In this episode of the Anthro to UX podcast, Larry McGrath speaks with Matt Artz about his UX journey. Larry earned a Ph.D. in History & Anthropology of Science from Johns Hopkins University and currently works as a Researcher at Facebook.

About Larry McGrath

Larry leads user research for technology organizations. He has taught anthropology, history, and philosophy and currently works at Facebook. At Facebook, he leads a research team. You can find his articles at Aeon and Medium. He’s also the author of Making Spirit Matter: Neurology, Psychology, and Selfhood in Modern France.

About Making Spirit Matter

In Making Spirit Matter, Larry traces the brain sciences’ history, focusing on the vexed relations between mind and body in French society over the past 200 years. ​ Why France? The country’s not only home to basic discoveries about the nervous system. France is also where the relations of spirit (esprit) and matter (matière) have remained a persistent philosophical problem; even recent advances in neuroscience haven’t been able to explain it satisfactorily.

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Episode Transcript

Please note this transcript is an automated transcription and may have some errors.

Matt Artz:

All right. Hi everyone. Today. I’m back with Larry McGrath. He’s a researcher at Facebook and has a PhD from Johns Hopkins University in history and anthropology of science, which is something new for the show. So Larry, thanks for joining me today. Look forward to talking with you.

Larry McGrath:

It’s a pleasure to be here, Matt.

Matt Artz:

You know, I, I gave a very brief introduction there, but I really like to hear everybody’s story from the South. So would you maybe tell us all how, you know, what led you to anthropology a little bit about the academic background and then after that, you know, we’ll, we’ll get into some of the more employment stuff. Sure.

Larry McGrath:

Well, before I start on my origin story about how I came to anthropology, I should say that I’m here doing this podcast with you because I think that there is a real business need and value to be offered by the critical research skillset that anthropologists in particular, as well as humanists and social scientists generally can bring to the business world. I think I bring it to many worlds, but I work now in the business world. And that’s what I’m prepared to talk with you today. About as for my beginnings, I decided to pursue a doctorate in the history of science from Johns Hopkins University back in 2008, because it was a time when there was massive interest and investment from both the Obama administration and the European union in mapping the brain to do to the brain. What had been done to the human genome back in the 1990s.

Larry McGrath:

And so I set about writing a dissertation on the history of the brain sciences in Europe, particularly in France, because it was my conviction that for these projects to succeed, cultural contexts needed to be taken into account that although we have the same organ between our ears called the brain, the way in which hits, analyzed, understood mapped is dependent on contingent contexts in different places in time. And so I went about writing a dissertation on the history of the brain sciences in France. People oftentimes ask me why France. And there are multiple reasons. One of them converges with the work we do as anthropologists. There’s a fundamental assumption that science technology life more generally is not the same everywhere. That cultural variance is part of what we’re interested in understanding. And so there is no universal history of the brain sciences to be written.

Larry McGrath:

The second reason is that my skill set is in French. I lived there for a long time. And so that’s the linguistic training that I have. And then the third is that there’s so many parts of our brain that are named after old dead French people, as well as neurological disorders think of Tourette’s syndrome that was named after shield Toret. And so the French really pioneering and advancing the brain sciences and helping us understand the mind brain problem. I spent some time in academia teaching the history and anthropology of science and eventually published a book based on my research. You can find it at university of Chicago, press it’s titled making spirit matter, neurology, psychology, and selfhood in modern France, but after time, I was no longer satisfied with the state of American academia for a few personal and professional reasons.

Larry McGrath:

I was teaching at Wesleyan university at the time and had very clever students in my seminars, but I found myself wanting a few things. One was control over where I live. Second was some more money academics don’t make a whole lot of that. And third was to be able to do research that had a more material impact beyond just contributing more articles to journals or chapters to anthologies that would be read by an elite meaningful, but ultimately narrow audience. So I left, I did a consulting in the medical world working primarily with companies in biotech doing research on neurodegenerative disorders. And so it was really meaningful to be able to spend time in hospitals and clinics, doing anthropology for the sake of pharmaceutical and medical devices. And I ultimately transitioned to Facebook where I now do cultural research and work with a research team investigating forms of value in ads and business across different cultures. Again, the assumption there being that although plenty of us in the world are plugged into social media and use technology the way in which we use it is not at all the same. And so understanding the role that cultural context plays can really bring about value for companies for Facebook, for whom I work.

