Weeknotes SE03E01

As with most of my weeknotes these days, these weeknotes are structured around the 8 Pillars of User Research — I use these to help me keep the scope of my role knowable, to me, and others. I use the Pace Layers Matrix to structure my research operations strategy in my everyday work.

What did you do?

Well hello there! New year new me…not at all, not really :) I have chosen to call it a new season, and that feels right. Hoping if you’re reading this, that you had a good break, that you got a break, that you’re entering 2022 as happy and healthy as you’d like.

That’s a tall order these days, so mostly, I’ll just say, welcome, I’m so glad you’re here.

Most years towards the end of the year, I chose a guiding word for the year to come, and I tend to put it out on the internet, because doing that forces me to really understand my what, and my why. Nothing quite like having to make sense to others in 280 characters or less to make you really think hard, right? Also, I love the responses and thoughts I get on this.

This year, my word was actually crowd-sourced and was given to me by the ever wonderful Bindu Upadhyaygrounding. That’s what this year is for me.

It is a year of grounding in my work (which you’ll read below), in the ResearchOps Community, as we turn 4 years old, and for my PhD — 2nd milestone in August or bust. Yeah, I’m already a month behind on my plan for that, but taking a deep breath and trying not to panic :)

Personally, this year grounding means continuing to do a lot of work on my mental health, on prioritising my sleep, my self and then worrying about the usual order of things — family, friends, work, community, PhD (sorry PhD). Sleep and self have traditionally come last, and that’s just not gonna wash with my 46 year old body!

I hope whatever your word is, if you do choose a guiding word, it sets you free in some way, or acts as a light whenever you need it.

So, onto work. In the spirit of grounding, which is slow, deliberate work, there’s not a lot to report this week in terms of things to see. It was my first week back, and really quite quiet in the department. Perfect for long, slow work.

Environment

This week I spent time going through the strategic connections I’d identified as a priority for 2022, and first thing, I set up a meeting with our data analysis team in the department so that we can better support researchers with their requests for data — we’d had preliminary discussions before Christmas, and now we’re all set to catch up next week.

I also set up a catch up with someone from the research division (ABARES) of our department, as they are doing a collaboration with the Australian Bureau of Statistics on our data. Again, in order to support researchers best, it is critical we are across what data is being created, how, and where. Looking forward to that next week too.

We received an update from Les Kneebone, working on a research repository and knowledge transfer type of project with CEBRA. It’s been such a pleasure to be working alongside this project as we build out the PRISM Library, and we’re excited to see how we might utilise our vocabularies for better integration across our repositories, and improving access and uptake of research across the department.

Thinking about how to improve the environment in which research happens has been a focus of this week — lots of deeper thinking and conversations with researchers — starting on the drivers of the type of research being done, and the barriers and opportunities these drivers represent. I think both Ruth Ellison and I agree that our research maturity (for inspiration, Leah Buley’s work on design maturity for InVision is well worth a look) has a few stages to go through in coming years, and so we’ve been individually and collectively thinking through how we might plan for each of the stages and set them up to succeed. I had similar chats also with the Research Lead over on the Biosecurity side of things, Helen Jones, this week too, and the paths look very similar.

This helps confirm for me that research operations is effective as an organisation wide practice — it tends to be the organisational maturity that dictates how research happens, and so there’s very little to be gained in having separate research operations teams, and a lot to lose.

I read a great article this week by Marianne Bellotti with a really interesting take on knowing how to improve the environment (in my context, for research) in a large organisation. It was shared in Cate’s weeknotes (referenced below, and well worth the read ) all about using the org chart to spot the technical debt. I thought about this part of doing ReOps as I read, and I raised several eyebrows and nodded along quite a bit. Thanks Marianne, I think you’re onto something.

Scope

The Research+Ops handbook has been sitting on our backlogs for a while as we worked on the higher level parts of the Service Delivery Handbook work, led by Julian Fleetwood, the Content Lead. Next week we will be all systems go trying to get something out, at least in a from or another, as Bill and I will both be on leave from the 24th of January, and we know the coming year has a lot (a LOT) of scaling of our teams and of research in general.

We’ve forked the 18 Method Cards for this work, and it was so lovely to catch up with Andrew Maier (one of the authors of the Method cards) just today for chats about all things ReOps, but also to talk about how I’d like to take these and add more — to me, one of the tricky parts in developing a sustainable research practice, is the expectation that research only takes an hour or two, or it can be done in a week.

I think of the time research takes as a ratio of 4:1:4 — as in, the prep takes 4 times as long as the doing, and the analysing, synthesising and write up also takes 4 times as long as the doing. It’s a rough ratio, and obviously operationalising (small ‘o’ ops) the research creates efficiencies, but researchers get short changed consistently via our focus on how long the doing takes, and our ignoring of the parts that come before, and the parts that come after.

I have come to the conclusion over the past year, that ResearchOps is often about making the implicit explicit. It’s surprisingly hard to make implicit knowledge explicit, because lots of people have feelings about being more explicit. There can be concerns over being too regimented or not giving folks the space to be different. There’s a lot of push back in my every day! But I think it is a disservice to the profession of user research (however you think of that term — I think of it as a broad church of research methods that focus on people — not users) when we don’t include in our expectations the effort of planning research (a lot of which never falls into research operations), or the very real need to have space to absorb, think, and make sense of data once we’ve gathered it.

