Earlier this week Clearleft hosted a lively morning of debate around ‘Accelerating Your Digital Design Maturity’ featuring leading industry voices from Tesco, Babylon Health, Sky, Twitter, Google Ventures and UCL.

Richard Rutter
Richard Rutter
10th October 2019

In front of an audience of 70 design leads, two panels explored the challenges and approaches their organisations have around getting closer to customer needs and delivering better products faster, or to use a couple of industry buzzwords: research ops and design ops. We wanted to share some key insights from the former.

Kate Tarling discussing Research Ops in our first panel

What is research ops?

Research ops are the processes necessary for understanding customer needs and integrating research into an organisation’s decisions. It is the latter part that can be most challenging.

It stands to reason that research ops should ensure that researchers have what they need to do their job. That might include the right software, labs and other tools, training and professional development. It should also include consistent methodologies for different forms of research, along with all the legal and administrative systems and paperwork required.

But that’s a baseline. Where research ops really comes into its own is in establishing research across the organisation. According to Daniel Burka (Director of Product and Design, Resolve to Save Lives), research ops needs to “be both selfish and selfless” meaning it must be objective in its pursuit of insight and understanding, but then open and active in socialising the results.

Design research vs. market research

In many large organisations there is an insights team tasked with market research. This kind of research has been around for many years and has earned a mature place within companies. Conversely design research is relatively new. Some of the techniques may be similar, but the purposes tend to be different, and practitioners in the two camps can have a tendency to look down on one another, with design researchers dismissing market research’s focus groups and the insights team not seeing why they should spend time watching usability testing.

Of course both have their place and the panel stressed the importance of the insight team joining design researchers combine their efforts in understanding the desires of the market and the direct needs and difficulties of customers.

Do we need specialist researchers?

Unanimously, yes, there is definitely a role for specialised researchers. A trained researcher will be able to put together a programme of research and design sessions with users that are as unbiased as possible, non-judgemental and objective. But more than that, Tomasz Maslowski (Head of UX & Design, Tesco) pointed out that an experienced researcher “doesn’t just play the notes but hears the space between the notes.”

So while it’s really helpful that designers, developers, product owners, executives and others are all taken into the field at various points, the skill of the specialist research is to distill what people say into what people mean. The non-trained ear can be prone to confirmation bias and pick out the soundbites and opinions that supports their theory or position, or not take what they are hearing into context or proportion.

Research should collaborate and communicate

You could say that about any discipline, but Dan noted that if you put research among designers then they can hear where designers are unsure about decisions and bring that into their research.

Dan points out that a potential problem with product design is assuming that users care about the product when what they really care about is what a product can do for them. Researchers can help expose this if they are working closely with designers, rather than the design or product team simply giving research a list of questions to get answers to. “They should be the team’s questions, not the researchers’ or the designers’ questions”. Quite often the more useful research questions lead not to answers but more questions.

This is why research is far less effective when done in isolation. It’s time for researchers - and research ops - to “get scrappy” and think about how to get learnings into the wider team, and up to executive levels. Examples include running mandatory “customer closeness” sessions enabling all employees to see first-hand customers using products.

Ultimately the panel concluded that research’s job is to mitigate risk and confirm (or deny) opportunity, and these are aspects that the whole organisation needs to understand and use.


Many thanks to Daniel Burka (Director of Product and Design, Resolve to Save Lives), Tomasz Maslowski (Head of UX & Design, Tesco), James Stevens (Director of Group Product Design, Sky) and Kate Tarling (Digital and Design Leadership, Fly UX) for their generous time.


In part two we’ll cover the second panel and ask what design ops is and whether we should care about it?

Join us next time

We’ll be running another free breakfast panel for design leads in March 2020. If you’re interested in being on the panel or in the audience, please let us know using the form below and we’ll get back to you with details nearer the time.

(we won’t contact you about anything else but if you’d like to discuss how we could help you mature your research function do get in touch).

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