Matt Artz:

Hey, thanks for that introduction. And you know, I’ll just to sort of build on that. I know you on LinkedIn, which maybe people should check you out and what we could talk about exactly where they can find you later, but you’d share a lot of interesting content that, you know, I think would be relevant for everybody listening. And so what you said in there, I mean, there’s a lot to dig into and, you know, I want to be maybe mindful of time, but your, your background again is a little bit different and, you know, I’m wondering, do you think that particular degree path provides you, you know, and specific you know, specific sort of value add maybe over some other degree paths? I think there are a lot

Larry McGrath:

Of degrees that offer entrees into the business world. Anthropology is a great one since there is a premium right now on the observational knowledge of people in their local life worlds that can contribute to product design. When I studied the history of science, there was an anthropological component spending time in hospitals and neurology clinics in order to understand how those sciences are actually practiced today, there was also an archival component and that’s a skillset that a historian brings digging through materials that are not only published in journal or book form, but also unpublished in the form of letters, margin notes, library records even material objects. And so I think that a historian who can work among such different media and collect such a wide array of data can contribute a lot to the analysis we do in the business world. Just the same.

Larry McGrath:

I think that people from the literature world, maybe even philosophy or religious studies who are trained in massing textual knowledge, interpreting it very closely and then advancing arguments on the basis of that analysis can offer a lot to the business world. Because I think that the historical moment we live in right now, especially when it comes to tech companies, is that there is a surplus of numerical data big data that fills up the cells of spreadsheets. But that data can’t explain itself that we have a SurfAid of data and therefore a renewed need for humanists and social scientists to bring that numerical data to bear on people’s lives, to test it against real life experiences in short, as we oftentimes put it to bring thick data, to compliment the big data. And that’s where I think multiple disciplines, including, but not just anthropology can contribute to the business world.

Matt Artz:

Great. And so you also said, you know, you were teaching for a bit, you chose to move on from that environment for the reasons you mentioned, but did you initially, did you always plan to teach? Was that the goal, or did you always think that you might end up in business

Larry McGrath:

Business was a complete career, one 80 move for me since I was a high school student, I had constructed a picture of me as a professor. I think when I was a young politicized activist, I wanted to be the next Noam Chomsky who would use my position to, you know, speak to America’s interventions over the world. And it was a rather romantic picture that I had, but ultimately it was one created in my youth. And when I fulfilled it in my thirties, I realized that it was no longer a picture that I desired as much as I once had. And so I took a big risk. It’s a big risk moving on from a PhD because we’re so habituated to certain institutions that validate our worth our worth in the form of nuanced arguments, presenting them in front of seminars, conferences, workshops, and the business world was quite unknown.

Larry McGrath:

But I think the knowledge and skillset that a PhD has is incredibly useful in the business world. The difficulty is that it’s a bit opaque as to how to make that skillset translate into a language understood by hiring managers by teammates in the business world, I offer a career transition consulting services on my website, Larry S McGrath. I know you do similarly. And I think that there are great resources out there on both free and paid for PhDs to jump into the business world that help eliminate some of that risk that I dealt with.

Matt Artz:

Right. So, and we’ll link to that in the show notes for everybody who’s listening. Tell me when you were. So, you know, you’re, you’re consulting on that now, but obviously you had to go through it the first time. So what were some of the challenges that you faced making the transition and did anybody help you along the way? Great question

Larry McGrath:

Challenge that I faced was knowing what’s out there when you’re an academic looking for jobs, there’s a finite number of job boards. That list openings. You also have advisors who are skilled in helping you get those jobs and packaging, your application materials, the business world, and the jobs to enter. It are so much more decentralized. So much more of it depends on non meritocratic means such as networking, such as just talking to people and figuring out what’s out there. And so my method was to buy about 50, 50 coffees for people. The summer I realized that I was sick and tired of academia and just get a lay of the land and really that’s approaching it much. Like we would as researchers doing my own literature review, seeing what the possibilities are and then narrowing it down from there.

Matt Artz:

That’s great. And then the coffees, you know, you could also basically say, you know, informational interviews, which is something we generally recommend to people. And so when you were doing that, were you already honed in on UX from your, you know, your own literature review, if you will, or did UX also pop out in your, in your coffee sessions?

