From Nonprofit to UX Research: Making the Hop

As Facebook UX researchers with nonprofit backgrounds, we’ve found some surprising similarities between the two worlds. In fact, our nonprofit experience laid the foundation for our current work.

Anne Elise
Nov 12, 2020 · 6 min read
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For researchers working in and for nonprofit organizations, the idea of shifting to user experience (UX) research at Facebook might sound like moving to another planet. But common goals, methods, and challenges make the two worlds more similar than you might think. Here’s what they share, how they differ, and how nonprofit experience can prepare you for UX research at Facebook — all from the perspective of Facebook researchers with nonprofit backgrounds.

Like nonprofit researchers, we UX researchers at Facebook are champions for, and advocates of, the people who make up our population of interest — in our case, the people who use our products. Our work helps to ensure that their needs and well-being are at the heart of product decisions. This fundamental responsibility underlies everything we do.

As researchers who brought nonprofit backgrounds to Facebook, we’ve found that we use the same methods at Facebook that we used in our research at nonprofits. For example, quantitative researchers often conduct surveys of people, while qualitative researchers may conduct interviews or diary studies. The methodological skills we developed in our doctoral studies are just as relevant at Facebook as they were at nonprofit organizations.

We’ve been pleased that Facebook, like the nonprofits we’ve worked for, is home to a community of researchers that consists overwhelmingly of smart, kind, and helpful people. That’s hardly a coincidence; many of our research colleagues come from nonprofit organizations, government, and academia, and are just as concerned about social issues as our former colleagues.

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How Nonprofit Experience Can Prepare You for UX Research

Thanks in part to the similarities we’ve described, the transition from nonprofit research to Facebook has generally been smoother than we expected. In retrospect, here are some of the ways our work for nonprofits prepared us for our current responsibilities.

Resource constraints at nonprofits push researchers to be more flexible, adaptable, and creative in their research designs — and to understand the trade-offs different research methods entail. This turns out to be an important skill for working at Facebook, where time is often the biggest constraint. We don’t have time to ask every question in the exact way we might want. Instead, we have to think carefully about what information will help our team make product decisions and come up with a research design that fits the questions and the timeline.

The empathy-driven missions of most nonprofits serve as great preparation for work in UX research, where understanding people is our main job. This work can range from the tactical (do people understand the information button atop an ad?) to more foundational (how do people perceive fairness in an ad?). However, whether we’re tackling big or small questions, as UXR, we make sure the voice of the user is included in product decisions. We need to be able to think empathetically about our users and be creative in communicating research insights to our cross-functional partners so that they can effectively design for the user experience.

What’s Different

Despite all the similarities, UX research at Facebook does of course differ in some key ways from nonprofit work. Here are some of the most striking differences we’ve experienced.

Research at nonprofit organizations can sometimes be limited in scope or implementation by the availability of resources such as funding, tools, or participants. By contrast, Facebook’s extensive research resources enable us to reach out and get feedback from people all over the world. For instance, we have an internal survey infrastructure, on-campus research labs, access to vendors that help with data collection, and an amazing participant recruitment team that helps us find people who meet our study’s participant criteria. This all means more time for research and less friction on administrative or operational tasks to get the research going.

Facebook’s fast pace of work applies just as much to research as it does to the rest of the company. In our experience, nonprofit research cycles sometimes took years to complete. Many studies at Facebook, by contrast, take between three weeks and a couple of months, depending on whether the research is serving a tactical purpose — making a user interface easier to understand, for example — or a more foundational one, such as identifying how and why people use our product for a specific purpose.

At Facebook, we constantly focus on impact: How can our research guide informed decisions about a product? Research guides decisions about what millions of people see and experience on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, and Oculus — and we see those product changes happen before our eyes. We can actually see how our research leads to actionable outcomes and changes to a product. With nonprofit research, impact is often much slower to develop and harder to discern.

In our nonprofit organizations, we collaborated mostly with people who had some understanding of the language of research — sometimes even within a team of other researchers. At Facebook, researchers are typically embedded in a team with product designers, engineers, content strategists, data scientists, and product managers. These individuals don’t always have a clear understanding of research principles or how to interpret research findings. Part of our role is to help clearly communicate the motivation for research and our eventual findings in a digestible way so that our teammates understand why it was needed and how to act upon it.

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Getting started as a UX Researcher

A lack of tech experience isn’t a barrier to becoming a great UX researcher. Many of Facebook’s UX researchers come from traditional social science backgrounds such as sociology, economics, political science, and psychology.

If Facebook research sounds appealing to you, you may be wondering how you can get started. We’re regularly looking for talented researchers. Let our recruiters know you’re open to a career change!

  • Check out our Careers page for open researcher roles.
  • Make sure you have an up-to-date LinkedIn profile that clearly identifies your methodological research skills. And make sure your “am looking” toggle is on.
  • Talk with any former colleagues who currently work at Facebook or who can connect you with researchers at Facebook. Feel free to set up informational interviews with researchers you know or have a connection with.

Check out the other articles in this series: Making the Move From Government to UX Research and From Tenure to Tech: Professors Who Pivoted to UX Research.

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Author: Anne Kroeger, UX Researcher at Facebook

Before joining Facebook, Anne worked as a Qualitative Research Specialist at Women’s World Banking in New York, which focuses on increasing financial inclusion for women in emerging markets.

With contributors:

  • Denise Deutschlander, UX Researcher at Facebook. Before joining Facebook, Denise worked at Education Northwest, focusing on evaluations of policies and programs designed to reduce inequities in the U.S. education system.
  • China Layne, UX Researcher at Facebook. China’s first research role was for the Center for Human Services Research, conducting evaluations of social welfare programs in the state of New York.
  • Tawny Tsang, UX Researcher at Facebook. Before joining Facebook, Tawny was a researcher at the Marcus Autism Center as part of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, focusing on the social development of infants and toddlers.
  • Christine Vaughan, UX Researcher at Facebook. Before joining Facebook, Christine was a Behavioral Scientist for over 10 years at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit public policy research organization.

Illustrator: Sarah Lawrence

Facebook Research

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