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Skilling and Scaling Equity Research at Instagram

Dr. Stacey Houston II has leveraged his research on equity into inclusive product changes at Instagram. Here’s how he’s leading the charge.

Interview by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Dr. Stacey Houston II is no stranger to innovative research and change-making.

Stacey co-authored a study on how racism camouflages as imposterism with a focus on Black STEM doctoral students. He spent several years as Director of Research and Evaluation at PeerForward, and as Assistant Professor of Criminology at George Mason University. He then went on to co-found Instagram's Equity product team.

At the time of this interview, Stacey was a senior UX researcher at Instagram. Stacey leveraged his deep knowledge of academic research to spearhead advanced quantitative and qualitative research methods, empowering teams to build equitable products.

Since the interview, Stacey has moved into a product manager position and is applying his skillset to responsibly building the Metaverse.

We sat down with Stacey to learn more about what he was up to at Instagram, what it's like to make the transition from academia to business, and his thoughts on how impostorism intersects with racism and UX.

Instagram’s equity work and product team

dscout: It's been one year since IG announced the work of your team. How have things been going?

Dr. Stacey Houston II: Yeah, it's been fun going. That's something I like to start with, because as much as this is a tough topic to talk about, there's a problem that needs solving and that's why we're here.

There's so many negative aspects that we could think about, but it's been really rewarding to see the momentum continue from this work from the time we announced it and kicked it off. And I think that's a testament to the people who are working on it and the commitment of leadership in the space.

It's unfortunate that equity work is cutting-edge and has been taking this long for us to really get going in the tech space broadly. But I think we've rapidly come up to speed in understanding what many of the problems are—and the right language to use. Developing frameworks for catching these issues more quickly and getting in front of them is the biggest win that we've been having.

We're not in crisis mode when things come up, and instead put processes and systems into place where our systems are more fair to begin with.

We really center on making sure those groups that have been historically overlooked become the foundation of everything that we do and every decision that we make.

Dr. Stacey Houston II

Can you share an example of how you've translated the rightfully high-minded discussions that sometimes come from executives and the shareholders where you're attempting to build equitable systems?

Part of where the rubber meets the road in equity work is understanding that you can't serve everyone unless you serve…everyone. We really center on making sure those groups that have been historically overlooked become the foundation of everything that we do and every decision that we make.

We've been very public that the group that we've decided to focus on first are Black people in the US. We know there are other groups that have also been historically underserved, but our idea is that in solving problems for Black people in the US, we also solve for their intersectional identities.

How do we consider all the systemic ways that things are connected—and in systems of oppression and the way power works—to actually now improve the experiences and lives of people who utilize our platform?

How can we think about leveraging that space and any barriers that exist to actually being able to support Black-owned businesses and make it easier for that in the general shopping experience to happen for Black users on our platform?

We probably also serve other groups who have been historically overlooked in building the best solution. So once we do this and we do this in a number of communities, and we solve the problems that exist from the perspective of these underserved groups, only then can we actually say that we serve everyone. Because we've taken a deep and targeted look at understanding what those groups need.

A concept that I think has been a major win for myself and for the equity team across the company is bringing in the concept of targeted universalism from the Othering and Belonging Institute. The idea is that you can have these universal goals.

I always use the image of a mall, and if you want everyone to be able to shop in the mall or to be able to access all parts of the mall, you have to think about disabilities, specifically, as you think about how a person might traverse a multi-story mall.

The idea of targeted universalism is that we might need targeted solutions, targeted approaches to make sure that every group, considering their specific needs, can actually access this universal goal.

Is your team a consultative agency? What is the day-to-day with the product and the engineering and the design teams you're working with?

Meta is a big company. We sit squarely within Instagram and there are different leaders, different groups, different organizations, that are very interconnected, but also are specifically designed to serve specific subgroups within the company.

You will have to have a product team around this, so we're often called and consulted. Many of us are experts whether through academia or through having tangential spaces within company prior or our external companies.

We often do serve in a consultative capacity, but our unique remit is to actually make sure that people from underserved groups feel seen, heard, and valued on Instagram specifically. Instagram is supposed to ladder up into the broader Meta and company vision.

There are other equity teams who are doing the same thing across our other products. There are also central entities that are designed to help people skill up or scale up in spaces that are not uniquely dedicated to addressing equity.

The Racial Justice Research Council is another council that I co-founded with my colleague Camela Logan, who's another researcher. Even if you're not on a specific team that's dedicated to thinking about building equity-oriented products, how do we make sure that you're skilled in a way that you can think critically in your research practice? To make sure those diverse voices are not just heard, but centered in your research and that your team too can build products that addresses those needs?

How could someone start putting into practice or advocating for some of the equity initiatives that your team is doing?

One of the ways to double click on your point of the high leadership ideals is to focus on the mission and vision for the company. We want to serve everyone.

One of the biggest wins we had very early on is to come to a common set of terminology that we were going to use. A lot of times what derails this work is when people mean and say different things.

So for example, if someone says, ‘I want to make our platforms fair.’ The word ‘fair’ means a completely different thing in another person's mind. When there are established concepts existing out there, people might be using ‘fair’ where they mean ‘equitable’ or ‘equitable’ when they mean ‘fair’. There are nuances and differences in those.

Coming to terms with what you're after and then conceptualizing it and coming to a shared understanding across your org, and doing so with underserved communities, is a really foundational piece. That's a simple thing to do.

We can come up with some definitions, but I can almost promise that being able to come back to those terms and orienting people to the problems you're trying to solve is really key. Think about the big words that people throw out there, like ‘impact’ or ‘serving all’.

