In the introduction, we briefly mentioned three trends that are driving an interest and investment in research operations. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Emergence of agile development

The internet disrupted traditional product development processes. Whereas physical manufacturing involves significant upfront costs and strategic decision-making, digital products can be shipped iteratively. For organizations building digital products, this nuance dramatically impacted decision-making workflows, as most one-way doors essentially became two-way doors.

In response, “Agile” emerged as a formal and/or informal set of processes for iteratively developing and testing solutions. This impact researchers in three meaningful ways:

  • Risk tolerance: Whereas decisions in an analog world are often irreversible (you cannot move a factory after building it), digital products can be changed quickly. Therefore, the risk involved in decisions shifted from avoiding being wrong to avoiding being slow.
  • Timing of decisions: Because digital products can be changed continuously, investing in continuous improvement can dynamically redefine the competitive landscape. Instead of investing almost exclusively in upfront strategic decisions, decision-making is distributed throughout the product development lifecycle.
  • Number of decisions: As a function of the first two points, there is an order of magnitude more decisions that are made in digital product development than there ever were with physical product development.

The above factors have placed an inordinate amount of pressure on research teams to suddenly “keep up” with product teams that are otherwise “flying blind.”

Read: To agility and beyond: The history—and legacy—of agile development

Proliferation of tools

Of course, the rise of digital product development has not ignored the research industry. Virtually every process in research has been digitized in the past decade. Customer interviews can now be done remotely or even asynchronously with “unmoderated” interviews, focus groups can be facilitated with AI, and of course few surveys are still conducted with pen and paper.

Venture capital has poured into research tools. In the following five broadly defined categories alone there are 500+ tools:

All of this is to say that on top of exponentially more decisions that need to be made within an organization, there are also exponentially more tools and technologies that research teams need to consider and master.

Rapidly changing consumer behaviors

The pandemic upended industries and accelerated a number of trends. Technology leaders have long recognized that consumer expectations are always increasing, continually upping the table stakes for competition.

The pandemic supercharged these expectations. Within and across countries, consumer perceptions and behaviors are shifting unexpectedly, dramatically, and quickly. It won’t be clear for years whether certain trends like the following are permanent or temporary:

  • Remote vs. in-office work
  • Grocery delivery vs. curbside pickup vs. in-store shopping
  • Movie theaters vs. direct-to-streaming
  • At-home fitness vs. gyms
  • Telehealth vs. in-person care

Altogether, there are more decisions that need to be made, more tools to help inform those decisions, and more changes to the status quo to track and understand. It’s no wonder that companies are looking to research operations to keep up!