Technology companies seek social scientists to help improve products

Matt Wallaert is not a software engineer. Nor is he a programmer or developer.

Still, it's not unusual for him to get calls regularly from tech companies looking to recruit him.

Wallaert is a social scientist -- a behavioral scientist who has done undergraduate and graduate work in psychology.

Eight months ago, Wallaert, who also has experience at tech startups, began working at Microsoft with the Bing team, figuring out ways to make it easier for Bing users to make decisions and take actions, as well as ways to wean people off the habit of automatically going to Google for their Web searches.

While the idea of social scientists working at tech companies is not new, "There's been a shift in the industry," Wallaert believes. "They used to shuffle these people into marketing: 'How do we get them to help sell us more things?' Now, they've shifted us into product: 'How do we actually make the thing better.'?"

Wallaert's experience is echoed by some other social scientists at Microsoft and at other tech firms that are seeing increased interest in the skills social scientists offer, especially with the rising importance of social networking and big data to businesses.

Many agree their roles have become more integrated with specific product groups within their companies, rather than segregated to marketing or research.

In the past few years, with the rise of social computing and social media, tech companies have come to understand that, "It's not enough to understand the individual user," said Donald Farmer, a Seattle-based vice president of product management at QlikTech, a software company. "You have to understand them in a social context."

"There really is no business any more that sells directly to one consumer," he said. "Every enterprise is now a social enterprise."

Jennifer Chayes, managing director of Microsoft Research labs in Cambridge, Mass. and in New York City, saw this change coming about six years ago. She pitched the idea to Microsoft of opening up a research lab specifically staffed with social scientists.

Social science research forms a substantial part of the work of the New England and New York labs, which opened in 2008 and 2012, respectively. Those labs take an interdisciplinary approach, uniting subjects such as machine learning and behavioral sciences.

A number of those researchers are studying some aspect of social networking.

"As technology becomes the mediator of our social interactions, it's essential that research in technology incorporate deep research in social science," Chayes said. "Otherwise, we design systems that don't do what we would like them to do for people or don't do what people would like."

Microsoft's devices and services, for example, shouldn't be thought of strictly as only devices or services. Many of them have social components as well.

"Xbox is a social site," Chayes said. "Skype is a social site."

Devices -- such as Windows phones and tablets -- also mediate social interactions, she says.

Microsoft researchers, for example, are looking into how people find out what music they want to listen to, what musicians they want to interact with, and how to enrich the fan experience -- all of which might help the Xbox Music service.

Similar things are happening at other tech companies.

When Ken Anderson, an anthropologist and principal engineer with Intel Labs, started at the company about 12 years ago, there were only a handful of social scientists. Now there are dozens.

Moreover, most product and marketing groups at Intel now have at least one anthropologist or sociologist embedded in them, Anderson said.

Trey Causey, who is working toward a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Washington and recently joined flash-sales clothing website Zulily as a data scientist, said there's still some skepticism among tech firms that social scientists have skills to contribute.

But that's changing, he said, especially with the volume of data available these days that companies want to analyze.

(Reach Seattle Times technology reporter Janet I. Tu at jtu@seattletimes.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

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