Researcher Grill: Raz Schwartz

A Facebook Researcher talks social cues, designing virtual reality environments, and how the intersection of social interactions and VR sparks joy.

Researchers are used to asking questions. But what happens when the tables are turned? Here at the Researcher Grill, we gently grill a Facebook researcher — get it? — about their work and their life. Our aim is to introduce you to these fascinating people, give you a peek behind the scenes of different research disciplines at Facebook, and provide some tips you can apply to your own work. Bon appétit!

Name: Raz Schwartz
Role: Research Manager, Facebook AR/VR
Researcher since: 2005
Number of countries travelled for research: 11
Countries lived in: 3
Top played music album: Frank Ocean — Blonde
Most used emoji: 💅

You, in a nutshell:
Sociologist, urbanist, explorer. Hummus is my kryptonite.

Most unique research approach?
Conducting ethnography inside social VR environments (paper).

Research that inspired you?
William H. Whyte’s Street Life Project examined the use of public spaces through the analysis of hours of camera footage. This work informed public policy and urban design and shaped the way I think about research and the impact of my work.

Favorite book + why:
My new favorite book is Less. As Andy Greer, the author, puts it, “it is about the foolishness of American myopia, the uneasiness of being gay in the world, the difficulties of love, but most of all it is about joy.”

Favorite quote:
“You have to build the future you want to live in.” — Prof. Genevieve Bell

How did you get into studying social VR?
Almost four years ago, my friend and colleague Mike LeBeau invited me over to building 18 in our Menlo Park headquarters to try “this new VR experience.” I had never tried VR before. The Oculus people walked me into one room and Mike into another room. I donned the Rift headset, held the Touch hand controllers and suddenly I was in a VR environment looking at a floating blue head and two hands. I immediately recognized Mike. For the next 30 minutes we explored that experience, “Toy Box,” and as we were playing ping pong or throwing puppets at each other while laughing frantically, I realized the immense power of social interactions in VR.

What’s unique about conducting UX research in social VR?
Unlike traditional ethnography, in social VR environments it’s much harder to catch participants’ subtle social cues. Either because of the lack of technology or the overwhelming nature of the experience, verbal or physical gestures can easily get lost in the mix. We therefore found it imperative to not only study people’s actions inside VR, but also observe their physical movements during the research sessions.

Research that made you cry?
During a research trip in Brazil, we conducted a home visit in a favela on the outskirts of São Paulo. Our participant was a young man who’d had many struggles growing up. At the beginning of the interview he told us that VR saved his life. He eventually shared that a year earlier, he’d contemplated suicide but then after he tried VR at a friend’s place he felt that it gave him a level of joy that was missing for him for so long.

A funny research story:
I am the one to blame/credit for having daybeds in the design area of our office. While studying the use of mobile VR, I noticed that a lot of people use the headset while lying in bed. Originally, our designers didn’t take this physical orientation into account. Working with the design teams, we brought a few daybeds into the design space so designers could test their work not only on office swivel chairs, but also in beds.

What’s a fun empathy-building exercise you like to use?
Before the launch of Oculus Go, our first all-in-one VR headset, we wanted our product teams to hear directly from our intended audience. I recruited existing GearVR users who used their device primarily for media consumption and put together a “speed dating” style research chat event. Every stakeholder rotated between six rooms every ten minutes meeting six different VR users and asking them everything they wanted. After an hour of “speed dating,” we had 30 minutes for mingling and follow-up questions.


We’re always on the lookout for talented researchers like Raz to join our team. See our open roles here!