Research in Academia vs. in Industry: From My Experience as a UX Research Intern at Facebook

I spent the past three months at Facebook as a user experience researcher intern. I worked in the Facebook App Monetization org and did research with two different product teams. I interviewed Facebook users inside and outside of the US, and I also conducted usability tests of prototypes. This is my very first formal industry experience as a user researcher, so everything (literally, everything) was new to me. The journey has been more challenging than I expected, but it was definitely a great learning experience. I applied for this position last Fall, wanting to know what research is like in industry (or at Facebook, in my case). Luckily I got in, and more luckily, I got most of the answers I was looking for — if not all.

1. Objective. The focus of research in industry is to point out directions and offer recommendations for product design, development, and more. So it’s all about the product. Research in academia cares more about studying and exploring important questions in the field. If not necessary, it is often unlikely for research in academia to be related to any product.

Hence, the significance of research in industry is to help product teams make appropriate decisions that fit the company’s overall mission/goal/plan/interest. What about defining research questions? What about finding the right methodology and implement it? These are all important. However, in industry, oftentimes decisions are not made solely by the researcher but based on the entire product team’s discussion or the product’s current need/requirement. For instance, if a product team wants to know what a certain population will think about the product, then the researcher can only research this topic to find answers from users that will guide the team’s decision-making process.

In academia, research questions are usually determined by one or several principal investigators (PIs, who are commonly professors). Things can be researched no matter it’s a new topic that worths studying or a critical realm that worths being dug deeper (even though one might not get an answer). How do you know if a research topic is significant? It all depends on how the field looks at it. A research topic about how a mosquito’s flying will be affected if its wings are hit by raindrops sounds meaningless to our real lives. But if it’s meaningful for its field, then it could be studied. What is not important is whether it can lead a product. This is why many studies in academia look imaginative and less valuable to the reality. This is also why research in academia is way ahead into the future.

2. Significance. Research in the industry is unnecessary. Without researchers, product teams can still make decisions and keep developing products. The point of doing research (i.e. user research) is to establish the communication channel between users and product teams, so that product teams can make informed, wise, and better decisions. There are product teams who develop products freely without taking into consideration of researchers’ suggestions — but this is another story.

Because research is unnecessary, there are cases that researchers are neglected by the product team. Researchers thus have to work on helping the team to understand the value of research.

In comparison, academia is all about research. A research university (my institution is an example) pays all its attention to research. Professors and their teams have to do research and meet a certain criterion of research, especially before professors are tenured. So the importance of research in academia goes without saying.

3. Resource. Facebook as more than 40,000 people in total with hundreds of UX researchers, which is a lot in the industry. Naturally, more people get more resources. Examples include research labs built especially for conducting user research (better than the labs I have seen in academia) and a separate recruitment team for helping researcher recruit participants. Researchers also support each other by running training and creating discussion groups.

On the other hand, I think the resource in academia mainly comes from connections. Industry depends heavily on connections as well, but best researchers mostly stay in academia. Connections in academia can lead to knowing more researchers in the same or related fields and then creating more opportunities. In my opinion, the distinction between resource in industry and resource in academia lies in their types.

4. Who does the researcher represent? At work, UX researchers represent users in product teams; they speak for users and communicate users’ needs and difficulties to product team members. UX researchers represent their company in front of users.

Researchers in academia represent experts in the field. They represent themselves too.

5. Forms of outcomes. Researchers in industry present users’ needs and recommendations to product teams through presentation slides, charts, tables, reports, etc.

In academia, the major form of presentation is publications, such as conference papers or journal articles. Publications present research outcomes (e.g., new experiments, new methods, new algorithms, etc.)

6. Pressure. This is really all about my personal experiences… In industry, user research is only a small part of the product team and it is usually in the earlier stage of product development. Designers and engineers wait for research outcomes to move forward. This means researchers’ pressure often comes from their product team members and the progress timeline of the team. The quality of research is crucial too, but not as crucial as some other things, relatively speaking. That why people say “done is better than perfect.” It’s not okay to ask your colleagues to wait for you.

About pressure in academia… Can’t finish talking about this in one paragraph lol. I feel stress in academia comes not only from producing high-quality research that will truly contribute to the field (which includes a lot more smaller “sub-pressures”) but also pushing oneself to his or her intellectual and mental limits of learning and pursuing knowledge. Because of this, I will not recommend anybody doing a PhD degree without true passion and love of research…

7. Income. Of course, industry offers higher income… Much higher than academia, in fact.

There should be more about research in academia and industry, but I can only think about things listed above for now.

If you ask me which one I will choose… Actually, I still have no answer. But at least I can see more clearly the differences now since I experienced.

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