Should Wellcome build a social platform for academic researchers?

The idea of building a social media platform for Wellcome had been around for years, but nobody could decide if it was a good idea. By 2019, people were fed up of wondering, and wanted to find out one way or the other. I was tasked with finding out the answer.

The Problem

The Wellcome Trust is an academic research foundation that provides funding to academic researchers focused on health.

They give out millions of pounds a year, funding entirely by the interest from an endowment, meaning they don’t need to raise money. It also means finances are generally not a barrier to doing something if it’s seen as a good idea.

For several years the idea of supporting researchers through a Wellcome-owned online social network had been floating around. No decision had been made either way, and the digital team wanted to know if we could stop the discussions or commit to building something. At the time the digital team was very much a delivery arm for the rest of the organisation. They felt it was a bad idea, but didn’t have the political capital to kill it off.


Goal

The project had a clear goal. Understand if we should build a social platform for researchers. There were two parts to this: 

  1. Understand what problem stakeholders thought building this platform would solve. 
  2. Understand if the idea solved any problems for researchers.

Make up of the team

The team consisted of the head of UX and me.

My Role

I recruited the external users, wrote the research questions and the discussion guides, conducted all the external interviews and half of the internal interviews. The remaining interviews were done by the Head of UX. I produced a report and a presentation of findings.

Understanding the user

We were looking to understand how academic researchers made use of social media, and if a Wellcome owned social media platform would help researchers. To do this we looked at how researchers communicated with other researchers, if and how they used social media.

We also wanted to look at how they communicated with funding organisations, as well as their perception of the relationship. This would help us understand how that would impact usage of anything we built.

Finally, we were also looking to understand what internal stakeholders thought of the project, and what problem they felt it would solve. We could then see if these problems were actual problems researchers had, and if a social network would solve them.

Our audience: Researchers

High Level Timeline

The research took place over a five-week period. This involved a week speaking to stakeholders to find out who we should speak to internally, as well as the things they wanted to know from academic researchers. The interviews took place over a two-week period, and were a combination of in-person and remote. 

We did a total of 18 internal interviews, and 25 external interviews. I also did some desk research to compile a list of existing social networking sites aimed at researchers.


Breaking down the process

First, I sat down with key people across the business to understand what information they wanted to know and to sound out what they thought we would find. This was to help me gauge how controversial findings might be and how best to present them back later on.

It also set expectations about the sort of information I would be able to get from research as well as how I was going to approach it and why. This prepared them for the findings, as well as engaged them in the research process. It provided organisational context for me, too, as this was my first month at the Wellcome Trust. I then used these questions to help shape the discussion guide.

We used a number of different criteria for recruitment. Firstly, we wanted no more than half of the users to be funded by Wellcome. Secondly, we wanted a good mix of career stages. This was partly because there was a view among stakeholders that younger academics would be more likely to use social media.

We also made sure we had a mix of different universities, both in terms of location as well as prestige. We didn’t look at recruiting based on social media usage, as we wanted to get some sense of how prevalent usage was.

The interviews were 60 minute depth interviews, both in-person and remote.

I started with five depth interviews with internal stakeholders to get a sense of what was driving the idea of a social media platform. This helped adapt and refine the questions for the researchers. I ran the rest of the interviews over the same time period, continually adapting and refining the questions I asked.

During the process I repeatedly checked-in with stakeholders to share the stories I was hearing. This also helped me shape the narrative by seeing what resonated with them.


Key findings

I communicated the findings in two ways. Firstly, a presentation for key stakeholders. Secondly, a long written report outlining key findings,because there was a strong cultural preference for written reports.

Researchers were communicating with each other already

There had been a feeling that a social network could help researchers communicate with each other. Researchers were in fact already communicating and collaborating with each other a lot. They weren’t waiting for a funder to come along and bridge the gap.

Email was the primary mode of communication

The main method of communication for researchers was email. Researchers emailed each other all the time, reflecting the fact that other researchers were perceived as colleagues and collaborators, even if they were in different countries. Even if the relationship started via Twitter, it would quickly move to email as it became more established.

Social networks for scientists existed, but weren’t being regularly used

One of the things I really enjoyed about this project was discovering all the different niche social sites for scientists. From huge ones like ResearchGate, which allows users to talk about published papers, to sites focused entirely on a specific fish, like zfin.org a social site dedicated to information about the zebrafish. This fish is shares 70% of its dna with humans, is and often used for research into diseases!

A social network about zebra fish!

Researchers were incredibly time poor

Researchers were under a huge amount of pressure, particularly from a time perspective. They had to be conducting research, publishing papers, as well as regularly finding new funding. This meant that they were wary of adding new things to their to do list.

Researchers saw the relationship with a funder as primarily financial

People at Wellcome saw their relationship with researchers as offering support in as many ways as possible, with funding just the first step. Researchers weren’t aware of or expecting anything other than money. This was partly driven by the fact that most funders only offered money, and Wellcome wasn’t overt about all the other things it offered.

Internally, the social network was seen as a solving many different problems

We also found that stakeholders had very different ideas of problems the social network would solve. Most of these were about improving access to information that already existed on the website. This would have created problems by increasing the number of places information had to be updated, as well as for researchers to look.

Researchers felt they would have to always moderate their behaviour

One of the concerns expressed by researchers about a Wellcome owned platform was the potential impact of anything they posted on receiving funding.This would severely limit the usefulness of the platform.

Career stage or age was not a factor in social media usage

We found that as many senior researchers found social media useful as early stage career researchers. This suggested that usage was not likely to increase as new generations of researchers came through.

Internally, people weren’t sure if it was a good idea or not

When we started speaking to people we found a lot less support for the idea than we had thought. People were open to the possibility that it might not be a good idea. They were just looking for a bit more certainty either way and were worried about not doing something that might be valuable.


Outcome

The outcome of this was that the project was laid to rest. We freed up valuable time for the organisation, as well as helping build trust in the digital team. 

It helped the digital team be perceived as able to make strategic decisions, not just deliver things. 

It also helped us understand more about internal stakeholders’ concerns with the website, and pave the way for greater improvements.


What I learnt

This was a good reminder of the importance of asking what people’s behaviour is, rather than just what they think about an idea. 

Lots of people expressed positive thoughts about the concept of a social network. However, conversations about their existing use of social networks, and the huge amount of time pressure they were under, suggested a different story.

It was also a good reminder that being specific about problems and solutions is really helpful. People put their own spin onto the idea of a ‘social network’, which was one of the reasons it had been going as an idea for so long. 

It meant that for the rest of my time at Wellcome I tried to get people to put ideas into prototype form, or be more concrete about execution. This really helped with my ongoing research.


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