So, what I want personally for the handbook of research+ops is that it is tool for experienced practitioners to show the standard expectation — of time, and of the potential return on investment of using different methods — importantly at different stages — of coming in early before a ‘project’ is even conceived of, and being there, the whole way. I don’t think that research should come under design only - I think research should be, and has been traditionally, in service of the whole organisation— in government that means in policy development all the way through to operations and maintenance of services.

Of course, the handbook will also be for an entirely different set of users (and therefore the IA needs careful consideration!) — that is, people new to research wondering what on earth all these words mean, and what it looks like when you do it. The method cards are perfect for this.

Given all of this, I spent some time this week looking at how we might iterate this handbook, giving people something to refer to as we go. Will pick that up with Bill next week!

Organisational context

Other than looking at the organisational maturity this week (mentioned in environment), there’s not a lot to report here!

People

This week I started preparing for a graduate student from a local Canberra university who is joining us for her summer holidays. Many moons ago, I used to be a trainer and part of my job was designing and delivering induction training. In my previous team, I utilised the Dragon Age Induction Board which the team told me they enjoyed, so I’ve also been setting that up for Clare. As we’ve scaled so much over the past 9 months, just about every week sees us run an induction — we now have two types of inductions we run after the departmental one is done — one for researchers, and one for people who will be using the research, a kind of knowledge transfer session.

Next week, I’m running a knowledge transfer session for some people using research in the delivery teams, and so I’ll get to try out the new induction board on them. After that, I’ll set up a training board specifically for ResearchOps — what skills and knowledge do you need to have to do research operations, and how does that look from day one? Again, I’m referring back to what we learned in my previous team, and will use the same structure. It will be a pity to only have Clare for the summer, but we hope that she will enjoy this first hand experience of ReOps, and of user research at scale.

Recruitment and admin

Research recruitment has been consistently hard for us this past year, in an incredibly tight participant pool with a lot of others also demanding their time. We’re working on a pilot with the export commodity teams from mid January in an effort to address some of the pain points, and so this week I did a little bit of prep work on that. We’re trialling a departmental tool, which comes with access controls, and training and scheduling etc, so you can imagine what will look like for January!

I also did a little tinkering with the research register, and started to socialise it beyond the Taking Farmers to Markets program. Both of these things are tools that only work when everyone uses them — their primary purpose is as a single source of truth, and a focus on increasing transparency, breaking down silos. I think I’ll be putting Clare to work on this once she starts!

Data and knowledge management

This week saw us start the conversation with a regulatory team to go through their years of research, and work out what can be added to the PRISM Library. There’s a bit of governance work in getting approvals, but the process is there to embed trust within the system — sharing of research when it is not prepared specifically for public release means going back and thinking through what the participant consented to, what the researcher believes is an ethical sharing of research (according to the NHMRC Guidelines and the Australian Privacy Principles), and what the business owner (the executive) thinks should be shared. It sounds difficult, but it is a ‘do it once’ unless it needs changing kind of thing. I hope that we can just embed this thinking into the process of doing research so that is is all done as a part of the doing, but this backlog will remain for some time. Changing behaviours and mindsets about the use of user research is a change process, one that never really goes away (or hasn’t yet, in any case…one day).

Governance

Think I covered it above ^

Tools and infrastructure

One of my ‘grounding’ jobs is to write out the service of research — a part of that is describing what tools are available for researchers at each step of the research lifecycle, for each research method (the tools vary of course, depending on your method — if you’re doing a card sort or an interview, your tools are radically different). I got into tackling that this week. Not finished, but getting there. These will describe the stage, the method, and then what’s available, how to request, and include links to training, governance (what kind of data can be stored where), approvals, and how to ask for a different tool if needed. Importantly, that means all of this will become self service, and that’s going to be more and more important as time goes on.

What are you thinking about?

I guess this is a reading list! I’ve done a fair bit of reading over the break and wanted to share the good stuff.

Cate McLaurin’s first weeknotes of the year were lovely, with her sharing her word for the year (replenish), and some knock your socks off reading.

This thread contains a hefty amount of (difficult) reading. One to wade through over the course of the year.

This article by Dr Cynthia Young on making knowledge sharing a part of your culture at work is brilliant. It’s a part of my continuing and emerging love for Radical Knowledge Management, a term coined by Stephanie Barnes.

I’m only part way through this piece by Bell Hooks, but I’ll add it here, as it will be brilliant, no doubt. Here’s a quote:

“When life is happening, design has meaning, and every design we encounter strengthens our recognition of the value of being alive, of being able to experience joy and peace.”

Anything else?

This research on organisational trauma was released only yesterday by dscout in partnership with HmntyCntrd, with the research and report written by Alba N Villamil, Karen Eisenhauer, Vivianne Castillo and visuals by Thumy Phan.

I’ve experienced enough organisational trauma to say that I’m really glad they added pauses in between the sections for you to be able to collect and re-centre yourself. I caused enough organisational trauma to be able to say I could see the little things I do that I want to stop, and know how to do better on. I think although it’s a hard read, it should be mandatory for anyone, especially anyone in our field. Many thanks to the folks involved, and the folks who contributed their stories to make such knowledge possible to be explicit, not just kept in the shadows.

Finally, it’s been an up and down kind of a break — in reflecting on my word for the year, I went back to an essay I go back to often, by Rebecca Solnit, the author of Hope in the Dark (among other books and essays!). I’ll leave you with her take on hope:

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterwards either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.

May your 2022 be full of spaciousness, and room to act.

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Brigette Metzler

Brigette Metzler

researcher, counter of things, PhD student, public servant…into user research, information architecture, ontology, data. Intensely optimistic.