On User Research Operations & Knowledge Manager Work : an Interview with Samantha Sergeant

This is an interview with Samantha Sergeant, who works in research operations at Deliveroo, done by Naomi House of INALJ. This is part of INALJ’s 2020 series on non-library jobs for library workers

On User Research Operations & Knowledge Manager Work :
an Interview with Samantha Sergeant

Q1:  Thanks so much for taking the time to help us better understand what User Research Operations & Knowledge Manager work is and how LIS folk can get into this field. First could you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you got your MLIS (or your educational background) and what you do?

I live in London, but am originally from a city further north in England called Stoke-on-Trent. You may know it as the birthplace of Robbie Williams, but traditionally it was famous for its pottery industry, much of which has sadly now been lost. 

I studied for a BA in English Literature at Lancaster University, before going straight to an MA in Library and Information Management at Manchester Metropolitan University. Truth be told I didn’t have much understanding of the types of library work available to someone with that qualification, but I’d always loved the idea of librarianship and wasn’t ready to give up on student life when my undergrad degree ended, so I applied without too much planning or thought. In my head I had images of sliding ladders along high stacks of hardback books like in Beauty and the Beast!

Currently I work in the user experience team of a food delivery technology company called Deliveroo. My role predominantly involves supporting the user researchers, but also the product designers and content designers who all work together to create a great experience for the users of our app. My focus in this role is information and knowledge management, which essentially means optimising the way we store, share and are able to retrieve information artefacts such as research reports or digital designs and prototypes. I also work on the more operational side of research which means giving the researchers the tools and process they need to do their jobs – software, physical tools and lab spaces, and things like templates for participant consent and data protection. 

Q2:  Now can you tell us how You personally got into doing this type of work?

Despite how I pictured librarianship when I embarked on my master’s degree I’ve never worked in a public or academic library. After graduating I worked for a series of law firms for several years. Back then law firms did tend to have a small hard copy library in the office (I’m not sure if that would still be the case now), so I spent some time doing all the traditional things a graduate librarian does like cataloguing and loose-leaf filing. Mainly my days were spent conducting legal and business development research though; we would take questions from staff via an enquiry desk and use a range of databases and books to find them the information that would answer that question. This work was often fast-paced and high pressure, and after a few years I decided to take a year out and do some volunteer work in Ghana, building my project management and leadership experience in a drastically different environment. 

As my time there ended I started looking for a new opportunity back in the UK and I accepted a position with the International Accounting Standards Board to set up and lead a new information management and research team. This was an extremely varied role where I worked on pretty much anything that touched on information finding, storage, and presentation. In practical terms that meant projects as diverse as digitising paper records, project managing the organisation’s first reputation research study, and designing and implementing a new customer relationship management database. 

When I reflected on what I did and didn’t enjoy across those roles I realised that I’m most motivated when I’m solving practical challenges which involve information transfer, and improving systems and processes. That’s why I decided to move away from professional services and into the research operations field when I was ready to move on from the IASB. I’d spent a lot of my career doing research but I find it’s planning and project managing research that I enjoy the most, as well as finding better ways for our teams to communicate and share what they know. I also enjoy varied work, and since research operations has a very broad definition I can work across a range of interesting things rather than being pigeon-holed. 

Q3:  What makes this a great field for LIS workers and likewise, what do you think makes LIS workers strong candidates for hiring managers in this field?

Having a grounding in the theory of information organisation, specifically in areas like taxonomies and databases, is really important to be good at my role. In smaller research teams you’ll see the tasks of this role divided out and conducted by user researchers, and whilst some of them do a great job many of them have a different mindset and skill set to the one that’s required to do things like implement a research findings repository. Most LIS workers are also really well versed in dealing with information product vendors, and while user research continues to grow as a discipline the number of available tools grows exponentially; having someone with the experience of evaluating tools and negotiating with vendors can be a real time and money saver for a user research team.

