Nate Foulds: Research at Instagram and The New York Times

9 min read David Renwick

Welcome to our second speaker interview for UX New Zealand 2019 (check out our first interview with Gregg Bernstein). In the lead up to the conference, we’re catching up with the people who’ll be sharing their stories with you at the conference in October. Today, we chat with Nate Foulds, the product researcher for Stories at Instagram.

Thanks for chatting with us Nate. To start off, would you mind telling me a little bit about your history and how you got started in design?

Nate: Yeah, so I took a pretty non-traditional path. When I was in college I never really thought about design or technology at all. I knew a couple people in computer science and digital design, but it wasn’t really on my radar. I studied political science and art history, and I really wanted to go into art law. But it was senior year and I got cold feet, so I decided to scrap that idea and spend a year teaching English abroad, just to take some time to figure out what to do next.

After a year I moved to San Francisco without a job or anything – just a connection. I had a friend working at an agency, Beyond, that was just starting out and needed some help with some pretty basic marketing-type stuff. Things like light data analysis and social listening, which was big at the time, basically analyzing what people are saying about your company on social media.

And so I started doing that and it turned out to be a pretty good fit. I liked working with so many different clients, getting the inside scoop on how their customers felt and then delivering recommendations for design and marketing. Over time, that work turned more and more into original user research with customers rather than just social listening.

I want to circle back to your comments on working in an agency, but let’s first dive into your work at the New York Times. What was that like?

Nate: I started at the Times after being at the agency for 5 years, and it was my first proper in-house role. At the Times, I led research for news products, which are basically the main website and news app. Projects I worked on included the redesign of The New York Times home page and the mobile app, including the concepting of a personalized news section called ‘For You’.

It was a really interesting time to be there since it was during the 2016 election cycle in the US. We witnessed the field of candidates and then the election itself where Donald Trump won, and then the post-election wake-up call that everyone had. Subscriptions grew an insane amount, just between the few quarters before the election to after the election itself, something like 30 percent, which was about 5 times more than growth periods prior.

And so all of a sudden we had this massive amount of people who were wanting to pay more attention to the news. It was really exciting for us to think about the sorts of features we could offer them to start and keep on subscribing. Like, how much are people willing to pay for the news in the first place? How much can we offer additional news value versus what we think of as complementary features? We found that podcasts and newsletters were really popular, as well as the cooking app and the crossword app. Some of these are complementary businesses that are value-adds for people once they’re in the door with the main news, or for those who don’t like the main news but value the rest.

A special thing about being there is the fact that you’re surrounded by some of the greatest journalists in the country. There were times when I led research engagements that involved journalists as partners, and that inevitably resulted in some funny moments. I was once conducting interviews with an observer who was herself a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist. I remember being in the room with her, Jodi Kantor, and I was leading the interview, but I felt so nervous in front of her as someone who’s devoted her life to doing this as a skill.

And so after The New York Times you obviously moved over to Instagram, where you’re based now. What’s that change been like?

Nate: Well in some ways Instagram is similar to the Times since it’s still a consumer product. I feel comfortable working on those sorts of products where the goal is that anyone can pick up and use them. But as a company, it’s pretty different, and a lot of that is just because it was born out of the tech world, versus the Times, which is a journalism company first. A lot of the resources and the infrastructure at Instagram allow you to move fast, test things, get feedback quickly and that sort of stuff. As a researcher, it really unlocks a lot of potential for coming up with ideas, getting feedback on them quickly, testing them, and seeing the results.

And can you talk about what you’ve been working on recently?

Nate: The whole time I’ve been at Instagram, since January 2018, I’ve been on the stories engagement team. It’s part of the home team, which is the home tab on Instagram that includes the feed, stories, comments, likes – that sort of stuff.

The research I focus on is how stories fits within the ecosystem of Instagram, thinking about where they appear, how people interact with them, the order in which they appear, how people react to different types of content, etc. Some of the work that we’ve been doing recently is about how to make stories better for people newer to Instagram, who could be in different markets, or who aren’t so digital-first.

Circling back to what you were talking about earlier, how do you find working at places like Instagram and The New York Times versus the agency environment where you started out?