Larry McGrath:

I knew that I wanted to do research and the challenge that I faced like many transitioning academics face is whether what they want to maintain a focus on their specialty, or instead pitch their skillsets. Do you want to work with the content knowledge that you’ve developed or transform it into formal skills? And I still wanted to work in the world of the human sciences, neurology, psychology and their cultural contexts. And I did that for some time in the consulting world. It’s not easy for all academics to be able to find that seamless transition, the longer work with neurology and psychology at Facebook so much, it’s more traditional ethnographic research, understanding normal people in their living contexts and how they deal with technology. But I think that that’s a big question that a lot of academics have to face. I came to U X research only after realizing that there is an incredible demand for research out there. And perhaps this is something that you’ve spoken about Matt, on your other podcasts, but there is a sort of strange, I think, monopolization of research by UX right now, and it’s worth listeners keeping in mind that UX research is one kind of research. And there are other forms of research that inform products strategy and other business functions that anthropologists and social scientists can offer,

Matt Artz:

Not just other research jobs. And I appreciate that probably many anthropologists want to be in research shops, but there’s also lots of other roles that we can contribute to that are very, very meaningful and very important in the, in the business environment, such as strategy roles as you pointed out. So, so you find, you know, you, you end up first in a science role, so you, you got to play on the content knowledge that you had and the, the skills, what made you, and that’s a nice place to be obviously, but what made you then make the leap to Facebook where you’re giving up some of the work in the sciences?

Larry McGrath:

Yeah. Facebook does seek out former academics and you get to work on a wide variety of interesting products. Although Facebook is at the end of the day, an ads business, they generate a lot of research using the 3 billion people or so that they have as potential research participants. And so that was very attractive. There are also numerous investments of Facebook in health, in wearable devices that I think are really exciting in virtual reality that offer really thrilling opportunities for cutting edge research. And most of all, I get to work with a diverse array of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, whose skill sets are immense, and that I admire. And I think both professionally and personally, it’s important to surround them oneself with people you admire.

Matt Artz:

Yeah, that’s a great point. So, and it certainly sounds like a nice work environment and maybe pointing out one of the benefits of a larger organization over maybe some smaller startups, you know, oftentimes in the smaller startups, we’re a small team or even a team of one. And so for anybody listening that might have a preference, you know, one thing we recently talked about in a AAA webinar was sort of making sure you’re finding the right fit for you and not every research role, just because it’s UX research or consumer behavior, whatever it may be. Not every role is really the right fit. There’s organizational concerns. Yeah. There’s a number of them even geographic, as you mentioned earlier on. So I think that’s, that’s nice point. So, you know, now let’s maybe focus on, on the work at Facebook a little bit more. So I forget, did you start pre COVID or did you

Larry McGrath:

During COVID though? So much of my research has been in the remote work era.

Matt Artz:

Yeah. So I was wondering how much, you know, in, well, let me back up and say in tech, you know, we might not always get to do as much in context, you know, truly in context, sometimes we’re doing it digitally. So what does, what’s your work look like on a sort of daily basis? Are you, and I’ll say pre COVID, cause obviously we’re doing everything virtual right now, but were you doing a lot of really true in context, you know, in the home kind of studies or

Larry McGrath:

Yes, that’s right. In the before times, it meant spending in people’s homes, going shopping with them, spending time in people’s workplaces, hanging out in front of a mall, for example, and doing fly by recruiting, getting people to spend five minutes with me, hanging out, say in front of a municipal building to get a different context and a community of people involved in the study, all of these different life worlds. And it is far more challenging to capture that richness of context, the naturalness of behavior that an anthropology would typically find in people’s worlds in field work. And we try to recreate that using remote methods of interviews, focus groups, I love using diary studies. But ultimately the richness of the field is only partial as we capture it through any of those remote media.

Matt Artz:

Yeah. And so how have you made that transition? You know, it’s one thing I actually, I haven’t really talked about yet on the podcast, but what, what maybe have you learned from going fully virtual and what are maybe some of the challenges and any tips for anybody that’s listening that might themselves already be working in UX?

