Research Operations isn't admin, it's fundamental

Kate Towsey, Research Operations Manager at Atlassian, challenges how we think about Research Operations, saying it’s not an administrative effort.

Kate Towsey is Research Operations Manager at Atlassian. In this episode, Kate challenges how we think about Research Ops, saying it’s not an administrative effort. It’s foundational in providing the necessary tools and training to make sure research can be democratized while maintaining the highest quality insights.



Welcome to UXpeditious! A show that brings you quick, insightful interviews with design, product, and UX leaders.


In each interview we dive into how UX research impacts user insights; shaping the design and business strategy of some of our favorite tech tools and products.


I’m Alfonso de la Nuez, Chief Visionary Officer and Co-Founder of UserZoom.


And I’m Dana Bishop, VP of Strategic Research Partners at UserZoom.


And we are your hosts.

On this episode we’re talking with Kate Towsey, Research Operations Manager at Atlassian. Kate brings up interesting ideas about how research ops isn’t an administrative effort but closer to civic design.


Alfonso and Kate try and unpack one of the biggest questions in UX. How can teams democratize UX Research while still maintaining high quality insights? She is also writing a book for Rosenfeld Media, called ‘Research that is Scalable’ that’s gonna be released in early 2023.


Let's just talk about research ops. Thank you very much for joining us. Can we please start by introducing yourself?


My name is Kate, and I'm obsessed with research operations. I've spent a very good part of the last seven years thinking about, writing about, creating communities around research operations. I, over the last four years, have built and managed a global research operations team for Atlassian.

We started out just as me and one other, and we are now coming up to 14 people, which is a nicely sized team for an organization of our size. We are a small but mighty team. We look after the needs of around 600 and growing Atlassians who do research, and so we are working at incredible scales.

My real passion within research operations is, of course, research, it's wonderful to work in that space, it's such an incredible profession with amazing people, but is this word scalability and scale. I'm fascinated by how you get really efficient with what you deliver and how you can be strategic in what you deliver so you can, even as a small team, reach many, many people, not just to help them do what they want to do on a daily basis, but to shift culture.


I know that's your favorite topic, research ops. You say it's not about administration, it's about research civic design. Tell us a little bit more about that, please.


It is. I always get quite upset when I hear research operations being compared to research administration or when someone hires in someone to do what is akin to personal assistance or research assistance and they call it operations. Everything in life will eventually result in administration.

If we just think of our personal lives, you buy a house, you've got to administrate, you've got to pay the bills, you've got to make sure the fridge is stocked if anyone's going to eat in the house and so on and so forth, but the building and the design of the house, the architecting of the house is the foundations for those operations, not the administration of keeping the house running.

I refer to quite a lot because you look at cities and city scapes, and anyone who lives in a modern city will have the garbage disposal people coming and picking up the rubbish and taking it away on a weekly basis hopefully. I know that's not the truth for all countries, and I've lived in many of those countries, but in places like Australia, the states, and in Europe, that's certainly true.

So you could look at the rubbish collection as an administrative job or the people sitting in the library or the clerical work that goes on in the tax office to keep things running as the clerical work, but the actual structure that gives space with that clerical work is the city design, is where do you have a community square or a city square to host events and bring people together? Where do you have a library? I mean, anyone listening to this is going to go, "A research library."

Well, in the civic space, you have a library full of knowledge that enables people to come and learn and understand the world around them. Inside that library, you'll have someone doing clerical and administrative work of putting books on shelves, checking and checking out content, and things like that. But, someone's got to build the library, they've got to design it. They've got to design the things that sit around the library, the parking that people need to get into the library, and so on and so forth. You could continue with that analogy forever, and I think you'll get the sense immediately just from that, where I'm going with this.

The work of operations therefore is not about hiring in the clerical person when you don't yet have the garbage disposal truck or you don't yet have the library or the parking garage or any of these kinds of things, so the foundations really are about building, about design, even service design.

Then, after you've got that city scape designed and built, now you need to bring in administrators. That's really where after four years I've come on the Atlassian journey is... over the last four years, we've been working very hard to build our buildings, to put in the parks, to put in the library, to get in the parking space, to do all these things, to bring a community hall so we can gather and we can share what we're learning about our customers, and now I'm starting to hire many more administrators into roles to be able to keep those things running, keep them running well, and support people in using the tools, using the spaces, and really understanding how to move around the city.


Super interesting perspective. To be honest with you, I understand what you're saying, but I hadn't thought about it, so very, very interesting to learn this from you because you are building so therefore you're growing and there's a concept to scale or scalability. What does it mean for us UX Researchers to scale, or scalability? I know you like to think about those words carefully. Can you tell us a little bit more?


I've been writing this book, it was called and it's still on the website called Research at Scale. It got me thinking if you're titling a book something you think really hard about those words and what you're saying with those words.


That's right.


I got to researching, what do we mean by at scale? What does at scale really mean in business parlance, but also just going back to the Oxford English Dictionary and resources like that? At scale means that you are delivering at a certain scale. That's not a bad thing. If you've got 100 researchers and you're delivering a service that meets the needs of 100 researchers, you are delivering at scale, great job, nothing wrong with that. The problem is that what happens when there are now 130 researchers, 160 researchers, 190 researchers? Unless your service is scalable, you're not going to be able to move beyond the at scale of 100. It made me change the title of my book.

Actually, some of my introduction includes working through these definitions of what we really mean by these words that we use, and so what is much more interesting is operations that are scalable. As an example, Atlassian's growing 34% year on year as an organization, it's just radical growth.