Nate: There are some similarities, but at the same time it’s so different. People usually say that in-house, you have one product and you feel an ownership over it, which I really value personally. At brands like Instagram and The New York Times I’ve enjoyed working on the core pieces – those companies are never going to outsource the core code for the main part of the experience. So I think it’s cool to be on the inside and have the ability and influence to affect the product experience.

I’m also surprised by how much depth people can devote to a single feature. At an agency, every 3 to 6 months you’re changing your focus completely, in a totally new context with a new audience and a new client. When I found out I was going to be on the stories team at Instagram, I first thought, how could I possibly spend this much time doing research for stories, how could it be a full-time focus for someone?

Soon I realized the depth of the experience, thinking about things like the transition when you swipe from one person’s story to the next, understanding what that best experience feels like. The ability to focus completely and go deep on these micro-interactions is a major difference from my agency experience.

A major similarity, though, are those skills you also need in an agency, like pitching and selling ideas and projects, having well-designed presentations, and keeping a large network of people that you’re constantly having coffee with. They’re useful skills that will never go out of style no matter where you work.

Would you say there’s been a person that’s influenced your approach as a researcher or your approach to design?

Nate: There’s this one person who comes to mind, Tomer Sharon, you might have heard of him. He was a UX researcher at Google for a long time, and he’s this incredible thought leader on research and design. Basically every time I had to pick up something new I would google his writing and speaking. I had this master doc in Google Docs that was just called UX, most of it was derived from Tomer, and it evolved over the years to be something I would use every time I had to go to an interview. I’ve never met him, though he also lives in New York; my study of his work might creep him out. He’s had a huge influence on my career. One day I’ll hopefully get to tell him that.

On a related note, what’s the best piece of advice that you like to repeat to others?

Nate: I know it’s a really common one, especially in UX, but, ‘You are not the user’. I think it’s technically called the false-consensus effect, where people tend to design with themselves in mind. A lot of the time this can be great, intuition is a skill that designers have developed. But at the same time it’s important to call out our biases.

One example at Instagram is that everyone who works here tends to follow each other, so you might have 50 or more people on your personal Instagram account that are co-workers. And a lot of the time, my co-workers produce pretty good content because they know what creative tools are available, or maybe they’re on work trips or offsites. So as a way to remind myself what the experience is like for someone who doesn’t have automatic access to this type of content, I basically mute co-workers as soon as I follow them so they don’t show up in my stories section. It shows me the normal experience for people who don’t necessarily have that content in their ecosystem.

Do you have anything right now that’s currently fascinating you, or that’s feeding into your work?

Nate: At Facebook we talk about communities a lot, so lately I’ve been reading about how communities are formed, the types of relationships between people in communities, hierarchical roles within communities, feelings of belonging, being in multiple communities at once, how people express their identities in communities. And especially how you begin to become a member of a community, and also leave that community.

What does it mean to step into a community for a week or for a month? How can I engage with something or someone that might be interesting now, but won’t be relevant at a certain point in time? How can we make the process of going in and out of these communities as easy as possible? There’s a lot to think about in the future when it comes to mapping online community dynamics to the real world.

What are you looking forward to about speaking at UX New Zealand, or just visiting New Zealand in general?

Nate: I’m excited to come to New Zealand in general because I’ve never been before, and I’m excited for UX New Zealand because it’s a multi-disciplinary, cross-functional conference, focusing on design, product managers, research – I’m sure there will be so many different roles there. For me that’s a lot more exciting than just a research-focused conference. I’m really excited to meet people across so many different roles, working at agencies, working in-house, working solo, and to hear their different perspectives.

I didn’t know this at first, but I read that Wellington is the culinary capital of New Zealand, so I’ve been reading about the coffee and the craft beer and all the good food there. I wish I had more time in Wellington, but I’m going to be driving from Auckland to Wellington and stopping at Tongariro National Park where I’m looking forward to doing the crossing!

Thanks for your time Nate, and see you at UX New Zealand!

UX New Zealand is just around the corner. Whether you’re new to UX or a seasoned professional, you’ll gain valuable insights and inspiration – and have fun along the way! Learn more on the UX New Zealand website.

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David Renwick

David is Optimal Workshop's web writer. You can usually find him alongside Bowie, the office dog. Connect with him on LinkedIn.