Interview by Ben Wiedmaier, Words by Kris Hoppe, Visuals by Thumy Phan
Kasey Canlas never exactly planned for a career in research operations. But when presented with the opportunity, she did what any good researcher would do—and rolled up her sleeves to dig up any information she could find on the subject.
Now with over nine years of operations experience, she recently shared her expertise at the 2022 Research Operations (ReOps) Conference.
We sat down with Kasey to discuss how to get into research operations, research best practices around privacy and data security, and how to continue to grow in the field.
On getting started in the research ops space
How did you get started in research ops?
Kasey: My background is in video production and post-production. Initially, I wanted to edit movies and be the next Thelma Schoonmaker but didn't want to move to California because of rent prices. So instead, one of my first jobs was as a media project manager, where I could still have creative direction while I managed assets.
You repeat a lot of admin work in that job, so I thought, "This should be easier." Operations became a slow avalanche where I updated the documents, then began to standardize processes. Before you know it, I’m in discussions with my co-workers, like, "Let's improve this.” I actually was one of the founding members of our task force, which was—now that I think about it—design ops.
Back then, we had a small UX Research team in our company. They often asked for volunteers to stay after work to help with moderating, note-taking, then analysis and synthesis in the following days. I had been curious about UX research and enjoyed the conversations with the participants, to see what was said about our products. Later, when we had a restructure, UX Research was moved into our group and needed someone to be the operations person.
I was asked, "Do you want to be in design ops or research ops on the UX team?" I responded, "Well, I've learned a lot about design ops, I'd love to learn more about research ops since it’s a completely new field." I left for maternity leave to start my journey as a mother, then returned from maternity leave on a new journey on the UX research team.
That's how I fell into research ops, essentially. Luckily, I had all kinds of time on my hands because I had a brand new baby and you don't sleep at night anyway. It wasn't that hard to go on my phone and instead of, I don't know, looking up random articles or something. I thought, "Let's look up research ops articles. Let's see what I can find." It worked out really nicely because I learned research ops anytime I couldn’t sleep.
Are there resources that you found in that late night smartphone digging, and is there something you kept coming back to?
I found an article by Kate Towsey, she was one of the first trailblazers with research operations. She coined the term “research ops” and wrote an article about how to know if you needed research ops and what you would look for in a research ops person. It's a great article. Definitely read it if you have a chance, but anything she's written is fantastic.
Emma Bolton spoke recently about a new update to her original eight pillars article from 2019. Her original article discussed the different areas of research and where ops can help, but her new talk really hits home about the importance of democratizing operations across the team so it’s not all on the shoulders of research operations.
When you're in research operations, you are not in a silo limited to one area. There are opportunities across different areas which gives you the chance to see what you enjoy and where you could be most successful.
What tips would you give to someone who is interested in working in research ops?
Anyone can do research ops. It's not brain surgery. You don't have to go to school for eight years to learn this. I talked with a researcher just last week and she said, “I don't have any experience, but I'd like to start doing research ops.”
As I talked to her, she explained that she wanted to get into the UX field. She was an academic researcher for 10 years in a lab. And I said, "You don't think you have any experience?" I said, "That's 10 years of experience." It still applies in a certain way. It's not UX research experience, but that doesn't take away from the fact that you have a research background and you can transition over to UX.
If you want to be in research operations, you don't have to have a specific background. You do have to be curious, to start searching about research ops and see what resources you can find. That’s how I started, see what I could learn and then apply it.
"If you want to be in research operations, you don't have to have a specific background. You do have to be curious, to start searching about research ops and see what resources you can find."
UX Research Operations Manager, Genesys
On making research data private and secure
What steps can operations professionals take when it comes to sensitive, private and secure data?
See what data you collect. Look over your processes. When do you collect participant data? How do you use it? Think of your participants as somebody you really care about—whether it's a friend, your neighbor, your family. If you wouldn't want your family's information kept forever in a database or shared with everyone under the sun, don’t do it to your participants. Set timeframes on how long you keep the data, limit who can access it.
Remove anything you don't need. It's not the wild west, you aren't just going everywhere, collecting everything that you want. There are rules and boundaries. Only collect the data you need from participants. If you don’t know the reason why you’ve collected it, then you probably shouldn’t have it. Find out who your legal and data privacy experts are. Talk to them, explain your processes, see what they say.
NDAs, use them to protect your company if you discuss the secret sauce. Informed consent documents explain your research in plain language. Legalese language can be scary if participants aren’t able to understand what it means. Informed consent gives the participants control over what you can and can’t do, whether it be recording their audio or video, or having observers on the call, etc.
Work with legal on any informed consent so it doesn’t contradict any legalese documents they may sign. If you have a participant panel, be clear in your participation terms to explain what you expect. Do you often hear the same hesitations from participants? Make sure you address those hesitations in the participation terms or an FAQ.