As a research team, over the last four years, we've grown from a team of 10 to a team of 100 and growing, and then of course designers and so on and so forth around me that those numbers are building up. I mentioned earlier that we, as an operations team, look after Atlassians who do research, affectionately called AWDRs, researchers, of course in there, top of the pile, and then there are designers, content designers and product managers who make up that population.

As a research team, as a research operations team rather, I know that by and large the company's growing and the teams that I work for and with are growing 34% year on year, I can't be working at scale. I need to be delivering services and operations that are scalable...


Scalable, two different things.


Two different things, to at least 34% year on year, which it's interesting how we use these words. For me, I've moved the book title on Research That's Scalable as opposed to Research at Scale.


Oh yes. Based on what you just described, I can see the difference in the title.

I know we've discussed this in the past, but this concept of democratization, the ability to democratize research insights. But, I think the key for me has always been to keep the quality insights, and I know you and I discussed this in the past when we first met. This is very important to me, I know to you, and I think everybody. Why don't you share your thoughts about that?


Yes. One of the advantages of working right in the thick of it in a fast growing organization is I can speak from experience as opposed to theory on it. I know many many people, to your point, so many teams are democratized or democratizing, whether they've chosen to or not, it's chosen them and so they're needing to deal with it, therefore many people are right in the thick of it. We have to allow people to be able to do research, but to your point, it's about how do we enable people to do research well.

It's not necessarily about trying to change every product manager or every design or every content design into the best researcher that ever walked the earth. we've given Atlassians who do research the tools to be able to do research. We can't make them sure that they use those tools well, we can give them the tools, and we've given them a whole lot of training that they've got access to, and hundreds of them do access our training. We've got nine training courses, everything from how to do a great user interview, how to do good participant recruitment.

How do we design a research method? We offer them coaching with a really experienced user researcher so that they can spend a half an hour with their project just discussing, "How do I approach this? What do I do?" We give them a lot of resources to enable them to use those tools well. We've also been very particular about what types of tools we've given them, and so we've given Atlassians tools that encourage qualitative moderated research. They spend real time with real customers. That's really important because what it's done is it's enabled Atlassians to appreciate the value of spending time with customers as opposed to doing something that is valuable in its own right, but sort of quicker and light like an unmoderated type of research, which absolutely has its place for sure, but can be used in the wrong way as any tool can be used in the wrong way.

The amazing thing about giving people tools to be able to do research on their own and being conscious about the types of tools that you give them. We've specifically given Atlassian tools to do moderated qualitative research. Putting an emphasis on moderated research helped people to really understand what research is about and to understand the value of spending time with real customers. What that's done is it's helped to support the conversation about what research is, why researchers don't just come in and deliver insights within two days or three days because someone decided two days ago they've missed a gap or they don't quite understand something. It's helping to shape the story around bringing researchers into a discovery phase as opposed to just at the end to test the final solution and see that it's okay and really be quality assurance or validation.

Research operations working with strong research leaders, working with amazing researchers to shape up the understanding of what research is, when research should be brought in, what research can deliver when it's done really well has really started to shift the research culture at Atlassian. I think that's really powerful. My final point on this is that I think it's too often assumed that democratization is purely about giving people tools to do it on their own and then just leaving them to it.


Yes, that's right.


I think it's so much more about creating partnerships and creating friendships between product teams and between researchers.


Fundamentally a new way or a different way to build software really. I mean, it's so much more than just giving people access to research or insights. It's just a different culture of how to, again, design, build, and deliver digital products. It's got a lot to do with the fact that we're global, we are moving at an amazing speed, and it's all about being customer-centric and innovative. To that point, maybe we can wrap it up with your thoughts on what is really a UX researcher and what kind of research would they do versus other researchers, speaking of quality and speaking of multi-method and knowing which method to use when, for what purpose.


What's fascinating about that is that I think there is a need for researchers and the research industry or the research profession to become really strong in what research strategy is. Five years ago, if I asked a question of a room of 50 directors and research leaders and whatever other job title you can think of at the senior level, a very, very small percentage really understood what the word research or the term research strategy means and had a research strategy in place, or felt confident that they had something that was akin to a strategy in place, something that defined their key challenges, opportunities, and the tactics they would use to address those.

This is a massive area for researchers and research leaders, not so much researchers, but for the research leaders to work on, to bring strategy into where is their team going? What do they need to do in order to achieve a goal that's a year down the line, two years down the line, three years down the line?

How do you then get that knowledge via the researcher through the artifact into someone, and then how do you measure that impact? It's the age old conversation around the impact of knowledge and the impact of research. But I feel that there is... in growing that strategy, again, to be able to get much more smart about how we shape up how research is seen as not just a cost center in a business or a subset to design in many cases, but as an absolutely essential part of an organization and its success.

The research world could get so much more out of its operations. Even if you've got a team of one ops person or you've got no team of operations, but you've got some researchers chipping in, you can get so much more out of operations if you know where you're actually going.


Absolutely. Beautifully said, Kate. A big thank you for all these wonderful thoughts. Super interesting to listen to you.


Thank you so much.


Thank you very much for joining us.

That was Kate Towsey, Research Operations Manager at Atlassian.

You already know at UserZoom we thrive on collecting user insights to improve digital experiences, and the same is true for this podcast. We would love to hear from you, our listeners, on how we can improve the show. Please follow the link in the episode description and take our quick survey. We’d love your feedback, as well as any recommendations for future guests or topics.


Thanks for listening to UXpeditious. Make sure to continue listening to our new episodes each week for quality insights from UX industry leaders. If you like what you heard, help us out by rating and reviewing the show on your favorite podcast platform.


UXpeditious is produced by UserZoom in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to our production team: Christopher Ratcliff from UserZoom; and the team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Aimee Machado, Hannah Pedersen, Colleen Pellissier, and Michael Aquino.