Creating a Visible Research Culture in Distributed Offices

Supporting researchers where they are

“Your company should be your best product.” — Jason Fried

At Facebook, it has never been more important to make sure that our researchers are doing their best work. Without understanding our customers’ needs, motivations, and workflows, we can’t build products that truly support our new company mission, “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” 
 
Sustaining that level of performance requires a strong research culture. This means we need to invest just as much time thinking, building, and iterating on the team culture as we do building and iterating on our products. A team of researchers who work closely together and share an understanding of their common purpose can help each other do their best work — and share their insights in a coherent, persuasive voice. 
 
But in a distributed office, far from most of our research colleagues, such a strong culture doesn’t come as easily. There may be far fewer researchers in a distributed office than in headquarters. But that gives the opportunity to get scrappy and bootstrap our local team culture.
 
As researchers in Facebook’s Seattle office, the first engineering office opened outside company headquarters in Menlo Park, we’ve experienced unique challenges firsthand.

How we got here

The first researcher in Seattle was an extension of the Ads vertical’s research team. There was no local research culture per se. As more researchers arrived, a local culture began to develop. But since many of these researchers now work on products outside of Ads, we don’t have a shared product identity to build on. That’s one reason we’ve been exploring building a culture that’s instead defined by location.
 
We Seattle researchers receive a lot of support from our researcher colleagues in Menlo Park and other offices, but we also face some unique challenges. For example, we have a smaller pool of researchers on site whom we can ask for advice on career paths or sensitive interpersonal issues. Many of us also feel the need to socialize our research and cultivate our personal reputations within the global research team. But since we can’t count on informal hallway chats, we’ve found that we need deliberate mechanisms to do so.
 
To address these challenges, we’ve been cultivating our own distinctive, visible research culture in Seattle. Here are some of the most effective practices we’ve tried.

Find meaningful connections with other researchers

It would be very easy for researchers in the Seattle office to focus solely on their individual tools and product teams. But we discovered early on that we could serve as connective tissue between our product teams. Exploring the connections between different products has brought our researchers closer together, deepened the collective empathy between the different product teams, and made our work stronger.

For example, spontaneous conversations between an Ads researcher and a Business Platform researcher helped the pair make connections between their formerly separate research about publishers (businesses that publish content and ads on their sites, like Buzzfeed or the New York Times) and developers (businesses that develop their own mobile apps). They had the “aha” that both types of businesses had similar motivations. This collaboration eventually spread outside of Seattle and into Menlo Park to become a well-received brown bag presentation on the similar behaviors and motivations of publishers and developers.

Make the research relatable through storytelling

The researchers in Seattle who supported Atlas, an ad measurement tool, found that they had to tell clear, resonant stories about the product and its users because the product was separate from the Ads products developed in Menlo Park. (Atlas focused on measuring third-party ads, while most of the Ads org were considering ads on the Facebook platform.) Helping the whole org appreciate and understand what we were learning about Atlas users and usability required some compelling storytelling. 
 
Later, we realized that storytelling was a crucial part of the Seattle research culture. Research learnings and stories had to stand by themselves since we are not physically in Menlo Park to present. By telling engaging stories using creative methods like pamphlets, videos, podcasts, or tech talks, we helped our messages propagate throughout the company.

Create a culture of growth and support

Many of the researchers in Seattle have managers in Menlo Park, which means we need to work through problems and day-to-day challenges pretty independently. This is a very important skill to have at Facebook, but can result in becoming a “lone wolf.” Wolves are wired to be in a pack. We can always learn from others. 
 
In Seattle, we proactively seek out other researchers to learn from. We are still relatively few in number, so it’s possible to become absorbed in one’s cross-functional product team and not see another researcher for days. Keeping on top of the great research produced by colleagues helps us learn new user insights or pick up a new methods trick. We also seek out people to share ideas with.

We also find career support in our local office. Last year, we ran a peer coaching circle where Seattle researchers could connect to one another about career development, a topic we generally have less opportunity to talk about in regular research team meetings or even manager one-on-ones. It lets us share sensitive topics face to face, an important part of our communication repertoire. The experience helped leverage the knowledge and skills we each had and let us get to know each other in a deeper way, beyond our product team functions.

Where do we go from here?

To keep our culture vibrant as our office scales, we continue to deliberately strengthen it, in parallel with similar efforts for design culture in Seattle. We’ve opened an explicit conversation about research culture with focus group discussions about what we want our Seattle research team to be. We’ve instituted monthly researcher social lunches and have an active group chat. We’re experimenting with other programs for Seattle researchers to discover more ways to connect and collaborate. We’re also sharing information across offices as our New York and London research teams explore many of the same challenges.
 
We continue to find connections with each other’s research. We emphasize the stories our research reveals and are proud of the creative ways we’ve shared our findings. And we have really grown into a caring and tight-knit group of people who support each other. 
 
Please share your culture-growing experiences with us. Have you been part of a growing team culture yourself? If so, what did you learn? What did your process look like? Please share in the comments!


Thank you to Behzod Sirjani, Jonathon Colman, and David Hayward for helpful comments on previous drafts of this post.

Authors: Carolyn Wei, Researcher at Facebook; Jill Christ, UX Research Manager at Facebook (from left to right)

Illustrator: Sarah Lawrence