Researcher Grill: Shivani Mohan

A Facebook researcher talks mini museums, floods in Jakarta, and rolling the dice to build empathy

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: Shivani Mohan
Role: Research Director, Facebook Marketplace
Size of Facebook research team when you joined: 20
Size of Facebook research team now: 350+
Countries travelled to for research: 8
Researcher since: 2006
Mom since: 2017 
 
You, in a nutshell:
Researcher. Former product designer. New mom. Eternal cat lover.

What’s your most unique research approach?
Asking research participants to write a letter to their future selves.

Tell us about research that inspired you?
In 2014, I went to Brazil and Indonesia to study a new phenomenon — people were buying and selling things through Facebook! As I dug in deeper, I uncovered stories of many entrepreneurs, often women, who had managed to create a full business through selling on Facebook. In interview after interview, I had goosebumps listening to the stories of these bold and determined women becoming financially independent. 
 
Tell us about a time that research made you cry?
I once conducted research to understand which aspects of a Facebook profile people find valuable. Part of the research involved asking them about their most cherished memories on Facebook. As you can imagine, I heard so many stories that were just so beautiful. It was really hard keeping the happy tears away.

Has a research trip ever taken an unexpected turn of events?
We were doing home visits in Indonesia, and it had rained the whole night before. When we reached our participants’ neighborhood, we saw that the entire neighborhood was flooded with ankle-deep water. We called our participant, and they were still really excited and waiting for us in their home. Next scene was all of us wearing plastic bags on our feet and trudging on.

What’s your favorite exercise to help create empathy?
A board game! When we were kicking off product work on buying and selling on Facebook, we needed to help our team understand what it feels like to buy different types of things on Facebook. In the game, each team member would throw the dice and land on a square prompting them to buy furniture or movie tickets or mobile phones on Facebook. Depending on which prompt they landed on, they would also get a “user card” detailing the problems people face while performing that task. Then they’d get points for the number of solutions they suggested.

What’s the most innovative method you’ve used to share research?
Mini museums. I love this method. A mini museum takes research insights out of the standard digital presentation and brings them to life by making them physically tangible. Mini museums usually have large posters of journey maps, user stories, and user artifacts. By physically immersing attendees in a context very different than their own, it can build understanding and spark fresh ideas.

How much effort do you put into polishing research findings for communication?
I believe that the effort researchers should put into making their research findings compelling is directly proportional to the desired “shelf life” of that research. Usually, the findings from usability studies don’t need to last long — they’re quickly consumed, and the product is changed. But for studies like user segmentations and other foundational studies, it’s often the case that people will be referring to the findings for months or even years. In that case, it makes sense to invest more time in the polish.
 
What’s your favorite book?
So hard to pick one! The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks combines the complexity of medical research ethics with the incredible real story of the human being at the center of it all.
 
What’s your favorite quote?
“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” — Muriel Rukeyser


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