Larry McGrath:

That’s a really great question. I don’t think there’s any clear cut answer. It’s an ongoing project for me to build the rapport, to be able to tailor my questions and prompts, to be able to account for not just interview subjects, attitudes, but also their behaviors, which we, as anthropologists are geared to observe. I mean, a fundamental assumption is everyone knows of ethnographic research is that there is a gap between attitude and behavior. And it’s so difficult to capture the ladder via video conference like this. I mean, you only see from my chest up right now, you barely have a sense of context. And so it’s really important. I’ve found when doing remote work to ask questions about that context, where are you in the home? Is this where you work? Is this where you play? What is the last thing that you did here? Where did you, where in the home did you come from before being here to get a sense of the transitions?

Larry McGrath:

I did work for Facebook and early COVID that I published as a medium article, trying to understand how people use technology and social media to introduce structure into the home as an alternative to the external on which we normally rely. We usually would organize our day pre COVID around commutes lunches gym visits. If you have kids then daycare, maybe out happy hours, these are the sort of pillars that would make for pivot points in our day. And now we find that it’s all on our own resources to create that organization and fragment the day into chunks. Perhaps we transition from the table to the couch from the big, serious laptop screen, to the small, fun, playful mobile phone screen. And so this is one way in which I think remote research skills can capture some of that context and behavior that we would otherwise normally get by being physically present in the field.

Matt Artz:

Yeah. I like the pivot point concept. That’s great. And you know, I’m wondering, is there anything that you’re actually finding to be a benefit from all of this, you know, there are you, do you have greater reach than you might have otherwise? And is that providing any benefit?

Larry McGrath:

Yeah, that’s a good question. I think it’s a dual edged sword. On the one hand I’ve found that recruiting works quite well right now. But that’s symptomatic of all the awful things that have happened during COVID. For example, more people are being laid off, so they need the extra money and they’ll do a Facebook study. It’s less likely for example, that we get drop-offs because people are at home all that’s because they aren’t going out and doing other things. And so as a result of people’s difficult situations, it is easier to get participants into research into remote research sessions. But I do wonder, I wonder about the future of ethnographic research in the corporate world post COVID, once we’re all vaccinated in the immediate term. I wonder even when boundaries between countries open up and travel returns, who is going to be open to welcoming strangers into an intimate space, that’s going to be difficult.

Larry McGrath:

I also wonder about it from a corporate finance perspective that now that so many companies have been able to operate lean saving money on travel, doing less field work, will they use the will. They use COVID as a shock doctrine to make these conditions more permanent and say, look, we produce good research with remote tools. Why do we need to spend that money sending ethnographers out into the field? I really hope that’s not the case. But it has before with other crises, like the 2008 financial downturn, the jury is still out to see how businesses react to post COVID.

Matt Artz:

Yeah, sure. And besides that, even just coming back to the office, right. I mean, Facebook has said that at least some larger portion will be able to work remotely. And so that’s even also obviously a factor that’s playing in, you know, at least for you, but for many of us. Right. And on that point, you know, how maybe it might be interesting to hear, you know, obviously Facebook has a pretty sizable research team. And so how has the dynamic changed as a team of researchers and your interactions as a result of COVID and how are you all kind of handling that? And maybe one, one you know, one question leading up to that, are, are you an embedded model or are you all centralized? Are you embedded in a specific product team or?

Larry McGrath:

Sure. look, COVID code is a huge blow to team dynamics. There’s so much more intention and coordination required now to meet as a team. There’s so much less serendipity and a water cooler chat as it were, but that echoes the general world in which we live in the COVID era as a time of coordination and planning. There’s such little chance in our social encounters anymore. I live in New York city. I long for the times that my friends would call me late night on Friday and say, Hey, I’m on the lower East side. And I tell them I’m on the upper West side and Oh, we’ll encounter at some point it doesn’t happen anymore. Everything is planned and reserved in advance. And that happens in a, in a micro form at the office. When it comes to Facebook’s model, our research division is enormous.

Larry McGrath:

I think it’s about 550 people right now, and it’s both embedded and most product teams do have one to three researchers who do evaluative research that is they test the design of the product and make sure it’s, it’s good to go live. I don’t do that. I’m on a separate research team. What we call an ecosystem research team in other businesses it’s sometimes called foundational or exploratory research. And the questions that I tackle are questions of value, especially non-monetary value. What value do people gets out of privacy, for example, Facebook’s undergone a immense initiative to craft better privacy products for people. And, you know, I think a very important question, especially in a social media world where people value the concept of privacy yet their actions are oftentimes out of sync. With that, given that they want to share so much of their life online. So what, what value does privacy have? For people as a question that we that my team examines independently so that we can bring understanding and insights back to a variety of teams at Facebook.

