Beyond Bullet Points: Four Creative Ways to Share Research
As Facebook’s international research team, we travel the world collecting information about the experiences of people who use Facebook. We learn how and why and when they use it, as well as what’s working for them and what isn’t.
In the process, we also learn about their lives. We talk to the mother who was able to quit her job because of the success of her small business’s Facebook page. We also hear about the challenges of paying for ads, when credit cards are not always a common form of payment in other countries. We hear too many great stories to count.
Unfortunately, when we get back to our desks and start building a Keynote to convey our findings, we struggle to fit everything we heard and learned into an hour-long presentation. We synthesize and distill findings to make them easy for product teams to digest and act upon — the key bullet points that are needed to make product decisions. But while we’re staring at our monitors, trimming down the number of slides, the people behind those findings can get lost.
We want to move fast and make decisions quickly, but we also want to help our colleagues internalize what we’re seeing and hearing, and give them the opportunity to see the product through the lens of a unique person using Facebook. In short, we don’t want to lose the real stories and real people behind the bullet points.
When sharing insights, we can tell the team about slow loading times or about users’ difficulty finding friends who have common names. But that doesn’t help them to truly understand the problem or how it affects the people who use Facebook. Instead, we want to show them the person who starts to load their phone, then heads to the kitchen to make dinner while it’s loading because, yes, it took that long. We want them to feel the frustration of someone trying to navigate a sea of names to find her friend. We want the product team to understand the behavior behind an insight so they can put themselves in users’ shoes when making product decisions.
At the same time, we don’t want to overwhelm people with a barrage of stories and details they don’t know what to do with. That means we have to find ways to keep the content engaging, relatable, and enjoyable. Nonlinear narratives, which let team members gravitate toward the content that sparks their interest, are one such way. The use of different media, including tactile handouts and video, also helps keep participants engaged. But more on that later.
Another challenge we face is making sure that our findings resonate with a wide audience. As anyone who’s worked on a cross-functional team knows, something that hits home with a designer might not make the same impact on an engineer. We want our methods of sharing insights to foster cross-pollination of research and ideas. We want to spark a dialogue around what we’ve learned.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve found some exciting ways to meet all of these challenges, and we keep learning new ones. As a result, we’re sharing not just actionable research insights but also a sense of the lives of the people who use Facebook. Here are four of the most successful sharing methods we’ve tried.
Nearly two years ago, we were looking at two weeks of diary study data. We had screenshots of communication from subjects’ research diaries spread out over an entire area of unoccupied desks. Having all the information in front of us would help us map out many insights and build our deck.
But then we thought, why not invite the whole team to see this display?
It turned out to be amazing. People came over and pored over each moment of our participants’ days. They had far deeper and more meaningful questions and conversations than presentations typically inspire. Best of all, the discussions and emails continued long after the event was over.
So we decided to do it again, this time after a research trip to India and Indonesia. We ordered Indonesian food and drinks, and the researchers even dressed up in Indian outfits to make the experience more immersive and, really, more fun. We had boards with insights, tables strewn with Indian and Indonesian magazines and newspapers, a monitor playing quotes from participants, and a “photo booth” corner with a selfie stick (a device that had taken Indonesia by storm). This was an even bigger hit: more conversation, more immersion.
“Being able to walk through the research in the mini-museums helped it come to life for us. It made it a lot easier to empathize and also imagine ways to address pain points.”
Deborah Liu, VP of Platform
Mini-museums have since become a common occurrence at Facebook, often serving as the conclusion of international studies. We’ve found many more methods to make insights more engaging, like an interactive quiz to show people the surprising results to survey questions or a giant whiteboard reserved for writing ideas and feedback.
When to use a mini-museum:
- When you have large diagrams to share, like detailed journey maps, mental models, or frameworks.
- When you have many research artifacts to share, like snippets from a diary study.
- When you want to trigger conversation, inspire ideas, and immerse people in a very different context from your own.
Another way we’ve gone beyond bullet points and clip art is by sharing actual video from the research. And we don’t just pull clips from research sessions. We host screenings — including necessities like food, drinks, and, of course, bags of popcorn.
Video enables us to share more than what we heard in research sessions. We include the context of people’s lives and where they live. Showing footage of a guy dodging traffic while crossing a chaotic urban road (certainly not by looking down at his phone) or the trio of cows lounging in a thoroughfare. We don’t want to isolate the team from these realities. Hearing what people say and seeing how they use a product firsthand helps build empathy.
