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.

Dynamics

I went to CRC (Georgia Tech’s gym), drank iced milk tea, ate crispy chicken nuggets, and did grocery shopping this morning. This was all because I submitted a conference paper last night. I guess I need to celebrate, so I offer myself some treats.

I don’t have many experiences with writing conference papers. Previously, I had turned in two papers with myself being the first author and co-authored another paper. Yet writing a conference paper always teaches me new lessons. The lessons that I’m going to share might be cliché — smart people may learn this quickly, but I need to wait until I’m writing another conference paper. A bit dumb.

The thing I learned is that different papers have different dynamics. I know, this seems obvious — this seems obvious only when we are reading papers. It may not be the case when we are the ones who are writing. Why? I didn’t really feel this when I was writing my first two papers. I thought it was me who was writing, and since I was the author and I did not change, so I supposed the papers should look pretty similar in terms of style? Well, this is not true. The paper that I was writing recent days had an entirely distinct dynamics in a sense that it kept leading me, instead of being led by me. It refused being structured. The findings of this study were complicated. There were so many details and I didn’t know which ones I should pick. In fact, I couldn’t even find a proper way to tell a story for a couple of days. Findings were already messy, hence the Discussion section was even more difficult to write. I remember I had a hard time on the day I planned to write the Discussion section. Sitting in front of computer screen and hearing my heart bouncing anxiously, I told myself that no matter what I had to at least outline the section before I went to sleep. I jotted down whatever I thought of that might be useful in the section, and to my surprise, these random lines seemed to represent some commonalities that I could talk about. The paper had something it wanted to say. I was only its medium.

I want to record my feelings and thoughts because they are important to me as forms of reflection. This is also to remind myself that I learned a lot by going through the process regardless of the outcome.

The Pleasure of Being a Ph.D. Student

I have been approached multiple times after becoming a PhD student — people asked me about what is good of being a PhD student. Normally, I don’t think about this much, because, as an ongoing PhD student, I’m supposed to be embedded in all kinds of work and thus don’t have time to generate random thoughts. But today is a different one. I had the leisure to come up with a list of things that I enjoy about being a PhD student. Here it is.
  1. Think: Of course, right? (I take this for granted.)
  2. Read books/papers/articles: Yes, I really mean it. I know there are many people who don’t enjoy reading fictions, let alone scholarly writings. But I always love reading stuff, even though English is not my native language. Some scholarly works can be hard to digest and I’m with you here. I tend to read these works more quickly. 🙂
  3. Write stuff: Yes, I still mean this seriously. Writing is something that I started liking once I had done enough amount of readings of different kinds (e.g., fictions, poems, etc.). I simply like the feeling of seeing words flowing out on screens or paper. I admit that oftentimes writing academic papers doesn’t contain much fun, but I think pain is also part of the experience of learning, and learning is usually enjoyable.
  4. Accept hard intellectual challenges: This one almost goes without saying. One privilege of being a PhD student is the opportunity to be challenged intellectually. This doesn’t mean one won’t be challenged intellectually in other jobs, but one gets the chance to think about many deep and sometimes weird questions more as a PhD student. This can be life-changing, and I enjoy this process.
  5. Work independently (for a large portion of my working time): While this is not necessarily true for every scholar based on their discipline, this is true in my case. I like staying in a quiet space that helps me to concentrate on my task and thinking. Having to read and write a lot contributes to my independent work.
  6. Learn from wise minds: This is another privilege that PhD students get. What a joy of being able to listen to professors’ (who are experts in their fields) and wonderful peers’ discussions and grow from their conversations and actions!
  7. Review papers: This one goes together with the one above. Reviewing papers is a great way to see what’s going on in my community. And knowing that I also contribute to part of the process of generating more sincere knowledge is exciting.
  8. Take some cool classes: Same point as the two above. My institution offers many interesting classes. I can take them as my minor classes so that I can enjoy them even if they are not directly related to my major. One of these classes is Science and Technology Studies core seminar.
  9. Get to know and talk to so many different people: I’m especially referring to my lovely qualitative research methods (e.g., interview, observation, etc.) here. As an introvert who doesn’t really social a lot, getting to know new people can be hard for me. However, being a researcher who uses mostly qualitative methods, I am sweetly “forced” to talk to many people — people who I don’t imagine I will even have the channel to get to know if I were not a PhD student. Talking to people from diverse communities help me to know the world and reflect on my own identity. I’ll say this is the best part of being a PhD student (for me).
  10. A bonus: If my paper gets in, I can visit different places/countries: I don’t like being stuck on the plane for long hours, but I really don’t mind visiting new places that I have never visited before. (And drinking new beverages, and tasting new foods, and meeting new people, and more, and more…)
  11. Finally, there are always more to enjoy in the future! 😀
I think what I enjoy the most of being a PhD student, or doing research in general, is the possibility of pursuing my ideas semi-freely. I consider this as a sheer luck of mine, and it is definitely a luxury as well.

Reflection, on I2S Competition and groupwork

My team, Eating Right, won both Ideas Track Runner-Up and Best Poster awards in the 2016 Ideas to Serve (I2S) Competition held at the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Institute of Technology on April 8th. This competition is intended to encourage current GaTech students and recent alumni to think about how to create a better world through feasible and concrete ideas. During the night of the 8th, all the finalist teams presented their posters and gave a 1-min pitch to the audience. I was so happy to see that there were so many projects that cared about issues of global relevance, not only in the United States. Initially, I didn’t really expect us to win anything, since I didn’t know if people valued this kind of work. However, it left me feeling deeply encouraged, because people did care, and they were even willing to spend money on this.

