“You shouldn’t do research just for the sake of research,” goes the familiar refrain. “Your work should have an impact.” But what does that mean, exactly? What does impact look like? What gets in its way? Without a clear, shared understanding of what impact is or how we can drive it, it’s difficult to identify the research that matters most.
We on the Messenger research team realized we didn’t have such an understanding. After some brainstorming, we launched a study that included our cross-functional partners and other researchers around the Facebook family to gain a deeper understanding of how impact is perceived at Facebook.
This article summarizes the insights we gathered. We hope it provides a framework for thinking about impact, especially as it relates to evaluating current and future goals, and that it inspires you to seek a deeper understanding of impact in your own organization. We don’t intend the article to serve as a complete, static checklist for doing impactful research.
At a two-day offsite, the Messenger research team came together to brainstorm what impact means, what it looks like, and how it gets blocked. We collected and synthesized the insights to create a baseline understanding of impact.
To learn how our cross-functional partners perceive research impact, we conducted four interviews with cross-functional leadership around the Facebook family of apps, including leads in Messenger, Internationalization, Ads & Business Platform, and Instagram.
Lastly, we followed up with a survey about impact that was sent to all Facebook researchers, collecting a total of 52 responses.
Our study yielded four distinct (though sometimes overlapping) categories of research impact.
One obvious way to make an impact with research is informing product direction by identifying areas where user needs are unmet. Ideally, research insights inspire a product team to deliver experiences that delight users and avoid harmful side effects.
Another type of product-related impact is helping products be more inclusive. Researchers often do this by generating deep understanding of populations dissimilar to themselves. Examples of informing product direction:
Influencing strategy was a repeated theme across all modes of data collection. This includes understanding what “good” looks like for the product team or org; what’s needed to get there; and how far the current state is from that north star. Research like this typically helps teams develop an expansive sense of the team’s mission, but can also lead to outcomes like blocking a product launch that would have been problematic. Examples of influencing strategy:
This type of impact is all about helping the people around us, whether they’re researchers or not. On a day-to-day basis, it can help build a happier team, strengthen cross-org research connections, and help each other through peer reviews.
On the cross-functional partners side, this kind of impact results in a common language around user needs and expectations around the globe. More tactically, it also means generating influence by smoothing cross-functional relationships.
A few researchers also told us that for them, impact is helping their team get to a thorough roadmap that reflects user needs. Examples of contributing to team success:
Expertise might be the most straightforward form of impact a researcher can provide. This involves building on each other's work and using creativity to unlock new insights that help our product teams get closer to true user needs and delight. However, this category is as much about rigor as it is about novelty and creativity. Examples of leveraging your expertise:
Even if you have a clear definition of impact, it’s not always easy to tell whether your work is delivering it. Our study uncovered eight common hallmarks of impactful research:
Our study also identified factors that can limit impact. Here are the most commonly cited obstacles, along with suggested solutions:
Time: Insufficient time to execute on a project.
Understanding: Stakeholders are often working with research for the first time. This can limit their understanding of methods, hindering impact.
False urgency: Working on the question that’s most immediate, not necessarily the most important.
Meetings: At a large organization, communicating can take a lot of time.
Logistics: Some processes and tools can be inefficient, time-consuming, or duplicative.
Ill-formed question: The question presented to the researcher by partners isn’t always appropriate.
Out of sync with team: Team is working at a different pace or unclear how research can be a part of the process.
Elaborate deliverables: Creating a compelling deck complete with highlight reels and pixel-perfect design can be daunting.
It’s not enough to understand one’s impact. We also need ongoing conversation and community to support us in doing work that matters to our users, our org, our product teams, and ourselves. We recommend the following potential next steps:
Whether you’re a product designer, writer, creative strategist, researcher, project manager, team leader or all-around systems-thinker, there’s something here for you.