Matt Artz:

Got it. So your work in particular, you know, the more sort of generative work that you’re doing is very ripe for the application of social theory and understanding of privacy as a social construct that really differs across the 3 billion plus user base, as opposed to some evaluative type work where, you know, some relatively simple observation can really address sort of 80% of the problems without having to sort of couch it all in, in theory. And so, you know, unlike some roles you, you presumably get to, to really pull in a bit more from our toolkit. And so can you maybe speak a little bit about that? You know, how does theory play in your P in your work particularly, and how is that received within the organization?

Larry McGrath:

Absolutely. I was trained in some of the rarefied bastions of social theory in America first and the rhetoric department at university of California, Berkeley, where I was advised by Judith Butler, I a gender theorist. And then it, and then at Johns Hopkins which is a, which is a place where French post-structuralist theory had a enduring impact. It was the first American institution where Jacques Derrida presented, for example, back in the 1960s. And those theoretical toolkits have always been very important. They’ve informed the research that I’ve done in academia and in business when it comes to business, it’s up to us as people who have those skillsets to translate them into terms that are adapted to our audiences, because as we know those those critical tools are oftentimes written in a jargon. That’s a bit esoteric for others, and that’s why I love them, of course, and I can speak theory to others, but what it’s, what it’s helped me appreciate first and foremost, in my work with a human participants doing human research is humans are ribbon we’re torn through.

Larry McGrath:

And through that, if you look at the bottom of what we are, you won’t find identity, you won’t find sameness. You find us pulled in multiple directions, that humans, aren’t just one thing. And I think that’s very important when doing research and accounting for the different aspects of ourselves, the conflict between attitudes and behaviors, the way we change over time, the way we segment social groups, that if you keep in mind that humans, aren’t one thing than research results. That show, for example, how people hate the idea of ads in general, yet actually quite like particular ads that they see no longer appear is contradictions, but very normal aspects of our conflicted life. That coming to terms with what satisfies us personally and what we think is good socially, for example, there are disconnects all over the place and accounting for these things as what my theoretical toolkit has helped with. And that was, are always research insights that I tried to deliver to my teams. And the wider Facebook organization is to show how people are pulled in multiple directions and how we might better design products, that account for the multifaceted nature of humans.

Matt Artz:

So that’s no easy task, you know, that’s, that’s very different than, you know, a relatively small UI tweak just to, you know, increase some kind of click-through rates. So how do you go about that difficult task of getting others to understand your insights? You know, what, what has worked for you given the complexity of the content and know almost like, you know, sort of it’s, you know, it’s you know, something like value in and of itself, right? Value is something that is a construct that, you know, can be defined many ways by many different people. I imagine when using that term frequently, you know, even internally, there’s just a lot of misunderstanding about maybe what you mean by it, you know, unless you’re making sure to, to really operationalize it well. So how do you know, what, what do you do to overcome the kind of problems that you have in your particular type of space?

Larry McGrath:

Sure. Most people interpret value as dollar cents shackles values, not Mon, not, not always monetary, of course, what makes for a rich experience, but makes for user satisfaction, brings them value. It makes them recurrent users and that ultimately impacts ROI, just not in an immediately monetary sense. One advantage of working at a large organization like Facebook is that the case for more experimental research doesn’t need to be made as aggressively as it would be in a smaller organization with less resources at Facebook, we can take on marginal product, marginal research endeavors that might be peripheral to the company’s focus because we have the means to take risks and make mistakes. But when it comes to doing value research and communicating to others, that humans are conflicted. As I mentioned before, and that we need to design products, that account for our contradictory sides, I researched what people are already doing as we call it researching for latent behaviors.

Larry McGrath:

How are people using our products in ways that we might not have already known about? Oftentimes UX research is used in order to help refine products or identify new products. It’s important. I think to use re UX research, to understand why you might not want a new product at all, why the current one is perfectly good and why adding new whistles and bells is just going to make the situation worse. In other words, there’s a sort of quietest approach to some of my research to help a lay product developers or marketers or engineers fears that we need to add a new button that we need to generate a new product. When in fact people are fully satisfied with what they’re doing right now, they just use work arounds and behaviors that we don’t have metrics for and weren’t able to measure. And that’s what an ethnographer can help reveal for the sake of others.