Just to give you context: our team, Eating Right, aims at creating a mobile app that will provide valuable and trustworthy dietary information for diabetes affected households in India by presenting entertaining cooking show videos. Our project started in October 2015( as a collaboration between Georgia Tech and the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (India) ) , and Jasmine started working on it then. After one month, I, a Human-Centered Computing PhD student, joined the team. Recently in March, two more Human-Computer Interaction students (Sam and Tanisha) came on board.While Jasmine and I focused on the research aspects, Sam and Tanisha brought design expertise to the team. Prof. Neha Kumar advised us from the onset and helped us communicate with collaborators in India. All of us, including our professor, are women.

What makes teamwork impactful in our case?

  1. People. All four of us have sufficient background in Human-Computer Interaction design and research, which makes it easier for us to communicate. Although we have similar backgrounds, we do hold diverse skill sets. Sam and Tanisha were originally from India so they can speak different Indian languages and draw on their understanding of Indian culture. Jasmine had done fieldwork in India, and could anticipate the challenges we might face later. I am a researcher who has read a lot about ICTD and have a deep understanding of how to approach this research using human-centered design. Together we are advised by Prof. Kumar, who is an expert in ICTD research. We are also supported by our collaborators in India, who offer first-hand data about users and valuable inputs for our research and design outcomes.
  2. Work ethic. I believe this is important in every field, not only in teamwork. Nevertheless, to keep a good work ethic can be really challenging when there are too many things going on at the same time, which is often the case for a graduate student. We face this challenge bravely and deal with it professionally. We rely on emails to communicate most of the time and all of us are very responsive – to emails, text messages, or phone calls. Because we are invested, the project is able to make steady progress. We stick to deadlines as best we can. If we cannot keep our promise, we let all team members know.
  3. Coherent understanding, all the time. We communicate in timely fashion to make sure that everybody is on the same page. This not only covers work assignments, but also high level objectives. For example, we do believe that user research can make a difference and design should be based on specific contexts and users’ needs. Communication sounds tedious and time-consuming sometimes, but it can foster understanding, which allows the entire team to work more effectively.

These bullet points above address some things that good teamwork should include, but they are not enough. What I find amazing in the Eating Right team is that we are all open to making mistakes and we learn through failure – the working environment we create is a safe learning environment, not a competitive one. When one of us says something that sounds not so right to others, others will ask questions and start a discussion. No one is offended. For instance, I’m not familiar with Indian culture so I have tons of questions (I know some of them must sound naive to Indians). My teammates are always willing to explain whatever detail I’m looking for. I try to do the same. I believe, because of this positive learning environment, people’s skills are leveraged, good work ethic is acknowledged and followed, and a coherent understanding can be nurtured.

Certainly, we are all motivated and passionate about this project from the bottom of our hearts.

I used to be a believer of individual work, but my experience in the Eating Right team changed my mind. When a team works well, productivity will be high, and everybody on the team can learn. It is amazing when teamwork presents its power, and I hope to experience more awesome teamwork in the future. Of course, to make this world a better place, you need a team, or maybe a larger team. 🙂

Conflict, in learning and in constructing identity

I would like to explore the notion of “conflict”. In their book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation Lave and Wenger talk about how learning takes place under various situations and how newcomers are able to become old timers through learning. On page 116, authors introduce conflict as follows:

Conflict is experienced and worked out through a shared everyday practice in which differing viewpoints and common stakes are in interplay.

Here, it is easy for readers to take “differing” and “common” as words referring to differences and commonalities among different individuals. What I’m arguing is that conflict also exists in one individual’s mind. Differing viewpoints and common stakes mentioned in the quote above can be presented in one single individual’s mind when one is growing and learning. Sometimes this kind of conflicts can be supportive, other times they can be truly destructive, in terms of destroying one’s identity.

When I first came to United States, I thought I would engage in great learning experience as a master student in HCI. I looked forward to doing some really design and humanistic stuff. I never doubted my learning ability or my English level. However, it turned out that I was not nearly as correct as I imagined. I thought I could convey my ideas pretty well, but when I couldn’t recall common expressions in group meetings I then started doubting myself as a proper English speaker. What was more, I encountered both minor and major cultural differences here and there in my life. I was afraid to ask questions and to bring confusions to other because of my unfamiliarity to United States. Conflicts, presented as cultural differences, were in fact the gaps between my previous identity and the new identity that I was still struggling to construct at that time. Although people kept telling me there was nothing wrong with me, I later still questioned my identity really hard, because I looked so inferior, drastically different from who I used to be.

Therefore, I appreciate Lave and Wenger since they mention change of identity as part of the learning process in their book. In addition, I feel grateful about their statement on page 51: “Participation is always based on situated negotiation and renegotiation of meaning in the world. This implies that understanding and experience are in constant interaction – indeed, are mutually constitutive.” I could have offered myself a little bit more understanding at that time but I didn’t. Looking back, I guess what I was lacking was also an appropriate level of introduction to even the boundary of participation. How was I able to legitimate peripheral participation when I didn’t know where to start? I wish I had read this book earlier to make myself feel more comfortable and confident.

Therefore, learning can be fulfilling when the learner is welcomed and willing to participate. As I see my own identity changes through my learning process, I keep reminding myself to be more understanding when communicating with other people. Learning is a lifelong journey that we as humans learn to understand ourselves and be with ourselves peacefully under various situations. As people come from different backgrounds with different values, it is fair that everybody has a right to be understood situatedly.