My stance has always been that research needs to have an impact, or what academia terms, “action research.” Research should change something about the world around us for the better.
During graduate school, I published on how we think about and do technology design. I researched how people embed values in technology and organizations to support connection.
Relatively early in my postdoc position in organizational crisis communication, I received a blessing in disguise. I started in July and by early October, I was passed over for the tenure-track opportunity in my specialty at the department.
I had moved my life to this department and made a home, and realized the clock began ticking faster on my residency there.
Ouch, talk about a gut punch. What’d you do?
That was a moment where I sat back and asked myself:
“What am I doing? Am I wasting my time and energy in academia?”
Around that time, I was fortunate enough to receive a tenure-track offer at a different university. After deep thought on the trajectory that my life would take by accepting the position, I declined the role. I just wasn’t finding opportunities for impact at the scale that I wanted.
The final push to explore a new career occurred during a conference in Prague. I remember walking around one of the university department happy hours with a drink (that I could barely afford as a struggling postdoc!), taking small sips, putting in ice to make it last longer, and networking with old friends and new faces.
I was still searching for an opportunity with impact.
I think we know the answer but did you find that opportunity in academia?
Opportunities emerged, but not the ones that would fulfill my personal and professional goals. One esteemed professor offered, “Well, you could do another postdoc!”
Although the suggestion was kind and helpful, in that moment, I knew I was done with academia for the immediate future. Another postdoc would have meant another year or more of delays to impact.
Moving on from academia is a big decision. What was going through your head?
It was time to break out from the tenure-track mold, take my future into my hands, and carve out a new path for myself. This entailed bootstrapping the transition from academia to industry. For me, this was a journey filled with fear and courage because of the ambiguity and uncertainty ahead.
With my skill set researching organizational change and technology, I packed up my books and moved to the center of Big Tech in the San Francisco Bay Area...without a job lined up!
When I arrived, I worked three part-time jobs to both make ends meet (rent is expensive in the Bay!) and to continually grow my own skillset.
And those jobs were?
I worked at a women’s retail store in downtown San Francisco, served as a consultant for a cryptocurrency startup, and was an SAT test prep tutor in Berkeley. And each of those roles helped me become a better leader and researcher.
In the retail environment, I got an unfiltered look at expectation management through how people treat others in a service role. Within the startup, I advised the founders about policy issues with the SEC and other regulatory environment considerations. And, as an SAT tutor, I reassured anxious students on attaining their best scores to get into their dream colleges.
All three taught me more about myself and empathy as a central means to connect and empower others.
As you worked those three jobs, were you applying to other UX roles?
Absolutely. I was applying all over the Bay Area and ended in final talks with an advisory firm to join as a consultant and PayPal to join as a senior UX researcher on the Mid-Market Merchant team.
Both were great opportunities but the position of consulting is a third-party, outside influence and I knew that I’d spent enough time on the outside as an academic. I wanted to be embedded within a team so I could directly affect change from within.
Knowing how I wanted to drive impact by combining my interests and expertise in technology and organizational change, PayPal was the clear next step for me.
What did you work on while you were at PayPal?
At PayPal, I first worked with mid-market merchants (or companies that fall between small businesses and large enterprises) before moving to lead research on large enterprise merchants (like Google, Netflix, Disney, Facebook, etc.).
As a Fortune 200, PayPal holds a global portfolio of customers, so I got to work with talented colleagues and peers in India, Ireland, the U.S., Singapore, Brazil, and more, which was incredible.
One highlight was a 9-month study to rework the way that PayPal onboards new large enterprise merchants, who have sophisticated account requirements and permissions for moving money into and around their companies.
Another was being asked to manage the Global Disputes and Resolutions research roadmap, which focuses on financial disputes between businesses and their customers.
The work was interesting, although I wanted to try my hand at building a research enterprise from scratch, so when the opportunity to do just that came up at Reddit, I jumped at it.
Fast-paced, to say the least! I started as the Head of User Research at Reddit in January 2020...and as I was just getting my bearings, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Oh no! How did the pandemic impact your work and the company?
For the company, as the crisis escalated, Reddit grew to be a central hub for COVID-19 information. For us, the very small User Research team, we managed by indexing on our resourcefulness.
User Research is relatively new in its current vision at Reddit. We had to dig deep to find center ground and get real feedback from our users to the Design and Product orgs at an intense velocity.
Add in a global pandemic alongside laying scalable user research foundations to build from as a team, “intense” doesn’t do it justice. But we embraced the change of pace and leaned into the challenge.
Being a platform that was a primary hub to millions of people is an interesting experience because you can see the stages of the pandemic ripple through the site by analyzing shifts in user behaviors.
"We saw the stages of the pandemic ripple through the site by analyzing shifts in user behaviors.”
Oh, that’s interesting! Any highlights on user behavior changes?
