Interview by Ben Wiedmaier, Words by Kris Hoppe, Visuals by Austin Smoldt-Saenz
Executive Director of Research Ops Community Holly Cole is not one to dance around the truth.
Whether that's discussing the yawning pay gap between administrators and operators, or the equity issues around research itself, Holly knows there is still a lot of work to be done.
After spending several years at the University of North Texas, Holly moved into leadership positions in research operations and management, and now leads a UX community of more than 10,000 people.
We discussed how she brings value to the community, what research operations actually means, and the growing significance of repositories in the industry.
dscout: You do a lot of work within the UX community. How do you provide value for your community members?
Holly: We put a lot of effort into not only creating materials that are accessible to people, but are free and robust.
It's always going to be about finding out what the community wants and needs as an industry, as a community. What are your burning questions? What is it you need to know about what you're doing at work, and do we have the drive to, as a community, to get this done?
It's my job to make sure that those projects have a manager, have the tools that they need, have the staff, the headcount to get it done, the data agreements in place, have as many of the little details tied off with a bow as possible. We have values for projects about integrity. “We put in more than we take out” and all of these things that go along with it.
That's always going to be the foundation of who we are. It's always going to be people who are really interested in it and want to put this forward and push it forward.
Operations professionals seem to be a growing niche. Do you think that ops at that table? Is ops in the room with the table?
It depends. It depends on which part of that table you're talking about because ops, as a profession, is essentially who builds the table. Operations is what keeps things going. As a larger profession overall, operations are embedded in the table. It's what keeps business moving forward every day. It's logistics. It's process. It's the procedures that really allows business to scale at all. Period.
I don't think that qualitative research has a seat at the table the way that other research functions—like marketing, customer success, and data science.
They deserve a seat at the table, but I think that research and user research is what helped design get the seat at the table when they have it, because it allowed them to really talk more about business goals and satisfying those business goals in a way that was more solid.
I feel as though I'm seeing more and more on job boards, folks talking about ops. Design ops, brand ops, system ops, ops is now the suffix that's sexy. What's going on there?
"Men could get the jobs and they would pay more than they were paying women for years as admins. That's why. This is a role that has been around for a long time and a variety of specialties. For example, I managed a usability lab for Verizon in Texas and I was a lab manager. A lab manager gets paid half what a research ops professional does."
Executive Director, Research Ops Community
By and large, lab managers, schedulers, research admins are female. It's an administrative job. When it's an admin job, it is perceived to not require special education. Whether or not you have to have a special education or a level of education for it, it is seen as women's work. Then, you put your tech ops on the end of it and that's like ‘DevOps’ ops, right? It gets paid twice as much, then that's attractive to men.
All of a sudden, everyone gets paid twice as much because ops got tacked onto the end. I mean, honestly, I don't think people in the profession mind getting paid twice as much. But I know people who love their jobs, who've been with their companies for a long time at places like Verizon who are lab managers and those people are never going to get paid like that unless they leave their job and come back to it. They're not guaranteed it at a large company like that.
Are you seeing new kinds of folks coming to the ops world because of what you're just described, the opportunity economically, certainly, but also professionally to develop?
There are definitely opportunities for people who would not, or have not seen jobs in technology in the past 10, 20 years. Like library sciences people, who at best might have gotten a job at an enormous company because they needed someone to work on their data spine there.
Smaller companies are looking into the skills of library sciences people, and that does have something to do with the popularity of repositories in research. It's also really bugging the people who have been doing that for decades and are like, ‘This is not a thing. We already have tools for this. We've been doing this. What?’ It's really bugging them.
On repository and library sciences work within the industry
I think there's a growing interest in that kind of empirical research and less fear about it being slow even at smaller- to medium-sized companies that maybe didn't exist even five years ago. There's a lot of tools, data sets, and other resources out there that any researcher can use to demonstrate how expensive their time is, right?
