Picture this: you’ve built a small research practice and team. The research floodgates are open. Now it’s time to scale your research organization to meet the demand.
In the first installation of this series, I outlined the prerequisites to building a team, which included gaining management experience and building or identifying the need for a team. I then walked through the activities and decisions you’ll need to make when starting to build a formidable research team.
In the last part of this series, I’ll guide you through different ways to scale a team, based on lessons learned from doing the same at Airtable and Instagram.
Expand your team
A research team is not just a team of researchers. Specializations exist within the discipline and a leadership team is crucial in order to scale.
Product research is so much more than just UX Research. A research team may also include:
- Market research
- Research democratization
- Research operations
- Survey research / Quantitative UX Research
1. Market research
Market researchers use a similar research toolkit as UX researchers, although their partners are primarily in a marketing organization instead of the product organization. Market researchers are influencing go-to-market (GTM) decisions instead of product decisions, and they specialize in certain areas of study such as brand tracking.
Before hiring our first market researcher at Airtable, the UX research team or I initially supported research requests from the marketing team. As demand increased and as the team had specific needs, such as brand tracking, I hired an experienced market researcher who could execute research studies—and eventually build the market research function.
2. Research democratization
Before joining Airtable, cross-functional partners met with customers. This remained true once the research team was established. Designers conducted usability tests to determine if their design concepts were usable. Product managers sometimes met with users to inform feature prioritization, to name a few examples.
Yet, these cross-functional partners were not researchers and they sometimes didn’t know where to start—or if they were drawing unbiased conclusions. As such, these cross-functional partners reached out to the research team for guidance, which became a distraction.
As such, we hired a research democratization specialist to help increase the effectiveness and efficiency of non-researchers gathering feedback from users. The specialist achieved this by consulting with non-researchers on the goals and approaching to solicit feedback, as well as reviewing materials and deliverables.
3. Research operations
While researchers are focused on conducting research to make marketing and product decisions, research ops play a critical role to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of how research is conducted.
A research operations specialist was our fourth addition to the research team at Airtable, even though they had been working with the team for several months in a part-time capacity as a recruiting coordinator.
The initial need for a research ops specialist was to support recruiting study participants, which is one of the most intensive parts of the research process. Having someone who is focused on the logistics of running a research study allows a researcher to focus on prepping materials, analysis, and reporting—to name a few examples. This all speeds up the research process.
When you’re founding a team and there is an overwhelming number of research requests, it can be tempting to focus on hiring researchers. But research operations is a catalyst.
While the initial impetus for research ops may be participant recruitment, the role expands to so much more over time. For example, at Airtable our research operations specialist built a system to automatically distribute and manage the completion of research participation agreements. This reduced hours of manual work per study.
They also onboarded an incentive platform at no cost to Airtable. This also saved hours of manual work per study and provided participants with a greater selection of incentives. In turn, the improved incentives increased participation rates. Don't forget that there also are other roles within research operations, such as a research librarian and research program manager.
4. Survey research / Quantitative UX research
In the second article of this series, we recommend hiring generalists when first building a team. However, as the team grows and the demand for research increases, you may have more specific research needs. A common research need is survey research or quantitative UX research.
When I joined Airtable, I partnered with the marketing operations lead to revamp the company’s Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey, which we expanded to include UX metrics, such as customer satisfaction (CSAT).
We relaunched the survey in January 2021 and also began the search for a quantitative UX researcher who would be focused on creating a holistic user attitudes program: analyzing and reporting on the data quarterly, as well as conducting ad-hoc quantitative research.
While the first UX researchers we hired were generalists who had experience with a variety of qualitative research methodologies, for this role we needed a specialist for this role who had skills with statistics and survey design. This would increase the capabilities of the research team—as well as allow researchers on the team to learn from others’ expertise.
The ideal team size for a manager is five to eight direct reports. A manager should have no fewer than two direct reports—and even then, they should have headcount for team growth.
✔ Build a leadership team
It's impossible to lead and manage a team by yourself. You need a
strong leadership team in order to scale. One of the most critical and
difficult roles to hire when scaling a research team is a manager.
Meta had a guideline that another manager should be hired when a
manager has eight direct reports. In practice, you have to start a lot
earlier because it can take a long time to find the right candidate for
your team. For example, we opened our first manager for the Airtable UX
Research team in May 2021, and didn't hire until January 2022.
