We recently had the opportunity to talk with Saskia Liebenberg, who leads ResearchOps at Deliveroo. Deliveroo has shaken up the food delivery industry, allowing users in 14 countries to order meals from their favourite restaurants and have them delivered to their desk or their home. We chatted with Saskia about setting up a ResearchOps infrastructure, her unusual career path, and her advice for anyone interested in developing a career in ResearchOps. Let's dive in:
Sofia: Why don’t we start by talking about your background, and how you progressed through the company once you joined Deliveroo?
Saskia: Before Deliveroo, I actually worked as a copy editor in publishing, most recently on the IKEA club members’ magazine. So I had a lot of experience in coordinating people, working with different groups both remotely and within an office, managing production schedules - lots of verbal and written communication. And then I joined Deliveroo as a design project manager, working with a brand-new team that we were setting up - an in-house creative studio. We looked after all the marketing campaigns and we worked very closely with the product design team - at that time we had one design team that worked on both the product itself and the marketing. I was there for about three years in slightly different iterations as the business grew. Then the opportunity came up last year to transition into the ResearchOps role that I now have. So I come to this very much from the perspective of program management and project management.
Sofia: So how did that opportunity come about?
Saskia: It was actually a very fortuitous conversation that I had with our content, research and design director, Simon, who was the person who had originally hired me back in 2015. We were just chatting about what I was working on and what my plans were, and I mentioned that I was hoping to move on from the role I was in. And he said, "Oh, you know what? You should speak to Charlotte, our research lead, because she and I have been speaking about this role and it would be really suited to you and your skillset." I spoke to Charlotte and she outlined the areas that she had in mind for the role and it sounded it like a really good match for what I was looking for - I was really lucky it worked out that way!
Charlotte had previously worked with Kate Towsey at GDS, so she’d been following Kate’s conversations around ResearchOps and what it can offer a team. As the Deliveroo research team grew and reached a headcount of 10, she realized that operationalizing what we do by adding a ResearchOps function would add more additional bandwidth than simply continuing to hire more researchers. It would allow them to get more out of their day-to-day work and maximize the impact of the research. I feel fortunate that I didn't have to convince anyone of the need for ResearchOps, because Charlotte was already clear that it would work well, and our CRD director was really supportive of it.
Sofia: It sounds like your role wasn’t well-established before you took it on - how did you deal with establishing your priorities and responsibilities?
Saskia: When I started this role last April, the ResearchOps framework wasn’t in place yet, because as a community we hadn’t yet gone through that process of having the global workshops and getting the input from various research teams and practitioners. I think for someone starting in the team now, that’s a helpful framework to get your head around. But it’s also a bit intimidating because it’s huge and covers so many areas. For me, the most important starting point was speaking to my team.
I spent my first two weeks just having long conversations. As I mentioned, we only had 10 researchers, so it was manageable. I spoke to every single researcher for an hour and asked them,"What are you struggling with right now? What takes up most of your time? What are the things that frustrate you?" I basically did an in-house research study on the researchers, but also with a few product managers, data scientists, team leads and designers, because I wanted to find out what they struggled with when interacting with user research.
These conversations really helped crystallize the problems we were dealing with; both the immediate things that were urgently a problem for everyone, and the things that would be useful improvements but weren’t as critical right now. So I made a huge spreadsheet with all of the things everyone said, grouped them by urgency, and then started giving each one a ranking based on aspects such as effort required, the impact it would have, and how long it would take. This allowed me to create a bit of a project plan for myself on what I would tackle in what order.
I was also lucky (if you can call it lucky!) that this was around the time of GDPR taking effect and so that was a very clear starting point - everyone was worried. They weren't sure whether we were doing the right thing, or how to implement it, or how to make sure that we were set up in the best way. So that actually helped cement the value that ResearchOps can add to the team, because I could own that for them. It allowed me to give them a process to follow that would make it easy for them to incorporate compliance into their day-to-day work. It took a lot of pressure off the individual researchers, and it reassured them. The situation really demonstrated the value of ResearchOps to the team.
Sofia: Was there anything surprising among those issues you found you needed to address within the research team?
Saskia: I don't think I was massively surprised by anything the team needed, but I was well briefed to start with. Perhaps the one thing that I was surprised by was the discovery that the level of worry around GDPR versus the reality was quite incongruous. The team were actually already doing almost everything necessary - there were just a few tweaks that needed to happen to the process and they needed someone to be their official guide for it. So maybe I was surprised at how quickly I could dramatically help them, because a lot of the issues were actually quite simple to solve. A key element was standardizing processes, file organisation and templates - making sure that basic infrastructure was there.
What I did find surprising as I took the role on is that I spent a fair portion of my time speaking about the actual research to people - there’s a lot of joining the dots and making connections between stakeholders. Maybe that comes from my previous role where I was very much the voice and the face of the creative studio, so people are used to coming to me if they are not sure where to find something or what's happening. I get a lot of questions from designers, for example, asking me where they can find a particular research project - I’ve kind of become a human signpost.
I think the other surprise came a little bit later - I had given myself specific deadlines of how long I thought addressing certain issues would take, but I had to remove these from my spreadsheet. I realised that if you are the liaison between the research team and other departments, you’re relying on other people’s time and priorities so you can’t always control your own schedule. Some things ended up taking a lot longer than I had expected.
