User Experience Research for Social Progress at Scale

Kristin Hendrix
Dec 13, 2018 · 4 min read

By: Kristin Hendrix, Design Manager & Paul Derby, UX Research Manager

Illustration of objects including charts, scientific apparatus, a lightbulb, and mobile phone.

At CZI, we are leveraging technology, community-driven solutions, and collaboration to accelerate progress at scale in Science, Education, and Justice and Opportunity. One of the ways we leverage technology is through building products for educators and scientists. For example, a project we collaborate on, the Summit Learning Platform, promotes personalized learning in schools. Another example is Meta, a platform that helps scientists stay up-to-date on the latest advancements in science.

This requires close collaboration between product teams and domain experts as described in a previous post on Mission-Driven Design. Our product teams are part of our in-house technology team. They’re fairly traditional in how they’re structured and include product managers, data scientists, engineers, designers, and user experience (UX) researchers. Domain experts at CZI include learning scientists and teachers, biomedical and life scientists, and individuals with expertise in immigration policy as well as prosecutors and formerly incarcerated individuals. Both the product development and domain experts collaborate throughout the product development lifecycle.

However, our internal teams know that we don’t have all the answers.

Illustration of objects including a magnifying glass, a web UI wireframe, and upward-pointing arrows.

To build the most useful and effective products, we must deeply understand and involve the communities we’re building for, the experts with lived experience. We can’t build effective tools in a silo. It requires that we understand the root causes of issues to make sure we maintain a long-term vision and aren’t just addressing superficial issues with short-term bandages. And by understanding the root causes, we can build products that are adaptable and that will evolve as systems grow in complexity or as constraints shift.

The communities we aim to serve — as well as their unique needs — are complex. To make sure we’re building tools to best meet those needs, we have to stay close to those communities we’re trying to serve and to the issues we’re working on. It requires that we understand nuanced and multi-faceted problem spaces. These problem spaces often have constraints that are institutional, attitudinal, and/or behavioral. We need to remain mindful of these constraints as we’re building products.

UX research is one of the ways we understand the communities we’re building for and the root causes of the issues they face. Our UX research team at CZI does this through “full-stack” research.

  • We do research that’s exploratory, generative, and strategic. For example, immersing ourselves in classrooms allows us to better understand the challenges that students and teachers face and the context surrounding those challenges.
  • We also do research that’s evaluative and usability-oriented. For example, by sitting down with scientists to observe how they use software, we can understand whether the tools’ interfaces might need to be updated.

One goal of our research is to help our teams make data-informed decisions about which problems to try to help address through technology. We synthesize all of the data from interviews and surveys to help us make design decisions that are strongly rooted in what we’ve learned in research. As researchers, we advocate for teachers and scientists when we’re designing and building; the goal is to make sure that their needs and viewpoints are reflected in product strategy decisions. We work to help our product team members see challenges through the eyes of teachers and scientists so they can maintain a human- and equity-centered approach when designing and building solutions.

Illustration of a person looking at a mountain in the distance.

It can be challenging to measure progress when we’re building for long-term change. Sometimes it takes years to realize the full impact of work. How do we know if we’re helping to improve student outcomes that can take years to see? How do we know whether the tools we’re building actually are helping science to move faster when scientific advancement can take years, if not decades, to realize?

The qualitative data we get through UX research serves as more immediate feedback for the impact we’re making with our work while we wait on the longer-term measures.

There really is no comprehensive playbook for what we’re doing at CZI. It’s both exciting and challenging to not have a formula to follow. UX research is such a critical function in our organization, and our journey is just beginning. We are still tackling many open questions:

  • How can we as researchers remain mindful and pragmatic about policy, institutional, and resource-related constraints that impact how people respond to our questions?
  • How might we design and build for specific use cases while still considering the breadth of other use cases that exist as we scale solutions?
  • How might UX researchers understand ecosystem-level or systemic issues that individuals may not necessarily verbalize because they are such an ingrained, typical part of their experiences?
  • How might UX researchers involve teachers and scientists, for example, even more closely in the process of designing and building?

Helping to build a future for everyone is obviously a big job. We certainly can’t do it alone, and we need your help. Take a look at our open roles and consider joining us.

Illustration of a rocket ship taking off, arrows pointing upward, lightbulb, scientific apparatus, and measurement tools.

All illustrations by Boyko Pictures.

CZI Technology

Kristin Hendrix

Written by

Design & UX Leader at @cziscience / Previously at @Facebook and @IndianaUniv / Always learning

CZI Technology

The Technology team at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

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