How to tackle ResearchOps in a rapidly scaling organization

An illustrated image of Method in Madness contributor, A'verria Martin
24 September 2020
A’verria Martin, Ph.D.James Vinh

ServiceNow, named Forbes’ #1 Most Innovative Company in 2018, delivers digital workflows that create great experiences and unlock productivity. They believe in the power of technology to make work, work better for people. ServiceNow’s Experience Organization (EO) includes over 300 design, research, and product content professionals.

James Vinh, President of SDXD spoke with A’verria Martin, Ph.D., Senior Manager of Research Operations at ServiceNow to learn about how she and her team tackle research operations (ResearchOps) in a rapidly scaling organization.

How did you get involved in ResearchOps?

My formal education and early career was firmly rooted in academia. I spent 15 years as a research assistant, research associate, study coordinator, postdoctoral fellow, and finally as the Director of Research of the Geriatric Psychiatry Department at UC San Diego. I also received a Masters and Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy and was a practicing therapist.

I’ve been exposed to every facet of the research process: grant writing, funding and budgetary management and constraints, managing study staff, working with Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to approve research plans and study consents, identifying and recruiting research participants, overseeing longitudinal studies with multiple study visits, data collection, analysis and synthesis, and finally sharing research findings through papers and conference presentations.

When I was ready to leap from academics to corporate, I was fortunate to connect with Randy Sieffert, Sr. Director of Insights who understood the importance of ResearchOps to scale our research practice at ServiceNow. At the time, the EO was only a few years old, and our Insights Research Organization was about 18 months old.

What’s the mission of ResearchOps at ServiceNow?

We focus on customer engagement and research enablement. Ultimately, our goal is to help the research team operate like a well-oiled machine through a macro and micro level understanding of their needs and goals. We own all aspects of research that block practitioners from focusing on their craft.

How have your team and the ResearchOps practice evolved?

When I started at ServiceNow, the Insights Research team and the larger EO were relatively new, giving us the unique opportunity to build from the ground up. I often use the metaphor that we were given a plot of land and asked to build a house: first, we needed to check the zoning, get permits, and start with foundational elements such as installing water and electricity.

We started with understanding the needs of the researchers and the broader business needs of the company. Because I’m a researcher by training (and at heart), I also looked to literature to guide our efforts. I found that unlike DesignOps, which had a dense set of directives, ResearchOps was a new and emerging field that’s only in its infancy.

The Eight Pillars of ResearchOps inspired me: environment, scope, people, organizational context, recruitment and admin, data knowledge and management, governance, and tools and infrastructure. I used this theoretical model to create quantitative questions around each pillar, ensuring the team could rate ourselves bi-annually and create a roadmap for the areas unique to the use case that we needed to tackle.

While there’s room for growth across all areas, we’re currently dedicated to four based on our organizational needs and customer-centricity. They are recruitment and admin, people, data knowledge and management, and governance.

Recruitment and administration: Customer access

Being an enterprise software company, access to customers who use our products across all job roles and functions introduces some unique challenges. Unlike consumer products who can often find research participants in a cafe or at an airport, our participants aren’t easily accessible.

This has been like running power to our plot of land. With the expertise of Customer Engagement Program Manager, Anjelica (AJ) Mationg, we built a robust customer engagement operating procedure to identify, vet, recruit, schedule, and incentivize study participants.

The key to our success is establishing valuable relationships with colleagues across the company who assist us in identifying and vetting target users for each unique study.

With our workflows and processes in place, we’ve switched gears to focus on growing our ServiceNow Product Lab Insider Program. This elite research community informs our roadmap and product decisions through quantitative and qualitative research studies.

People: Winning as a team

We’ve developed various initiatives to ensure the internal success of our Insights Research team, including:

  • Rolling out a rich onboarding process on the Mindtickle platform where we continually add training and resources.

  • Developing job classifications (currently being refreshed based on feedback) to outline expectations and support career growth conversations.

  • Conducting training on usability testing, heuristic evaluation, service design, and we are excited about our upcoming five-session speaker training. That said, we are dedicated to continually growing our talent.

  • Lastly, Michelle Munoz (on my team) has served as a cultural ambassador, organizing quarterly team building (paintball anyone?) and quarterly volunteer opportunities. She has even established a “quaranteam” check-in to keep us all connected during COVID.

Data knowledge and management: Insights that drive business value

Data and knowledge management is front-and-center for our team. Our market, product, UX, and / or customer research aims to drive insights and critical findings into creating better product experiences and driving business decisions.

From a ResearchOps perspective, we manage competitive information using platforms such as Forrester, develop systems to tag and store research findings that are easily consumable and usable by the product organization and consider different avenues to share critical insights with internal and external stakeholders. While this is a multi-year project, we’ve made some significant strides.

One such stride was bringing on an Insights Librarian (Elisa Ewing), who leads our competitive intelligence efforts and streamlines our research repository, where we store artifacts. Elisa is working with a tiger team to develop an insights tracker to follow our research findings as they are driven into product and inform business decisions, and has identified opportunities for sharing knowledge to internal and external stakeholders through various channels. Another incredible stride is creating a tool for managing research requests that assist us with data and knowledge management and supports capacity planning and forecasting research coverage by product portfolio.

Governance: Protecting the customer

This area’s near and dear to my heart. Coming from an academic background and working with IRBs to consider human subjects protection, I could see several considerations for a maturing organization.

This year I’ve worked closely with our incredible ServiceNow legal team to evolve our governance approach to human subject research. This includes reviewing and updating Customer Service Agreements with our agency partners, developing various statement of work templates, collaborating with product legal to bring training to our Insights Research team, and considering modifications to study consents, NDAs, Safe Harbor, and other documentation to keep our research participants informed and our business protected.

While the four pillars have been our primary focus, we've made the following movement in other areas:

  • Environment: Increasing the visibility of research across the company.

  • Scope: Creating a repository of methods, templates, and shared processes.

  • Organizational context: Building a system to track operational spending.

  • Tools and infrastructure: Identifying and procuring research tools.

What challenges are you facing?

The number one challenge we’ve faced is customer access for research engagements. Like any business, you have to navigate internal teams and processes; this is why building strong relationships within the company is a catalyst for our success.

Even with our colleagues’ support, the ability to identify and connect with the target user has proven another challenge. Often the individual who is the primary decision-maker is not the person we need to participate in our studies. This is where the creation of a robust customer panel - ServiceNow Product Lab - as well as the strong internal relationships, have proven beneficial. That said, this continues to be a challenge, and we’re constantly looking for creative solutions. I’m excited about the new phase of maturity we’ll enter when this is no longer a challenge.

What’s your advice for people new to ResearchOps?

Consider the unique needs of your team and company; what are the areas that need immediate attention versus those that could be incorporated in a long-range roadmap or tackled collaboratively by the broader research team. Do not try to attack everything at once and consider investing in foundational aspects before aesthetics. Don’t start to drywall before you have poured your foundation.

Apply human-centered design and design thinking to the challenges you face.

It’s not uncommon for our team to use a design thinking process (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test) when creating new processes. We’ve recently been considering the fully digital class of new hires and interns; we used empathy mapping techniques and how we might make a checklist for virtual onboarding.

Be as agile as possible and keep moving; don’t let perfection be the enemy of getting things done!

Think of every template, process, or workflow as a pilot; it’s better to get the materials out to the team, get feedback, and improve than wait for the final version. Don’t be worried about continual process improvement or needing multiple iterations; the perfect process doesn’t exist; we should always improve based on experience. Also, remember that effective processes should not be cumbersome. If it slows researchers down, then it’s not a good process.

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