Anonymize information where you can. Instead of "This small town that they live in," maybe it's "the state," or, "the country." Look at what is important to communicate about your participants, then eliminate any specific information that directly links to your participants, so they become anonymous.
How long do you need to know it's Kasey, the research ops professional, before it becomes P1, the research ops professional? Take away the specifics once you no longer need them. After you talk to legal and data privacy, think about what information you collect and when you can anonymize or delete it.
"Think of your participants as somebody you really care about—whether it's a friend, your neighbor, your family. If you wouldn't want your family's information kept forever in a database or shared with everyone under the sun, don’t do it to your participants."
UX Research Operations Manager, Genesys
Do you see shifts in how researchers are thinking about data and privacy as they work with ops folks?
Researchers definitely think more about data privacy once you bring it up as an operations professional. You can start that conversation at a smaller level. If you don't have a legal contact or a data privacy contact, talk to your researchers initially and say, "Hey, what information have we collected? Where is that going? Do we ever delete that?" "No, we just keep it for 50 years." "Okay. That might not be a best practice."
You'll be able to see if they currently have processes in place to delete or anonymize data. As I said in my talk, try to find all the information you need to take to data privacy or legal so you can say, "What do I need to do? What are the best practices and what would you recommend for me?" Because the data privacy laws change all the time.
What other steps can researchers take to create a positive and respectful space for the participants?
One of the best things you can do is informed consent. If you're thinking about it from the participant side of things and what informed consent is, whatever you're asking as a participant, you tell them in a language that they can understand. So it's plain language, it's not legalese. Informed consent sounds scary but how I tell my participants is, "I'm explaining to you what I'm going to do with whatever you are giving me permission to do."
So if they're giving me permission to record their video, if they're giving me permission to keep their data, anything that they have given me permission to. And just having any exceptions to that where it's like, "Will this person be viewing their data in a different country?
Am I allowed to see your data? If I am in the United States, but you're in the EU, I would like to contact you for a research study. Will you give me permission to? It's very important to be clear with what you are doing and what you need and why you need it. That gives you the chance to say, "Here's what we're accomplishing with our research. Here's what we're doing with your data. And if at any time you don't feel comfortable with that, just let us know."
We have had participants come back and say, "Hmm, I don't feel great about signing this. I'll participate in the research, but I don't want to be recorded." Or they'll have a lot of questions because they're just wanting to make sure that they know it's not going towards anything, maybe it's not going to be advertised or, "Is my boss going to see this?"
In UX research, you're often asking them questions that could open them up to being very truthful about something that maybe they're unhappy about and it could be with your product, it could be with something that's not even related. You want them to feel it's a safe environment and so that's what an informed consent does. You're really establishing that connection and giving them a little bit more trust in you because this is something that's not legalese.
How can teams prepare for privacy and informed consent best practices?
During onboarding, communicate "Here's what we do and here's how we work with you, and here's how we're democratizing research."
Having standard practices, a workflow that says, "At this point, you do this. And at this point you do this." It should take the guesswork out.
On growing in your career and taking care of yourself
How do you measure your impact in research ops?
It's important, especially if you're a fledgling org or a new research team, look for the big wins. What projects are highly visible or impactful? How did your research or designs contribute? What did you learn? What recommendations did you make?
If it's considered in the next iteration of your product, that counts as a success. If there are additional studies, you can benchmark the progress. "This time, instead of five failed tasks, we only had three." That's still an improvement. That's X percentage of improvement.
"ResearchOps is not admin work, it’s critical thinking, service design, process improvement and researching how the research is done. As soon as you find yourself getting comfortable, it's time to learn something else."
UX Research Operations Manager, Genesys
How should people look for growth in this career?
ResearchOps is not admin work, it’s critical thinking, service design, process improvement and researching how the research is done. As soon as you find yourself getting comfortable, it's time to learn something else.
If you're in a certain area of research ops now and you're bored, is it time to switch to a different type of project for a while? Can you work on a side project to learn more or chat with someone? Even comments you’ve heard around a pain point might be an opportunity for improvement and to learn new skills.
Any tips for staying efficient in your work?
Self care. Take a break. Hydrate. If you feel overwhelmed, you can take a 15 minute break. Or even a five minute break to just walk away from your desk and clear your head. The work will still be there waiting for you.
Automation. If you find yourself constantly repeating the same tasks, see if you can't automate it because there's amazing automation tools out there. Some programs even have workflows and automation built in now. Save yourself the boredom.
Organization. Try to keep everything in one place. Preferably not OneDrive if you're collaborating on a team because people will leave the company and then you no longer have the link to what you need.
What are you excited about in terms of this discipline and where it's headed?
We’re still blazing an unknown path and that's exciting. This whole field is only a few years old. That's really young when you think about other operations fields. Everyone in Research Ops has been very collaborative and willing to share what they know, which is very special.
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.