Whatever makes the company tick from a vision. Figure out that narrative and anchor the equity, racial justice, inclusivity, whatever goal you have—such that it becomes so intimately intertwined that people start to realize that they can't achieve that vision without doing this work.

That creates the runway that we need for the continued effort to address these deep, deep issues.

Moving from academia to business

What was the thinking going back and forth with the transition from academia to business? Did you hit a wall with jobs? What was that experience like for you going between those two worlds?

I grew increasingly dissatisfied with just writing articles and the kinds of conversation that I was having with reviewers—and sometimes department chairs—and colleagues in general about the work.

While those conversations were intellectually stimulating, I always thought back to my family and my friends and where I grew up. Are these arguments that I'm having with these reviewers actually going to meaningfully change the experience of the people that I grew up with and my kids and their kids?

I anchor on some of these critical experiences that I had. I was sitting in one of my advanced classes in middle school and just looking around the room and realizing, ‘Damn, I'm the only Black guy in this class, only Black person period in class.’

When I go home, I'm surrounded by Black people. My family is Black and I started thinking about some of those dynamics. Being recognized in this academic community, is it going to change that experience? And in some incremental ways, it does.

It wasn’t until I really got to Meta that I saw what the translation of my work looked like in this space. I long for the opportunity for more academics to get a feel for that, because otherwise I had no idea.

The industry for me was being a consultant or doing statistical evaluations, or working for a nonprofit. Maybe working for a think tank research organization, but that was even a little bit further off.

I never thought about the application of my skill in a space like Meta. It wasn't until a recruiter reached out and took interest in my background and started making the connections for me that I actually saw myself coming here and really changing things around.

It was my eventual first manager who said, ‘Look, I don't know if we have the unique space that you're looking out for, but I'm down to curb that out for you. And find ways to really tie that in.’ And so it was just through those moments that I could see myself in that role.

Thinking back to educational access, many Black kids need that kind of entry to see the things they're interested in like that.

When you have these people with diverse lived experiences in these spaces, and you actually promote them and have them in positions of power, that creates the best opportunity for things to happen organically.

You have someone in their ear who says, "I know you care about this, but have you thought about it in this way and how this connects?" And that's where the real sweet spot is.

I always thought back to my family and my friends and where I grew up. Are these arguments that I'm having with these reviewers actually going to meaningfully change the experience of the people that I grew up with and my kids and their kids?

Dr. Stacey Houston II

Are there particular skills from your academic days that you find yourself pulling from the tool bag and thinking, "Damn, I'm so glad I had the training!”?

The ability to ask the questions that have not been asked or answered yet. Having conversations with other researchers to generate new knowledge.. Building off of existing research to expand our knowledge is a skill that I picked up.

I see a lot of folks do really good work and research, but only when they're told what the problem is—or what they need to do to figure it out. Being able to go out and find the problems is a skill that I've picked up on from my program.

I knew early on that I wasn't satisfied with just writing papers. I just said, ‘Look, it's not the most valuable thing I can offer to the world.’ I intentionally put myself in a sociology department and positioned myself to speak to education scholars or the computer science department.

I found spaces where they were intentionally interdisciplinary. It helped with the translation of not just the research practice and methods, but the topics and making those topics relevant to other stakeholders who are thinking about similar things. Although I was trained as a sociologist, I found myself working in a criminology department; I've applied my expertise to areas of health disparities.

Those experiences have helped me develop an ability to translate and soak up different frames and perspectives, which lets me be more creative in developing solutions. I think it has been beneficial for being in tech as well—different stakeholders focusing on different elements of an experience, feature set, or problem statement...translating is really beneficial there.

Imposterism in UX

Your research has looked at imposterism in some high-achieving spaces. How is UX doing, or where might it be better?

What's interesting about UX as a space is interrogating how the problems that you're trying to solve have also directed or led you to this space.

There are a ton of opportunities at Meta. One of the most coveted might be an engineer. I was on the engineering trajectory. What compelled me to be in sociology and asking questions of inequity in particular, was that it didn't seem like a viable thing to do as an engineer.

There might have been some structures that unfairly blocked me from even pursuing the opportunity in my educational training. That is something I think about.

Looking at the demographic makeup across the UX space in particular, what's the proportion of underserved people who are quantitative leaning versus those who are qualitative leaning? What aspects of that play into what questions get asked and answered at the current level, and who's really heard when two researchers walk into the room with different methodologies and different data in their backpack?

I think a ton about that, and I know it doesn't specifically speak to imposterism, but just thinking about the makeup of the field.

I find that the people who are asking these questions and trying to push the company forward often come from the UX field. I have to wonder how much that has to do with not just race and ethnicity, but class background and the training you had in school and what classes you were drawn to.

Even if you were particularly quant-leaning or data-leaning, might you have taken an ethnographic sociology class along the way, because of these problems?

Feeling like an imposter in these spaces isn't a personal thing. It oftentimes can manifest as forms of racism or in terms of the structures that exist. There's a reason that people feel like they're imposters and it doesn't have anything to do with the individual themselves, and more so about how you're being made to feel.

That's connected to larger structures of living, and I think anchoring on that for me has helped me in those moments where I feel like it's a personal deficit for whatever reason.

In the UX space, we're doing research where we're thinking about the ways that different groups are treated, and their experiences with the platform. It's hard to disconnect that from your experiences at work. Some of the barriers you may face feel personal but are really, again, structural in nature.

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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