Managers have varying levels of experience and it may be possible to
transition people from the individual contributor (IC) to the manager
track. In my opinion, the first manager you hire should have prior
management experience. You’ll likely want them to manage a sizable
portion of the existing team, allowing you to scale. There’s also a
learning curve and inherent risk of transitioning someone to the manager
track without manager peers to support them.
As you scale though, not all managers need prior people management
experience. For some of our smaller teams and specializations, we sought
experienced researchers who could transition into people management and
play the role of a player-coach—do the work and manage others. However,
we did look for some of the prerequisites discussed in the first
The ideal team size for a manager is five to eight direct reports. A
manager should have no fewer than two direct reports—and even then, they
should have headcount for team growth. Furthermore, a manager should
have no more than 12 direct reports. At that point, it becomes difficult
to effectively partner with direct reports and cross-functional
partners due to a lack of time and context switching.
Towards the end of 2022, at Airtable we had…
- Two UX research managers who managed the core (five direct reports) and growth (four direct reports) product pillars
UX research manager who managed a smaller team (two direct reports)
within the core product pillar, a market research manager (two direct
reports), and a research operations and programs manager (two direct
With this structure in place, we had specialist leaders who had
cross-functional partners and the ability to scale their teams and the
research practice at Airtable.
✔ Break down organizational silos
When UX researchers are embedded in product teams and market
researchers work with their functional partners in marketing, they work
in organizational silos. Yet research questions are not all siloed to a
given function or team. In my experience, often the most impactful and
strategic research happens at the boundaries of organizational silos, as
cross-functional partners are not focused there.
The CEO and other C-Level executives
at Airtable approached me with research questions that spanned the
company. When the team was small, I either took on these research
studies, pulled my team together, or worked with a research vendor.
Regardless of the approach, this work would take a significant amount
of time. As such, we hired a principal researcher to focus on these
complex, large research projects. This included competitive research and
jobs-to-be-done research, to name a few examples. Given the experience and expertise of this hire, they also provided invaluable mentorship to the entire team and even cross-functional partners.
The research and insights teams at Airtable also created primers to
enable everyone within the company to make customer-centeric,
data-driven decisions during planning. A primer, also known as a
planning primer, is a synthesis of insights and opportunities related to
company priorities that are an input to planning. It can be used to
help teams understand the market, identify opportunities, and develop
Foster healthy growth
When I was at Instagram, the director of growth once said to me, “I don't want growth. I want healthy growth.” It’s easy to grow something—also known as growth hacking—but it may not last. Healthy growth is sustainable.
✔ Manage ratios
In the second article in this series, I explained how ratios with other functions could be used to gauge team size. Ratios can also play a crucial role in managing sustainable growth. When faced with the task of hiring a certain number of individuals within a specific year, it’s advisable to expedite the hiring process. This enables a timely onboarding process and contributes toward the company's objectives. However, it’s important to maintain a consistent pace of hiring across all functions.
At Airtable, we placed emphasis on prioritizing the roles we intended to hire each quarter. This approach helped us determine the appropriate speed for our hiring process, establish the recruiting team's priorities, and ensured alignment with our financial planning models. If other teams don’t meet or exceed their hiring goals, you may have to adjust yours accordingly.
✔ Reevaluate your team composition
The structure you choose to begin with is not the structure you have to use forever. In fact, it will very likely need to change when scaling a team.
UX researchers at Airtable were initially aligned with a product area, working with a product team based on company priorities and research impact (i.e., the hybrid model). As we hired and had more UX researchers than product areas, we switched to UX researchers working with a dedicated product team (i.e., embedded model), providing clear ownership.
As the company grew and product teams became more specialized, product teams were asked to conduct more evaluative testing. It wasn’t aligned with our vision to have UX researchers focused on more strategic research. As such, we transitioned back to the hybrid model, partnering UX researchers with product leads within product areas.
✔ Conduct retros
Most companies I have worked at have had a biannual employee voice survey. This is an effective tool to understand the health of your team.
Once the employee voice survey results were released, I walked the entire team through the results highlighting areas of strength and opportunity. Transparency is key.
I then hosted a retrospective (aka retro) with the team, which involved an anonymous “start, stop, keep” exercise. We generated ideas as to what we should start doing, stop doing, and keep doing.
The team then voted on up to three ideas per category. My leadership team then reviewed the ideas and voted forming an action plan that would be codified in our team Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) or updated processes. During the next employee voice survey, we evaluated if we had improved.
“Building a culture of trust can be a powerful way to improve performance.”