Matt Artz:

Yeah. Great. And in your particular case are you also, when you have an insight that you think needs maybe some product change, but that’s new product, you know, addition to the product, whatever it may be, are you also making recommendations or are you stopping at insights and turning that over to another team and then they’re running with it?

Larry McGrath:

My insights tend to be more strategic let’s focus on, for example increasing more seamless experiences instead of asking people for consent at every step the way, because that’s going to annoy them. That’s one example. So, and when it comes to designing specific products no, my, my recommendations don’t take that specific a form. They do. However, my recommendations that is oftentimes persuade people about opportunities to harmonize and eliminate products. When you work at a large organization, especially where research and product development can get siloed teams work independently from one another, without the coordination that’s needed in order to generate a coherent experience. And so when it comes to Facebook, there’s just so many tools available within the Facebook world that when you log in identifying opportunities to harmonize them, to bring them together potentially to eliminate some of them, I think is a meaningful output of UX research for helping create a more seamless experience for users. Sure.

Matt Artz:

Now there’s also another problem in there which comes up quite a bit, which is not just harmonizing in the way you described it, but also really among researchers that are spread out across product teams or in your case, you know, in your own, and, you know, in this sort of ecosystems world versus, you know, those doing the value of research. And so w and if, you know, I’m not sure if you can talk about this or not, this might be too specific to Facebook, but are you doing anything to make sure that all researchers understand the findings and the insights ultimately, and that, you know, like any kind of systems in place to help for knowledge management, organizational memory, anything in that space?

Larry McGrath:

Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m in dialogue with researchers constantly, the risk of research at a large organization is always duplication. If you’re just one of a few researchers at a large organization, you never encounter that risk. So much of what you do with a small company is done for the first time. This is where my historical training kicks in, and I think it’s a worthwhile it’s something where it’s something worth keeping in mind that as a historian, I tend to think that there’s very little that’s new in the world. My general assumption is that if you have a thought, if you’ve done something it’s probably been thought or done before. And so it’s important to understand precedent. I know the word unprecedented, we hear everywhere these days. My general assumption that most things are in fact precedented. And so it’s important to understand what was done in the past.

Larry McGrath:

And that usually is the first step of good research doing a literature of you, understanding what the company has archived, what the institutional memory is. And that’s not just going to a central database. It’s also communicating with people and at a company as big as Facebook, a large chunk of what I do is just reaching out to other people and doing internal research, understanding who might be interested in a product who’s done work on it before and gathering knowledge that way, not just in order to identify a gap in the literature as it were, because not every single project that we have that we do has to be entirely unique. You can, for example, verify past research, see if anything has changed, but ultimately the purpose is to set your research in relation to what others have done and establishing those references, that context within your organization’s research community is what makes other people one want to read it and to more impactful.

Matt Artz:

I agree. And it also just helps, you know, with the team, right. It’s just good for team dynamics. So, you know, in your work, you said earlier that the ROI is not immediate, or at least the recognition of that RIS is certainly not immediate. So how do you, you know, many of us like to see that, you know, our work, that the output of our work turned into something. So how do you go about sort of just gauging your own value as a researcher and understanding sort of how you’re performing

Larry McGrath:

Good question. When I worked in smaller organizations, especially in the consult, I mean, in the consulting world, the impact was very clear. I would deliver a report to clients. They would express they were whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied, I would call them up in six months and ask, how has this impacted your team’s strategy? Have, where are your sales right now? Where is the new product in the development pipeline? The risk of research at a larger organization is that our output might dissipate into the ether. And it is quite a challenging to follow up and see the impacts. I think one way that you can evaluate impact is understanding the language that people use are people adopting terms that you proposed in your research, even better. Are people using frameworks that you proposed in your research, good UX research, especially exploratory research. Doesn’t just make suggestions.