They can make the case for getting a tool to do scheduling or participant things as opposed to having to do everything all by yourself. Many researchers are like that team of one, who's just like, ‘Do all the things," and you can use that from the get-go. Or they can use that from the get-go to kind of shift around and set up their department and their team themselves better early on to make those more successful departments.
You're not just struggling from the beginning to remake the wheel. Every single job you take, it's so much easier. You start halfway to the finish line because you've got all these new resources out there, all these new tools out there.
I think it allows you to, or it hopefully allows people to, create more time to do actual research and demonstrate their value faster. That's a win, win, win. Not only is your time better spent, your results are better, and people are happier with your work.
It seems like there is a robust community growing around repositories and business operations right now. What do you make of that?
I grew up kind of in a small business environment and thinking about ways to hack and make processes repeatable so that one person can do the job of many. But at the same time, I think I've learned a lot, not just about being able to set boundaries and say, "I can't be everything to everyone."
What I got into in the past year and a half is you can think you know a lot about running a business and being involved in all the complexities that operations and specifically are part of it. But running this as a multi-global business is a different kettle of fish.
There are parts of research that help with running this as a business. There are parts of thinking about it from a design research perspective or UX perspective. There are parts of the process and procedural part of my brain that are really clicked on, turned on by it. That are parts of why we're reaching out, looking for more people to help with the admin side of it.
Repositories are with good reason on the lips and minds of lots of folks. What does a successful repository look like to you?
"A successful repository is not an island. Not only does it need bridges in order to transfer information to other systems, other cities, other places, it can't be isolated. Because isolation and making yourself special makes it hard to understand you when you're trying to make your case with other departments."
Executive Director, Research Ops Community
You can't be this thing off on your own and you can't be something that you're expecting an executive to log into and use. It needs to be something where that information can easily come out and go into at the bare minimum into, a deck, a booklet, a report, and it can't just be a flat file. I mean, at least analytics stuff can plug directly into tables.
In an ideal world, they have a lot of information already. At that point, you're talking about a tool that everyone has access to. It's probably going to be something that's compatible with Microsoft SharePoint, because that's where everyone puts their stuff in or at least they have to use it.
APIs galore, data spines galore, and an enormous amount of information are kept in them. People are constantly putting information into them. This is where your institutional knowledge often is. For your sales organization, it's going to be Salesforce. For your finance and legal organization, your business organization, it's going to be SharePoint.
Those are the two things that I'm still for that none of the larger repositories have really dug into. But I've been saying Salesforce for years, the customer success. You always want to hear what the customer calls have—the win loss calls. Where is all that data from, the product feedback?
Then, if you're going to integrate it with the whole company, it needs to probably integrate with SharePoint and then Google workspace. That's not an island, that's a peninsula, an isthmus.
Is there anything that you think your community should linger on, or the industry should look more closely at?
It would be the equity and ethics that the participant life cycle industry can have an impact on. A lot of that has to do with technology in emerging markets.
Even now, people will own up to the fact that that research made products that were very skewed towards people who look like me specifically, because this is a phone product and I'm a white woman. Phones, apps, are kind of geared to me. Gifts or geared to me means that's me. But that's not, what, 4 billion or 5 billion of the people on the planet?
A lot of this research is being done by WEIRD (White European, industrialized, rich, democratic) researchers. It's not people who live [in other markets].
There's all of the unconscious biases that go into that. There's an opportunity for the participant life cycle industry, recruiting incentives, participant panel management to have a really outsized, positive impact on technology. Not research—on technology—by helping qualitative research and customer experience research change how they talk to people and who they talk to.
If I could force this community to look at a project for too long and change that market space, it would be that one. How do we change this? How do we get into all the participant panels and MROCs and get rid of half the white people on it right now and at least half of the people that live in the United States, period.
I know that your company says you need to talk to people who live in the United States who have a four-year college degree, but that's probably not right. I'm one of the people who could fix it. I could try. I never, in my wildest dreams, thought that I would be sitting in a place where I could potentially have that kind of impact.
Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.