Championing Research

The UXRC team chats with Product Specialist Manager Mandy Owen.

This article is adapted from the Danielle Heifa’s (Editor of User Experience Research Collective) conversation with Airbnb’s Mandy Owen on championing and scaling research both inside and outside the building. Read the full interview on the UXR blog.

Research has been baked into Airbnb’s design process from the company’s inception. From the early days of 2009, when Founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia flew to New York to meet hosts face-to-face to discover pain points, to today, Airbnb has proven to be a company propelled by insights. And as the organization has grown, so too has its research practice — from one that was at first foundational, to becoming multi-disciplinary and global. Today, the Airbnb research organization is one of the largest and fastest growing in tech — one just shy of 100 practitioners. This talented team of passionate people acts as a bright light in the international, budding research community; the north star for research done right. I had a chat with Airbnb’s Product Specialist Team Manager (Research), Mandy Owen, who gave me the scoop on Research ops at Airbnb.

UXR: Tell me about your role at Airbnb.

Mandy: I manage the product specialist org at Airbnb. So this is a function made of two distinct teams: One program manages an outsourced workforce of over 40 people. These people sit in all of our community support contact centers across the globe and focus not only on data quality of insights but other research-related projects that benefit multiple teams within Airbnb. The other is an embedded team of product specialists who work side-by-side with folks like experience researchers, product managers, engineers, designers, content strategists, and data scientists. They help these teams make smart decisions on how to fold quality focused feedback and platform quality issues like technical bugs into product development.

How is the research organization at Airbnb structured?

The Airbnb Research org is made up of six distinct functions: Experience Research, Product Specialists (and the Product Specialist program management team I mentioned), Survey Science, Research Operations and Marketing Research.

The product specialists, experience researchers, and some survey scientists and research ops folks are all embedded within product teams.  The product specialist program, other survey scientists and the research ops program that we call the “International Community Panel” is all a centralized function, but it allows us to do things like conduct international research, quickly, without having to fly around the globe. Because the majority of our team is embedded, most of that work is focused in San Francisco — but there are product teams that are outside of San Francisco too. We have a presence for example in Portland and Seattle, and we’re looking at Los Angeles. So generally speaking, where there is a product team, we want researchers to be there too. And then with some of our other functions (specifically the program management team that I manage) — we actually have folks in Portland, Dublin and Singapore.

How do you think the company culture is affected by the research org?

One thing to consider with this is sort of the foundation of research at Airbnb —  it’s sort of been baked into our culture for a long time.  In our early days, our founders received advice from Paul Graham (he’s known for being the co-founder of Y Combinator and Hacker News), who told them to go to our users — and so they actually literally did that. They were visiting our hosts in person basically, week after week, until it wasn’t scalable anymore. And so I think a lot of that kind of philosophy was baked in early on. More recently with research, the way this philosophy shows up is in examples like this: my team has played a role in creating a culture of quality across many teams and I would say more broadly, research drives understanding and empathy with evidence on this long, large scale.  So it looks like influence on individual projects, but it also looks like cross business share-outs in things like “Shair Fairs” and then a recent expo that we did called “The World’s Fair” to showcase international research. What these do is fold together basically the insights from all 6 of those functions that I mentioned earlier and is really an opportunity for us to triangulate and show that work as one research org as opposed to individual research projects.

A company like ours must continuously balance growth objectives with quality focused initiatives so we don’t leave our users behind. Research has been the backbone of this kind of balance.

How does mentorship among researchers work in the research org?

Mentorship comes in all forms in our organization from formal to less formal.  On the formal end, we hold cross functional skill shares and we have critique sessions (we call them crits). Crits basically provide an open, safe forum for researchers to collaboratively kick the tires of each other’s work and it’s also a space to share best practices on strategies that have been particularly useful. There is also some broader mentorship programs across our entire design organization that encourages mentors and mentees to connect — not only to go deeper on a particular work problem, but to also talk more broadly about growth and development within the function or beyond the function. We also create space for researchers to share and showcase their work and we kind of focus on connecting researchers who might not otherwise get to work with each other and sort of encourage that. One thing that is a cultural touchpoint for us is that we actually ring a cowbell whenever potential connections are made. It’s really a moment to highlight “oh you’re doing work over here, this person is also doing work in a similar space, you should probably think about how to collaborate with each other.” Also, I think a lot of mentorship happens organically, where you start to kind of look around and you see folks who are doing things that can really help your own growth and development. I mostly participate in these programs as a mentor which has been really, really rewarding to work with folks across research, across design, across teams even outside of our org.

How do you measure the impact of your research work?

To be completely honest, impact measurement can be a little scary for us. Our influence is often diffuse and broad and directional, unless directly mapped to really specific decisions with respect to design and strategy.  In a lot of these cases, our influence is not always a direct one-to-one relationship with an outcome, which makes tracking that impact a little tricky. So one measure of success is the quality of relationships that we have. Another measure of that success is how indispensable we have become, both within a team and as a function, to the point that a product team considers themselves incomplete without adequate research representation. This means we’re doing our job. And to that end, we see growth as a sign of that impact too. Every new researcher on a team is someone who could have been an engineer, they could have been a data scientist, a designer, PM etc. The fact that a team chose to invest in say, a product specialist, for example, tells me that my team is having an impact.

Do you see a future with UXR’s in leadership roles? If so, how do we grow research practitioners into organizational leaders?

Yes, absolutely. I think researchers understand how to plug in at every stage of development, meaning we often have a horizontal view that gives us a strategic edge. So not just with respect to the depth of our knowledge in a particular area or vertical, but because our discipline focuses on cross research collaboration. So it means we can continue to align and lift each other’s work and I think that positions the discipline really, really well to take on roles as business or organizational leaders.

What are you most proud of when it comes to your research work at Airbnb?

Our org’s work has and continues to be the foundation of front line obsessed product development at Airbnb. A company like ours must continuously balance growth objectives with quality focused initiatives so we don’t leave our users behind. Research has been the backbone of this kind of balance from our early days and continues to be the beacon of that. So through several initiatives with lots of cross functional stakeholders, my team has been able to drive cross company visibility into platform quality and we continue to be the engine for understanding the kind of pain points in our product that drive our community to reach out and contact us. I’m really proud that my team is able to provide that partnership and insight within every team we sit on.

Read more on the UXR blog.

Up Next