Guiding your team strategy with User Research Principles

We often hear that Ops is all about process, efficiency, speed and scale but does saving time and money have a real and lasting impact? What about quality? Are we doing the right work or are we scaling poor quality research? Is the work visible? Are we learning from our insights or are we repeating the same studies? Does anyone care about governance or are we skipping over the ‘boring’ work in favour of speed?

In this talk, Emma will introduce you to her Research Ops Principles. She will show you how these can help you set objectives and guide your strategy. You will learn how a well-functioning Research Ops layer, helps the work of the team stay relevant and impactful.

Guiding your team with User Research Principles

Emma Boulton – Director of Design Research – Babylon Health

Emma joins us from Wales and is excited to be here. She’s going to discuss research ops principles and how she’s used them to guide her team strategy at Babylon Health.

Emma likes this definition of a principle: a proposition or value that is a guide for behaviour or evaluation because it’s useful to think through how principles guide behaviour. What does it mean to behave in a principled way?

Example of The Ass and His Driver from Aesop’s fable. The ass wants the quickest way down the mountain, over the side. The drivers cautions against it. The ass ignores reason and falls off a cliff. This is not the best way to use principles!

Julie Larson-Green: We should be principled in the direction we’re heading, but we’re not going to be stubborn.

Babylon Health Case Study
Emma leads the design and research team at Babylon Health and will use her experience there to discuss the challenges of operationalizing research and introduce us to the principles she and her team created, along with some examples of how these were used in practice

Background: Babylon Health is a UK based startup that has recently expanded into the US and Asia. Their goal is to give affordable and accessible healthcare to everyone on the planet, a lofty but compelling goal. They offer clinical care services as well as products for self care and wellness management.

How Babylon works: Babylon’s team are embedded in various tribes across the user experience. Most work in two key tribes: self care and clinical care. They also have some researchers who work in more horizontally focused tribes, as well as a small centralized team who focus on end to end service, which includes leadership, operations, service design, and the design systems team.

Babylon uses dscout’s working model to assess where their design research sits in terms of maturity. When Emma was initially hired it was an interim position as Design Research Director. Her scope was to bring the team together, focus on career progression, and fix research ops.

She started by talking to team members, listening, understanding, and learning about research challenges. She then did an audit of existing processes and found there was already a strong and established culture of design/user research at the company and it was more a case of maturing and evolving the craft.

Emma sifted through the data and identified four key themes: efficiency, visibility, quality, and connectedness. She used these themes to create a set of Research Operations Principles as a starting point. Design tends to talk about but not always follow principles.

Principles without Programs are platitudes – George Bernard Shaw.

Emma uses Babylon’s principles to help the team find workstreams and priorities. They help guide thinking around what to focus on, how to go about our work and how do we make decisions on what to focus on and prioritize?

Theme One: Efficiency. The applicable principles here were to provide support, be consistent in approach and enable scalable research, and understand the constraints to ensure judicious resource management.

The research ops community came up with their own definition: Research Ops provides the roles, tools, and processes needed to support researchers in delivering and scaling the impact of the craft. The framework for this includes data management, lab and participant co-ordination, consent and ethics, tooling, vendor management, and recruitment.

There are eight areas or ‘pillars’ that the community reports they need to work on to operationalize research – environment, scope, people and organizational context are the pillars underpinning how research is supported, and recruitment/admin, data and knowledge management, governance and tools and infrastructure underpin how research is systematised and scaled.

When Emma arrived at Babylon, the support functions tended to be undertaken by the leadership team, and the systematic/operational functions were the domain of the Design Ops and Research teams. Without a dedicated Research Ops manager, she had to think through the full breadth of these pillars.

Series of slides around how they audited the organization and the process of how they decided to move forward. The audit process revealed issues around consent which they solved with new tools and procedures; they streamlined the recruitment process, created new lab processes and set up a dedicated complement space for guides, processes and onboarding.

This process meant that for a time they changed the model of how the teams worked, adding a Research Ops and Programme Management Co-ordination layer to the process. This worked well for a time, but as the team grew it started to break down and stretch resources.

This stuff is hard! What they really need is a dedicated Research Ops Director. Emma recommends that once teams get larger than five, you need a research ops person to help.

Theme Two: Visibility. The audit process revealed that there were challenges around team members and stakeholders not knowing what others were working on, so the objective was to provide greater visibility of the Design Research roadmap and outputs across the organization in order to ensure everyone’s efforts were co-ordinated, aligned, actionable. The principles used to guide the process were to give teams evidence to make better decisions and break down silos and join the dots between the insights.

Series of slides detailing the processes they used; creating a research tracker with tabs for each tribe with what’s in the process of happening now and in the future that everybody can access, creating a working group which is using mixed methods to come up with a playbook of best practice, and organizing weekly stand up meetings to share and discuss work across the whole design team.

Theme three: Quality. This theme is around raising the bar and being the best design team they can. The objective was to create and implement a programme of training, templates, and critique to improve quality of Design Research across the organization and the guiding principles were to know what good looks like and to advance the craft, to be the guardians of integrity and rigour, and to measure the impact and prove the value.

Series of slides detailing the process. Some initiatives were: Implementing bi-weekly ‘learning huddle’ between teams in different countries, creating safe spaces for sharing including creating mantras for research critique sessions that emphasize non judgement.

Theme Four: Connectedness. This theme centres on sharing evolving the craft. The objective was to develop a company wide framework and taxonomy for research to ensure they have a joined up approach to building organizational knowledge and the guiding principles were to develop organizational knowledge and to bring together the community of practice.

Series of slides detailing the process, including service discoveries at the tribe level, future visioning and behaviour change at a company wide level, and working to create a shared taxonomy and iterating on their research library. Since meetings went remote in March, they have tried to encourage community in other ways through things like bringing a goat (!) to Zoom meetings and sending handwritten notes and gifts to team members. Emma sees culture and community as equally important to research.

Closing thoughts: These things take time. It’s easy to grow a research team or a design team but much harder to help one mature. It can take time to move the needle or feel the impact of your work because much of it lies in building relationships and facilitating communication. Remember that progress is being made!

It’s too early for Emma to say whether her work will have a lasting impact, but aligning the team around shared goals is definitely a short term success worth noticing. Giving the team a clear vision for how they work impacts the big picture, and also gives them the motivation and permission to get extra curricular work done. Doing this intentionally and shining a light on it ensures it is visible to the rest of the organization.