Larry McGrath:

We need, for example, a new product that accounts for privacy of, for, for children that when children who are being photographed by their parents today in 10 years, gave a sense of self, what are they going to do with it? Okay. That’s a nice product recommendation. Good UX research also generates frameworks for helping people think through questions like privacy. How do we reconcile, for example, the gaps between attitudes and beliefs about people’s social understanding of privacy versus what they personally want. And to answer your question, I think an indicator of success is whether people, others at the company, especially senior leadership of the company are drawing on those frameworks when making decisions.

Matt Artz:

That’s great. Do you have any thoughts on so, you know, obviously if, if they’re using those frameworks if you see your research is being used, that’s a good way to maybe gauge your value, but do you also think that there’s anything we can do to increase, you know, our visibility as a, as a brand to, you know, get more influenced to get a seat at the table any way you want to frame it? Cause sometimes even though, you know, you still might produce, you know, some good findings, a framework, whatever it may be that has legs and can be used, but it still is not adopted. So what do you think we all can be doing to really improve our, our influence?

Larry McGrath:

Super important question, because the reality is that at a lot of organizations, research has a plays a peripheral role within within the, within the structure of the organization. And so in order to increase our influence, I think that we shift away from a model that is so driven by pain points. I think a lot of people, especially at tech organizations see research as a bunch of naysayers users have this problem, how do we solve for this problem? Your new product creates so much friction and disappointment. How do we solve for that? Of course we need to address users’ pain points, but engineers, aren’t very excited to hear about how their new product just frustrates people, especially when those engineers think that they have such a brilliant and novel idea. So it’s much like when given criticism generally, any man, any good manager knows this.

Larry McGrath:

You’ve got to package criticism with support as well. You’ve got to Pat it with what people are doing well and not just how they’re screwing up. And so I think as researchers, it’s important to balance our recommendations for solving pain points, alongside highlights of what a product is doing already well, and using those two in tandem to show how product specifications can be better emphasized to solve for user pain points to, to bring to light. As I was suggesting earlier latent behaviors, work arounds aspects of users, interactions with our products that are going really well and that the organization might not have been aware of before. So in short, I’m suggesting that one way for user research to have a better, a more impactful seat at the table is to also bring good news.

Speaker 3:

That’s

Matt Artz:

I think we oftentimes forget, right. And it’s sort of one on one really in terms of just human dynamics. Totally. Okay.

Larry McGrath:

No, nobody made me be a naysayer the whole time.

Matt Artz:

Sure. And so on that point and to maybe kind of connected back to your degree of history and anthropology of science, you know, one of the things that we know, I mean, that’s not where I have focused, so correct me if I’m wrong, but there there’s a tendency in the sort of engineering space, if you will. And I, you know, come from an it background to really focus on the solution as like the, sort of the means it’s almost the end goal in and of itself. A lot of times, like the sort of how we do something is sort of super important for many in that space. Of course, not all. Whereas we’re often kind of bringing in the why. So do you see, like, you know, both in your studies of science as a discipline and in your work, like a focus on solutionism and how might like you bringing in like the, why something is the reason why something is happening, maybe help combat that a little. And does that have, does that change the dynamic and the way you get people to to adopt the insights and findings?

Larry McGrath:

Yeah. I’m just thinking through, I’m just thinking through an answer right here the, the solutions versus answers to why questions. I think that One way of looking at this is that

Speaker 3:

At tech companies,

Larry McGrath:

People generally engineers in particular researchers oftentimes think that this is the only app or piece of tech that users use. And so just getting, just getting your colleagues to see what people are doing on Google, on YouTube, on Wikipedia, wherever else I think is a really meaningful, contextual insights that researchers can provide. Just getting your colleagues to take the blinders off as it were to see more than just the water for the fish. A lot of my research is comparative in that sense spending time with users on Facebook, on Instagram, but then on other interfaces where data are exchanged, of course, online, such as Amazon and Google. But those aren’t the only places where people exchange data. We give our address and phone number, for example, at the grocery store when getting loyalty benefits or when going to hospitals in order to get personalized medical care when going to a bank, for example. And so helping people realize that practices oftentimes thought to be particular to your own organization are in fact widespread that comparative understanding, I think can help researchers get others to see why the, why answers work alongside the solutions. Great.

Matt Artz:

Thanks for that. And yeah, the competitiveness is, you know, it’s, it’s one of our value adds, so it’s, it’s always worth reminding. And again, one of the reasons that anthropology is really great for this role. And so for anybody who, you know, maybe wants to use their sort of multiple multiple books sort of perspective and comparative skills and really transitioned into this field, is there anything that you would recommend, you know, anything specific any upscaling, anything specific about a resume or a portfolio, anything that you’ve learned along the way that you think others should know?

