What does a research operations program manager do?
Tim Toy talks about animated musical comedy, the golden rule, and overseeing the details behind research studies
Illustration by Gracia Lam
What do you do at Adobe?
I’m on the Adobe Design Research & Strategy Team (ADRS) specifically part of the Research Operations Team, a team of four that supports roughly 65 qualitative and quantitative researchers. Our role in research is to figure out the processes, programs, and tools needed for successful studies and to comply to the internal policies that Adobe sets forth (making sure that we're using customer data appropriately, and that we're not putting participants or our researchers at risk). In other words, we facilitate research and that can range from making sure that there are participants, that all the technology the researchers need (for screen capture, recordings, transcriptions) is all in place, and that the research happened.
The process goes like this: Typically, a researcher assigned to a specific field or area, or product will work hand in hand with their designers, product managers, or business leaders to scope out research questions, ideas, and goals. Once they have the structure and bones of a research project, they'll come to Research Operations and enter the details of their study idea into our database—“The Megabase”—where we can track it from inception to completion. Once they let us know about their study, what participants they may need, what type of research they may be doing (like a one-on-one to better understand a particular use of Photoshop, or a large-scale usability study that requires sending out surveys to thousands of people), we help facilitate it.
What’s your team working on?
Since we’re an operations team there are a lot of day-to-day tasks that are similar from week to week: pulling customer lists, sending out screener questionnaires to find the right participants, managing and maintaining The Megabase, and working with and managing external third-party vendors.
Since there are only four of us on the team, we’ve each carved out specialties in supporting ADRS. I'm on the back end supporting and building the technology infrastructure and troubleshooting the tools (if we were in a lab, I’d be the person diving under the table making sure the computer’s working correctly but since we aren’t, I’m in Airtable most days). Pert Eilers, our team manager, predominantly supports the third-party vendor work because of the complexities of things like doing research in different countries. Ronald Lopez Rameriz specializes in finding the right participants using our internal databases; a researcher might say something like “I'm looking for someone who has this type of subscription and has used a particular function in Photoshop” and he’ll find them. And Sara Kang, who’s been on this team for 7 years (and at Adobe for 17!), and has seen the evolution of it, is our lynchpin and recruiting expert: She’ll source the right number of people and deploy them to the right study.
What essential tool, product, platform helps you do your best work?
With 65 people regularly doing some sort of research, communication is important, so I’d have to say our most important tool is The Megabase—our Airtable study tracker. We built it because we wanted all information about specific studies, that can so easily get buried in Slack or email, to live in one centralized place. We encourage research managers to enter studies into it the second a study is a twinkle in their eye so we can decide whether it needs to be prioritized over something else they might be working on.
Since we've centralized the communication and processes into a single database, we have better visibility into exactly what’s happening with a study (if it’s been cancelled, postponed, or blocked), clarity around what's going to happen or what hasn't happened, and anything we need to do for research to be a win. It not only helps us better understand what's going on, but we have better visibility into what’s coming up, so it’s not often that things sneak up on us.
Other than our study tracker, I’d have to say Slack, specifically our support channel in Slack. If someone’s running into an issue—a participant didn't show up or our research platform isn’t working—it not only allows us to communicate quickly but to make sure everyone is aware of the problem.
What skill do you consider a superpower?
The superpower I’d love to have is to be multilingual. Even though I took three years of high school Spanish, I only speak English, but whenever I overhear someone switch between languages on-the-fly, it just seems that the ability to speak (and think) in multiple languages would be a massive benefit.
At home my superpower is my ability to find lost stuffies. My girls lose their stuffed animals all the time and for some reason I'm the only person who can track them down—even though I almost always find them in places that should be obvious to them.
At work, the superpowers I try hardest to bring to the table are empathy and compassion. It’s particularly important now that we often only see each other on screen. When we were in the office together it was easier to know whether something great (or something awful) had happened, but now it can be difficult to know what's been going on in someone else's day before they turn on their camera. There is no preamble and very little small talk. And as soon as the meeting’s over, everyone is on their own again.
What’s on your heads-down, time-to-focus playlist?
My go-to is usually Motown because my parents listened to it while I was growing up. But right now, it’s the soundtrack to an animated musical comedy called Central Park—by the same creator as Bob’s Burgers. I recently took it up again, after watching it during the pandemic, and it’s just a happy show about a man (and his family) who manages New York’s Central Park. And since it’s a musical the characters just randomly launch into song and dance. I have a few of the catchier songs on repeat on Spotify and they put me in a really warm state of mind.
What's the best professional advice you've ever received?
I’m no longer a people manager, but I was for ten years, and when I first started, someone (I don't remember who it was) told me, “Never ask your direct reports to do something you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing yourself.” It’s simply the golden rule, but it was a reminder about how to treat people that also often seems to apply to other parts of life.
What excites you most about the work you're doing?
Oddly enough, it’s sort of an exciting time in the research operations tooling world. There were two research platforms (the Hondas and Toyotas of research platforms) that basically everyone in the research space used and about six months ago they merged. So now there’s only one (along with a couple of upstarts) and everyone's waiting to see what’s going to come of it. We've been having interesting conversations about what's going to happen next—no one seems to know whether it will be good or bad, but either way we’ll be a part of it.
What’s a dream project you’re currently involved with, or want to take on?
A lot of what we do in research operations is very manual. It can be done in bulk, but it still has to be managed by a person. But right now, a lot of research tooling is introducing new automation features, so I’ve been looking into how to incorporate them into our processes. If technology can enable the automation of many of our more manual processes, it will free up our time for more strategic work and advancing the practice.
As a personal goal, I’m trying to capitalize on my nearly six-year old’s daughter’s current interest in playing video games on our Nintendo Switch—we tried Super Mario Party but that was too frustrating for her, so we moved on to the LEGO Star Wars series, and now she’s really into LEGO Harry Potter Collection. As a life-long gamer, it’s always been a dream of mine to play video games with my kids when they were old enough (I’m hoping my four-year old catches the video game bug eventually too).