Professor of Economic Sciences
✔ Build psychological safety
Psychological safety is a sense of trust and acceptance within a team where people feel comfortable being themselves and sharing their ideas, even if they might be wrong. The research team at Airtable commented on how psychological safety was a strength of the team.
During manager 1:1s, managers would:
- Focus on how people were feeling – Our feelings have an impact on how we show up and perform at work
- Reflect on the work – What impact it had, lessons learned, what went well, and what could have gone better
- Provide support – Ensure nobody felt stuck or like they were alone
- Provide feedback – Identify opportunities for improvement and also celebrate and recognize successes. We also ensured this was not a one-way conversation. Direct reports were actively encouraged to provide their manager with feedback
During our team meetings, we…
- Took time to celebrate and thank each other, recognizing each others’ contributions
- Provided updates from leadership, so the team were aware of what was happening across the company
- Focused on how each other were feeling
- Shared fun facts, building stronger connections among the team
- Provided a space for discussion
Some of the overarching principles to create a psychologically safe environment, included:
- A focus on people (and thereby wellbeing)
- Being transparent and providing open communication
- Celebrating and supporting people’s growth
Set up rhythms and rituals
✔ Document how you work
When the team is small your rhythms and rituals will be intimate knowledge, but as the team grows, this approach will break down. This usually happens when you start hiring managers and specialists, because there are new information sources, as well as varied processes. As such, you and your leadership team will need to document your processes.
For example, every researcher at Airtable created a research roadmap each quarter, which defined research studies and how they mapped to company and product objectives. This was a standardized process. As such, I created a step-by-step guide for research roadmapping. This document was useful for existing and new team members outlining actions and expectations.
We also used Airtable, which managed our research workflow to remind researchers when to take certain actions—such as sharing a study in the Insights Slack channel and adding it to the research repository when completing a study—so they didn’t have to remember every action.
Documentation does not have to be just for your team. I also created a research manifesto/vision that stated that the research team's primary focus was strategic research. This was also a valuable resource for our cross-functional partners, setting expectations for what the research team did and did not do.
✔ Create new and improve existing processes
Identifying ways to make people more effective and efficient is another way to scale a team. Work smarter, not harder.
Airtable had one research operations specialist supporting 14 researchers. This resulted in an unsustainable workload. Unfortunately, we did not have the headcount to hire another person, so we focused on ways to reduce workload. One opportunity we identified was to automate the dissemination and management of research participation agreements, which was one of the most time-intensive processes.
There were a number of steps to send a research participation agreement form and record it as complete. The key insight we had was: what if we removed the need to use DocuSign and used an Airtable form instead? This would allow us to automate the entire process using Airtable Automations.
Airtable’s research operations specalist worked with the legal team to replace the DocuSign form with an Airtable form, and we worked together to create an Airtable Automation. The improved process was simpler and faster, and reduced the reliance on a third-party tool. It reduced costs for the company and didn’t require any research operations interaction.
It is important to note that processes can break down at scale, so it is crucial to reevaluate processes and how they can be improved.
✔ Define OKRs
Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are an effective goal-setting and leadership tool. They communicate what a team wants to accomplish and what milestones need to be met in order to accomplish it. OKRs also promote accountability and ownership, allowing a team (such as research) to show how they contribute to the company's goals.
Each quarter, research OKRs at Airtable focused on three areas:
- Strategic initiatives and projects
- Process and tooling improvements
- Team development and initiatives
For example, automating the dissemination and management of research participation agreements is an example of a process and tooling improvement key result.
✔ Onboard new tools to expand your capabilities
New tools can increase the number of tools in your research toolkits, and allow you to conduct research at scale.
For example, at Uber, we worked with dscout to understand the everyday eating habits of hundreds of people across the US. At Airtable, we onboarded another tool to be able to conduct unmoderated concept tests. Such tools allowed us to conduct research studies in parallel.
Wrapping it up
Scaling a research team requires expanding the scope of the impact and work of the team, nurturing healthy growth, and establishing the rhythms and rituals for your team. These are not one-and-done activities.
As a research leader, you need to constantly evaluate the needs of the organization and best position your team to meet those needs. And at times, it may not be the case that you need to scale—you may be required to cut back.
Regardless of how you need to adjust your team, we hope that this article has highlighted how to get started.
Andrew (Andy) Warr is a UX leader with over 15 years of experience leading impactful, high-quality projects across multiple business and product lines at hyper-growth companies, and over 10 years of experience building, coaching, and managing strong-performing teams.