At first, activity spiked around information gathering. People were browsing on Reddit to figure out what COVID-19 is, what they should be doing to protect themselves, and so on.
Then it shifted from immediate safety to “Ok, what is the fallout of this pandemic?” That caused communities like r/WallStreetBets and others centered around connection and distraction to surge.
Since then, we've seen other spikes in communities like r/homeschooling, r/culinaryadvice, r/television, r/malegrooming along with many creative pursuits, reflecting people realizing life in a new normal.
Can you share more about how you dealt with scaling the team during a pandemic?
For a handful of reasons, the team ended up just being a group of two people, and like so many other teams during this global crisis, we banded together.
With support from the Head of Design, my colleague and I sought to establish a new northstar for research at Reddit. We had to show our team's worth, which meant that we had to recalibrate everything really quickly.
We’re talking about infrastructure, building systems of tracking, our mission and vision statement, all of it. That’s not including the priorities, which shifted to meet the needs of users and the business with great rapidity.
I remember sharing the team plan, and initially, some colleagues couldn’t believe how sizable it would become, which was the point. I told them that while they only see us two, for now, we're moving fast to realize our vision for growth.
“In 2020, we came together and produced 22 reports, during a global pandemic, as a brand new team."
We were able to efficiently showcase our value to the company, something I’m incredibly proud of because it was collaborative.
Now people are asking for research, and embracing the value of research in their own understanding of users’ motivations, attitudes, and behaviors. Our team is growing 400% (we’re hiring!). We’ve got exciting times ahead!
Wow, congrats! Any last advice for others building and scaling during a pandemic or other crises?
Tying back to my postdoc experience in organizational crisis communication, you have to have a strong vision about where you want your team to have impact and processes to deliver on that value. If you can rally around your team’s goals, you can brace for volatility along that journey together.
I felt a key part of the success for our team was in leading by example and, for myself, delivering high-quality research as an independent contributor alongside demonstrating leadership.
Finally, you have to know when to back off, let others shine, and lift them up. At the end of the day, it's a team effort and we’re all colleagues.
There are two different areas that I think about with research ops when you make the argument for it: data governance and participant experience management. There are a bunch of other areas that Kate Towsey outlines for building a research ops practice, but in terms of the kernel start, those are my two go-to’s.
At Reddit, we make sure that consent forms and data policies are established consistently and with clarity in relationship with our internal and external partners.
That’s not just within different countries, but also in that negotiation with users as they provide information in a trusting environment about their authentic experiences and selves. Your research ops team can ensure that you're adhering to all of your rules and regulations in partnership with other divisions within the company.
On participant experience management, the data that users give us is one aspect. Making sure that we have the right kinds of users and that those users feel supported throughout the process, is equally important.
It’s basically like quality assurance for the participants' experience as well as quality assurance for us that we're receiving the right kind of data.
“A lot of companies think that data collection and interviews are just easy: ‘Just solicit, just send out the emails with links to a survey, right?’ Wrong.”
Getting personally identifiable information, contacting people, and receiving information from them all requires transparency and clarity to conform to data privacy regulations. You have to be clear on what you’re talking about.
Having a research ops professional on board helps you tell the story of all of the infrastructural minutiae that executives generally don’t have the time to process.
How can people better fight for research ops?
To advocate for it, here’s an analogy that’s worked for me: If you hire the best researchers in town, that's like having a Bugatti, a Ferrari, the best cars you can get.
“But then, if you don't have a research ops professional to build the roads for those fancy cars to run on, suddenly you're getting noise complaints because they're stuck idling behind a dump truck in your neighborhood.”
Your expectations are that there's the infrastructure to support these cars, to do what they need to do.
But without that support system there, those cars get stuck in places where they can’t function well. They get loud, they crash, they’re not in the best environment for them to be successful.
Having the best researchers in the world means very little if you don’t have the right framework in place to support them with their work.
So building the research ops team will go a long way in making sure that the best “cars” can do what they do best: drive well at peak performance for a longer time.
At the end of the day, managing across an entire company is about relationships. Those relationships are about more than just work.
If you're talking to your team, your cross-functional partners, third parties, the CEO, anyone, it's good to work through your checklist of what needs to happen in that meeting. But it's just as important to ask questions outside of the job.
“If you just see a person as just their role, that diminishes their complexity and reduces their humanity to a one-dimensional shadow of who they are.
There’s always more to the people around you, so spend the time to get to know them. Connect with them. Build an actual relationship centered around trust and empathy, not just for the potential impact on your work but because it's good to do!
On the other hand, there are also some people who simply cannot invest the time at that moment to build a partnership (this Harvard Business Review article shares more on how you build your systems of success during the day).
“Recognizing how to redirect your energy as a key resource is a turning point when you're maturing as a leader.”