Larry McGrath:

Great question. We already talked about the value of chatting with as many people as possible doing informational interviews when it comes to people like myself and the clients who might consult, moving from academia to industry, I generally don’t believe that more schooling is needed. Unfortunately, so many academic advisors could only suggest more schooling because that is the atmosphere in which they breathe degrees courses more education. I think that plenty of academics should think of the work that they’ve already done as UX. For example, plenty of academics have designed, syllabis have taught courses over a semester, maybe a year long, have iterated on their teaching methods on their evaluation methods, whether it’s the length and number of essays that they assign, or their choice to include tests as well. Maybe the media that have been included in the class beyond texts to also, you know, video or whatever other artifacts, there’s a lot of product design that goes into creating a good course in the academic world.

Larry McGrath:

And I would encourage those who are considering transitioning out of it to reflect on their own teaching experience as if it were a product. And they are research on making that course better as UX research. I think it’s similar to the case for our academic output when writing a dissertation, for example, there are multiple stakeholders that one has to satisfy one’s immediate committee. One also has to speak to your broader discipline. And then when applying for academic jobs, you might speak to people who have zero interest in your domain as a historian, a scientist. I was oftentimes pitching my work to sociologists, to scholars of you know, Egyptology, perhaps we’re always translating our work doing so for the sake of a corporate job. It’s just one step further in that translation process. A process that I’m suggesting is a lot like what we do in UX research. And so that’s why I think that a lot of academics in anthropology and other humanities and social science disciplines have the skill sets already. They just need to reflect on and use the language to make those skill sets understood by peers in the business world.

Matt Artz:

Great, great advice. Very practical. You know, it’s, it’s really all about reframing it. They have the skills, they have the knowledge, they have the projects. And I really liked the syllabus example. It’s funny, I was on a teaching as a guest on a teaching podcast a few days ago, and I actually suggested, you know, iterating on your, your syllabus as a recommendation and treating it like a UX project. So funny to hear you say that today. So great. I think that’s, that’s perfect. And, you know, in terms of reframing experience, obviously you help with that. So do you wanna, maybe again mentioned, you know, your website and where people could find you and you know, some of the services that you offer and anything else you wish to maybe bring up?

Larry McGrath:

Absolutely. I do offer a career transition consulting services. You can check it out on my website, Larry S mcgrath.com. We’ll talk about for example, what opportunities are out there depending on your discipline. I cater, as you can tell from this podcast so far to people from the humanities and social sciences help create a portfolio, a LinkedIn page that gets people to dwell for longer, and then to package your work into a lexicon that is understood and persuasive. For other people I’ve helped a number of clients get jobs at organizations like Lowe’s Bressler group plenty of research and consulting institutions. I have a lot of fun doing it. Great.

Matt Artz:

Well, Larry, thanks for that. Anything else, anything, any other projects, anything outside of, of that, that you’re interested in that you think is worth bringing up?

Larry McGrath:

I think that it’s really important for academics to test their value beyond the academic world. I think right now, with the pandemic and the elimination of a lot of academic jobs out there, people are being forced to go into the business world in order to see what’s out there as an alternative. I want to encourage people to see that as an opportunity as well. And I see there as being, I have a bit of a political mission to help humanities and social science, doctorate holders to realize their value outside of the academic world, so that when we’re all vaccinated and life is better, that academic institutions can no longer justify the meager wages given to their instructors, as well as the wage stagnation that we encounter right now on the tenure track. And there are a number of structural dimensions that need to be addressed, but isn’t at an individual level. I think that academics have the power to demonstrate that their value is much greater in the business world. And if there are far, there’s a smaller pool, ultimately of desperate instructors who are willing to agree to the meager salaries that colleges and universities offer well, then it’s going to be a whole lot harder for them to offer those salaries. And so that’s a, that’s my mission in doing this. Okay, cool.

Matt Artz:

Good mission. Thanks for the work you’re doing. And thanks for coming on today. I appreciate it.

Larry McGrath:

It’s been a pleasure. Thanks a lot, Matt.

Please note this transcript is an automated transcription and may have some errors.