Using clips from real people can also get across some of the more difficult insights we hear in the field. What team wants to hear that something they’re working on isn’t actually working out so well? Seeing someone call an experience of your product “rubbish” might initially be hard for a team to handle, but the point lands more forcefully and undeniably than if we merely reported it.
We think hearing from users directly ultimately leads to a better, more complete understanding of their experiences — especially the unhappy ones.
As a product manager who attended the screening mentioned, “It’s definitely humbling to see actual people talk about and (attempt to) use our product.”
Our video screenings usually yield a few laughs, and sometimes a few tears. But people always walk away with vivid images of what other experiences and people are like. Maybe next we can try for VR!
When to use video:
- When you want to create empathy for people who have different experiences than your own.
- When you want to share vivid imagery about a culture or environment.
- When there are some difficult insights that are better heard directly from participants than presented.
Deep-Dive People Stories
Learning more about other people is helpful, but to put ourselves in their shoes, we need to hear and understand their stories. Without that individual connection, it’s all too easy to iterate products based on our own wants and needs. To keep other people in mind, we tell their stories, going beyond how they use the product. Stories from real people have helped us create solutions for real people.
People stories aren’t meant to give direct product feedback. We think of them more as reminders of how diverse people on Facebook are, and what drives them to connect — essential factors for product decisions. Take the story of Tarini, an entrepreneur who was able to quit her full-time job because of the success she had selling on Facebook. Having heard her story, a product team won’t be as cavalier about product changes; they understand the influence each change could have on her livelihood. Her memorable story keeps them rooted in reality in a way that no bullet point could.
Keeping the stories simple is key. They should introduce the person, what’s important to them (like their family or friends), what inspires them, and of course include lots of candid photos. Our favorite formats for sharing these are analog (ironic for Facebook, we know). With all our digital communication, giving people something analog can help capture their attention. We print posters for the teams’ space or create handouts for people to keep at their desks.
Going analog imparts a level of permanence — having those stories living on peoples’ desks is a great way to remind them of the unique people we’ve met.
When to use people stories:
- When you want to remind people that their end users are often different from them.
- When a story can serve as a memorable example of a complex problem or general insight.
- When you want to bring data to life by showing the real people behind the numbers.
Real-Time Sharing: Live Blogging and Groups
One of our favorite methods to share research stories at Facebook is using Facebook to spread the word! When teams travel overseas or are interviewing people with a very different perspective, we often live-blog their interviews on Facebook, sometimes in a Humans of New York style. We’ll write up the participant’s story and pull out a few compelling quotes and post it in Facebook groups meant for research stories. Some researchers even post video snippets of key moments during the interview. Live-blogging also keeps the team back at the office engaged, bringing them along on the research journey.
This method blends research into the team’s Facebook feed and serendipitously acquaints people with insights whether they were seeking them or just browsing around their feed looking for something interesting to read. People can explore them on their own time. We can’t always get people to attend an event or meeting, but we can hope that they’ll stumble across it in their feed.
Usually when teams travel abroad for research, many members of the cross-functional team, like product managers, designers, data scientists, and engineers also travel with the researchers. Over the course of the research sessions, different team members are drawn to different participants, so we’ll ask the team who wants to write up a story about their favorite participant. Sometimes researchers add structure to the stories by including some common ingredients. Once, we had every story include the entrepreneurial participant’s “dream.” This small addition at the end of each story made the people much more real for readers back at headquarters.
When to use live blogging:
- When you want to engage the team in the research journey while you’re abroad.
- When you want to share insights quickly (it’s faster than putting together a presentation or hosting a mini-museum).
- When you want to the team participating to take ownership in the research by asking them to share participant stories that resonate with them.
Keeping the Conversation Flowing
Over the past two years we’ve shared insights in a range of novel ways, and we didn’t even mention the “Weekly Push” (a weekly bulletin posted in the restrooms here at Facebook). So what comes next? We’re brimming with ideas. Next up might be a podcast of our research findings people can listen to on their drive to work. We’ve also talked about creating an app that shares research in the form of an “insight of the day.” Those are just two possibilities. Whatever we try next, we want to keep the momentum going so that people stay excited and eager for more insights to come their way.
It’s all part of creating a culture around empathy and curiosity within Facebook — one in which genuine interest in the people who use Facebook helps us create products that serve those people better.
We still have a lot to learn. But if we’re doing our jobs well, the people who design and build Facebook won’t just feel more connected to the people who use it. They’ll be more connected.
Shivani Mohan, Research Manager at Facebook & Lissette Sotelo Parr, International Research Program Manager at Facebook