It’s a relationship world out there. We all know it, yet we treat our relationship with customers – or potential customers – as transactional in user research. As a researcher myself, I know that I need to get research projects done as soon as possible. There are so many phases of conducting a research study that recruiting and managing relationships seems too much.

As user research has scaled in organizations, the need for research operations —abbreviated as ResearchOps — became apparent. ResearchOps, as a discipline, emerged fairly recently to support researchers by establishing consistent research practices and processes needed to streamline work.

Through a dedicated ResearchOps team, researchers can focus on what they do best: conducting actual research. Without formalized structures, researchers can get bogged down in dealing with user research tools and research processes.

At the start of 2021, I switched from being a full-time user researcher to working on IBM‘s ResearchOps team. I still conduct research now and then, but my role shifted to building up our participant panels and participant recruitment. As I’ve been doing this work, our ResearchOps team sees another need arise: relationship operations or, as we call it, RelationshipOps.

In this article, I’m going to share the challenges I faced on my research operations team in the area of participant recruitment that led me and my team to see the need for relationship operations.

The ResearchOps challenge of recruiting participants

A key aspect of quality user research is talking to the right participants. After all, we pride ourselves on the user insights that we generate through our research methods.

However, recruiting participants can be challenging. In some cases, we may only need a handful of participants to answer our research questions, but we might need hundreds or even thousands of participants in other cases.

Outside of recruiting platforms, there are many different channels to find customers or participants part of the audience to work with. However, when you’re not using a dedicated recruiting platform, it can be challenging to convey the right value proposition to participate in UX research activities. I know I tend to ignore a lot of the surveys that come into my inbox!

To get the right people for studies, researchers often have to spend time identifying and reaching out to potential participants. Research teams also need to keep track of user consent forms and send reminder emails.

As a researcher on the research operations team, I can attest that these tasks tend to take away from a researcher’s primary goal: conducting user research. Hence, a ResearchOps practice around establishing streamlined recruiting practices and participant panels is necessary.

Legal challenge: Our research team can’t incentivize customers

At IBM, we have some serious legal issues around paying our customers. Any gift over $50, give or take, can be seen as bribery. The restriction makes sense in the sales context where someone from sales might butter someone up to purchase a product. However, we’re not looking to make a sale in user research. We want to have a conversation with them about their experience!

However, incentivization is a massive part of participant recruitment in user research practices. Offering someone actual money for an hour of their time is a solid motivator to participate in user research studies. We’ve tried various methods to incentivize potential participants without breaking any laws, but it’s been not easy.

Our ResearchOps team has a formidable challenge to support user researchers without incentivizing our customers. Our research team has to get creative in how we do participant recruiting.

Why does user research rely so heavily on incentives? It’s because user research, in general, is a transactional relationship. We have to get our work done, so participants are typically sought out to help us achieve project goals. This model works great when you can pay someone because you get their time and input while getting a nice incentive.

So we find ourselves in this situation where we need customers to talk to but can’t pay them. How do we get around this challenge? We have to set intentional strategies around meeting our customers’ needs so that they’ll be inspired to share their insights.

Finding the intrinsic motivations of customers

In user research, encouraging people to participate in studies presents a challenge. Customers want to talk with us because we have been doing good work for them, and they trust our expertise around user-centered design processes. However, if we continue to think of user research as transactional — i.e., “show me your product” or “tell me how you use it” — we will not be able to move beyond this hurdle.

User research needs to be more reciprocal; it’s important to move away from purely transactional relationships with our customers and start looking for the intrinsic motivations that will inspire them to participate in studies.

Intrinsic motivations could include a sense of curiosity or wanting to help out fellow users. It’s possible to find people who want to participate because they feel ownership over the product or service. There are many ways to tap into these intrinsic motivations — it’s just a matter of taking the time to find out what matters most to them.

Once we know their motivators, researchers can create engagement activities that align with those values, such as creating an innovation jam on a community forum. This way, not only do we get great insights from participants, but we also deepen our relationships.

Through RelationshipOps, we can give back to our customers

As user researchers, we’re constantly looking for ways to improve our research practices. We want the best people and insights to come out of user research activities — it’s what we live and breathe all day long! Yet as user research has scaled in organizations, there hasn’t been a lot of conversation about how user research teams should scale their operations. That’s why we have research operations, after all!

RelationshipOps is the practice of managing and nurturing relationships with customers or participants for the long term. It’s about establishing trust, rapport, and communication over time so that both parties can continue to benefit from the relationship.

Similar to Sales Operations or Marketing Operations, RelationshipOps focuses on the people side of things. It’s about building and managing processes to ensure that everyone involved can work effectively together.

Since our research ops team can’t pay for research with customers, we must build relationships.

I’ve seen user researchers struggle to understand how vital relationship-building is in user research. It’s very easy for user researchers who are used to recruiting research participants in user research studies to forget that they’re still working with people. I don’t mean that in a bad way. But just like we need to get user feedback, we also need to remember the participant’s perspectives.

Our customers use our products every day. The fact that they’re having trouble with a feature that isn’t on our roadmap doesn’t mean anything to them. They want their voice to be heard when they’re having a problem.

So, what about longer-term relationships with our customers? What if we could build stronger relationships with them?

Just as they don’t want us only to reach out when we need something, we need to be mindful of their needs and concerns.

So, what does RelationshipOps look like in practice?

There are a few essential practices that are necessary for RelationshipOps to be successful:

Communication: Building trust and communication channels with customers or participants is critical for user research to be successful.
Feedback: Gathering feedback and suggestions on what’s working and not working through user research activities helps everyone involved understand how to improve our practice over time — both the user researcher team and their customers or participants!
Relationship Building: Building better relationships with our customers or participants is essential for user research teams to scale their operations.
Participant Management: By establishing streamlined recruiting practices and participant management, research teams have appropriate knowledge management around the details of the relationships.

Final thoughts

In user research, the goal is to get a few people from our target audience or users of our product and talk with them about their experiences. We can either build relationships along the way or potentially never speak to someone again.

Through ResearchOps and RelationshipOps, the individual researchers can gather customer insights without learning another specialized area. The whole team meets customer needs.


Rachel Miles is a user researcher and UX Strategist on IBM’s ResearchOps team. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.