Sofia: So what other departments do you frequently have to work with in your role?
Saskia: The obvious one is the finance team. I manage the budget for user research, so I’ve worked with finance on setting that up, tracking it and of course on getting it signed off. I also often liaise with the procurement team, because one of the things I'm doing is making sure that we have a standardized set of tools in place that the team can use. Legal, as well, making sure that all of our consent forms, privacy policies and so on are as streamlined, up-to-date and consistent as possible.
Sofia: I met someone recently who works in a similar role to you, who said that some researchers welcome her, but some are resistant because they feel that the logistics, etc. are part of their job. Did you come across any challenges like that?
Saskia: Actually not so much - that might be because our research team is stretched and in high demand, so they always feel under a lot of time pressure. They’ve been very grateful and onboard with anything we’ve implemented to streamline their workflows and to help them with the back and forth on recruiting participants. Some have embraced the changes and additional support immediately while others have been a bit slower to do so.
But we view it as, we are a resource that is available to the team. So if you want to work with the recruitment coordinator to manage the recruitment for your project, we are here to support you. However, if you'd rather do it yourself, that's totally fine - there's just a few things that you need to ensure you've done in a compliant way. Everyone needs to follow the same processes, but we are very happy for people to manage things themselves if they want to. It's been interesting to see the gradual switch, where researchers have started to use the recruitment help we offer more and have seen just how much time we can save them, so they can spend more time making sure that the actual research plan is executed as well as possible.
Sofia: I’m wondering how you can measure or understand the actual impact of research in the organization and how ResearchOps connects with that? And whose responsibility is it to make sure that impact is measured?
Saskia: That's actually something Charlotte and I have been speaking about quite a lot. How we view it is that, ultimately, the impact and the strategy of the research team is driven by Charlotte, and I drive building the support and the infrastructure that enables the researchers to meet that strategy. I think this close collaboration between me and Charlotte is one of the reasons why I've not had that many problems setting ResearchOps up, because we are so aligned. But one of the things that we’re still working on as a business at Deliveroo is how we measure the impact of different teams. We're still figuring out how to formalize the way that we evaluate projects, making sure we are measuring the impact of each one - and sometimes that impact is in fact deciding not to do something, which is less straightforward to quantify. So that’s a work in progress - but it’s very much a shared responsibility between ResearchOps and research leadership.
Sofia: I’d like you to imagine you’re a professor designing a curriculum for a course aimed at people who want to develop a career in ResearchOps. What themes and classes would you cover, and what would you recommend to someone who wanted to end up in your career position?
Saskia: That's such an interesting challenge. I actually think that there are a lot of similarities between setting up a project management office and starting a ResearchOps function - because the researchers are essentially project managers who run their own research projects. What the PMO and the ResearchOps team give them is the infrastructure, as well as the knowledge and the best practices, they need to do their job well and efficiently.
So I think a lot of the things that you would encounter in a PMO training program would also be useful in a ResearchOps course. I think verbal and written communication is very important. And I am not sure how you would teach this, but you have to be analytical and yet strategic at the same time. You need to learn to look at the root cause of a problem, but also see the longer-term direction the team and business are going to take, so you can build a solution that will really fix the problem.
In terms of practical skills, it would be helpful to introduce ResearchOps students to contracts, procurement, negotiating and basic accounting. I also think a class around information architecture and content design would be useful as well, because it’s important to learn how to structure the information you have. It would also be useful to focus on balancing different work streams and shifting priorities.
Sofia: Finally, I’d like to ask you about what you find most exciting about your role?
Saskia: I think there's two sides to the role and this is why I feel incredibly fortunate to have stumbled into this, and why I enjoy it. So you’ve got to be really meticulous and organized, but you also get to interact with people and support the team. I really enjoy giving a well-functioning highly skilled team the platform they need to do their best work, and helping individuals when they come to me because they’re not sure how to approach something. I can give the team something that makes their lives easier, and that’s important to me.
So I love the human side of it, making sure the team is supported, but I also enjoy the really geeky side of it, with my spreadsheets and tabs and trackers. I think it’s something that’s suited to someone who doesn’t mind getting stuck in to the nitty-gritty and the detail, but who can also keep an eye on the bigger picture. The whole aim is to help a team to excel - that’s the ultimate goal and that’s the part I really love.
I think it makes a great transition or career path for someone who comes from project management or program management like me, but I think also from an event organizing background or an executive assistant background, because I think they have that element of wanting to help people and connect people while also being very meticulous and organized.
Sofia: That's wonderful! Anything else that you would like to share before we go?
Saskia: When you start a role, I think it’s important to find your tribe. Find people who are doing similar things to you in the business. We actually decided to call my role “research program manager”, to make a clearer connection between other program managers in the business and technical program managers as well. But remember that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. I attended the DesignOps Summit last year, as I realised that there are a lot of parallels between ResearchOps and DesignOps and other ops teams, and I really enjoyed the keynote address by Leisa Reichelt, where she just said, "Context is everything." There's no one approach that's definitely going to work for every business. You have to look at your specific context. I think that's really liberating and exciting - there will always be different challenges and different nuances in every workplace, and I think that’s really great. It means there’s a lot of scope for continued growth in ResearchOps as a career path and for us to all learn from each other.