the assistance of a very passionate, experienced and knowledgeable user research community, numerous volunteers have supported us to capture their needs and continuously iterate our work. 

Our team has also worked closely with corporate and directorate functions (tech services, commercial, information governance, finance) to deliver our objectives. As a result, the operations team is now the trusted ‘hub’ for our business unit, centrally retaining the skills and knowledge to support corporate and procurement activity, rather than this falling to individual user researchers on top of their day jobs. In addition, corporate support teams have a better understanding of user-centred design and our specific use cases and constraints. 

4. Scale: Create an operations function that will scale with your UCD capability 

One of the main hurdles we have faced is in scaling (both the UCD community and the operations function). 

The NHS Digital UCD community has grown rapidly in a short time (now more than 250 colleagues), and consequently, as a small research operations team we’ve had a lot of catching up to do. Kate Towsey recommends creating a research operations function as soon as your team hits 8 researchers, and our team didn’t form one until we had nearly 80 researchers!  

One area where we have already added value to the growing user research community is creating a knowledge management hub (led by Allan Harris). In collaboration with colleagues in NHS England and the former NHSX, we have developed guidance and templates for established (but previously undocumented) ways of working. This improves the consistency and quality of research and reduces the onus on managers during onboarding. 

If you can get the basics in place from the outset, you’ll be better placed to scale your operations function as the work requirement grows. 

Scaling of our operations team itself has also been challenging. As soon as we got to more than 3 members of staff, it created overheads for team management, administration, coordination and delivery mechanisms, which detracted from our core work output. I recommend injecting additional resources when your operations team hits 3 staff to maintain a consistent velocity.   

It’s also worth considering your future target operating model for research operations. If you can get the basics in place from the outset, you’ll be better placed to scale your operations function as the work requirement grows, and you want to add specific specialisms for example, panel manager, knowledge management lead/librarian, accessibility lead. 

5. Share: Share your work and do this often

As a team, we have achieved positive results through building networks and sharing our work with other research and UCD operations teams (both in the health family and beyond).  Every conversation I have had has been a playback of the same challenges we are trying to solve for our community. The information we have shared cross-organisationally has enabled us to: 

  • save time on procurement by re-utilising existing market analysis  
  • reduce spend of £100,000 on a supplier contract 
  • allow partner organisations access to our tooling in specific instances 
  • create guidance and templates from existing best practice and industry-wide expertise (for example, safeguarding and research ethics) 

To sustain these benefits, I recently set up a ‘UCD Operations in Health Group’ to bring together our partners across the health family (NHS England, former NHS X, Health Education England, UK HSA, Shared Business Authority). This allows us to examine ways to collaborate and reduce duplication and look at any quick wins ahead of the organisational merger with NHS England

By sharing your work, you'll benefit your research team, other departments in your organisation and counterparts in external organisations. 

What’s next? 

After recently rebranding the team as ‘UCD Operations’, some of our next priorities include:   

  • transitioning the NHS digital service manual team to work centrally alongside UCD Operations 
  • reviewing the knowledge management support requirements for the content and design communities 
  • developing an organisation-wide panel management strategy (to reduce research overlap between product teams, improve the participant experience and reduce the information governance issues of managing them separately) 
  • fulfilling the inclusive design and accessibility workplans  
  • establishing a standard toolset for UCD professions to enable UCD professionals to automate and share their work as much as possible 

The value of user-centred design has become an accepted part of NHS Digital's Product Strategy. It will hopefully be influential in the structure and process design of the newly forming NHS England. I am optimistic that the early functions and learnings from research operations will continue to support our UCD communities (and the people and products they serve) to grow and thrive. 

If you want to join our UCD Operations in Health Group or have any other comments and suggestions, you can contact the UCD Operations team at [email protected]. The team members in October 2022: Ellen Doyle, Allan Harris, Kiki Kazim, Princess Peprah. Tom Hallam works closely with the team as UR lead. 

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Last edited: 11 October 2022 11:33 am