A further reason is that most of us have primary research experience and so can relate to the researchers. The majority of user researchers seem to come from a social sciences background and you’ll find many, many psychology graduates, but like most LIS workers I performed primary research for my dissertation and one of our mandatory modules was research methods and integrative study. Being able to speak the same language as the researchers and think in the same way, whilst maintaining your open separate specialist expertise, will stand you in really good stead to work with a user research team. In fact I remember one of the pieces of feedback I was given on the presentation I did at my interview was “I love how you’re approaching this, you’re thinking about it like a researcher”.

As to why you might want to go into this role as an LIS worker – its a dynamic and fast-growing field, so you’ll have the chance to feel part of a profession on the up as well as to take part in discussions about the shape of research ops in the future. If you’re working in the digital space you can put your skills to use to support cutting edge research, and that’s extremely rewarding, as well as reassuring from a job security point of view. 

Q4:  What is the best way to get your foot in the door or your first research operations / knowledge manager job?  

Research Operations is still a relatively new field so roles aren’t abundant, and the KM specialist space within that is even more niche. That being said it’s definitely a growth area and I’m hearing all the time about companies wanting to understand what benefits a research ops professional can bring. If you’re interested in knowing more I’d advise you to check out the Research Ops Community website which links out to a great and very welcoming Slack community you may want to join, and a Medium publication for keeping up to date with professional developments. 

To look for jobs LinkedIn is probably your best bet. Try following big digital players, like the big tech companies or digital departments within government – many traditional institutions are undergoing huge digital transformation projects to bring them up to speed with the modern world and user research is always a key part of that journey. And where user research exists, research ops is sure to shortly follow once the team realise how much of their precious researchers’ time is being expended on tasks they’re not best qualified for and probably don’t enjoy. 

Q5: Finally what are some of the most important skills / certifications / etc that LIS folk can do to prepare them?  Any last tips?

An understanding of the principles of user-centred design will be a bonus for anyone seeking to get into this field. That can be as simple as reading some articles on the topic so you understand the jargon and can speak in the same language as the hiring manager. Medium is a great place to read accessible material written by practitioners. 

Project management is also key to this type of work as tech firms tend to work to set methods like Prince 2 and Agile. A qualification in either will cost you but can be done online to save cash and is probably worth the investment. If you’re currently working try asking your employer to pay since you’ll both benefit from you learning these frameworks.

Finally an understanding of user research methods in practice, which are less formal and far more fast-paced than the academic methods you may be familiar with, and how those dovetail with design tools and techniques. Again, Medium is great for this, or try browsing through one of the many user-centred design toolkits on the web such as IDEO’s or Atlassian’s.

Interviewee Bio

Samantha is passionate about enabling organisations to make better decisions through access to relevant information. Currently she’s working in the emerging field of research operations at Deliveroo, a food technology company connecting customers to restaurants through their network of delivery riders. She believes that breadth of experience is vitally important to today’s knowledge workers, and prior to Deliveroo she worked in a number of varied roles encompassing aspects of traditional librarianship, primary and secondary research, project management, information systems, and internal communication.

Pronouns are she/her

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Views expressed are those of the interviewee and not INALJ or their employer. Photo provided by the interviewee and permission granted to use it for this interview.

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Naomi House

Naomi House, MLIS, is the founder and publisher of the popular LIS jobs resource INALJ.com (formerly I Need a Library Job). Founded in October 2010 with the assistance of her fellow Rutgers classmate, Elizabeth Leonard, INALJ’s social media presence has grown to include Facebook (retired in 2016), Twitter and a LinkedIn group, in addition to the interviews, articles and jobs found on INALJ.com. INALJ has had over 20 Million page views and helped thousands of librarians and LIS folk find employment! Through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and a real focus on exploring unconventional resources for job leads, INALJ grew from a subscription base of 20 friends to a website with over 500,000 visits in a month. Naomi believes that well-sourced quantity is quality in this narrow job market and INALJ reflects this many new jobs published daily. She was a 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker and has served on the University of Maryland iSchool Board from 2014-2017. Naomi was a Reference, Marketing and Acquisitions Librarian for a contractor at a federal library outside Washington, DC, and now lives part time in Western NY and Budapest, Hungary. She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay. 

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