October 26, 2022

Three product foundation researchers at Meta share what it’s like to work in accessibility

By: Meta Research

Three headshots of product foundation researchers at Meta

At Meta, we’re dedicated to developing innovative technology that empowers people to build community. Part of bringing the world closer together is making it possible for more people to enjoy inclusive, engaging experiences — which starts with building accessible products. Several senior researchers at Meta have dedicated their careers to accessibility-focused research for this very reason. Senior UX researchers and managers bring experience across disciplines that range from computer science and statistics to political science and sociology, using data to drive decision-making across product teams.

Sheila Meldrum, a Senior UX Researcher on the VR Product Foundation team at Meta, says that the opportunity that UX researchers have to pursue their passions while making an impact sets Meta apart from academic research and other technology companies. “I’m driven by solving interesting problems in accessibility, and I enjoy knowing my work will make a difference for the people using our products,” she says. To learn more, we asked three senior research managers to share how they’re championing advocacy, empathy, and curiosity to make the products that we build more accessible.

Advocating for accessibility in VR and beyond

While earning her PhD in cognition and neuroscience, Sheila accepted an internship at Meta focused on improving the accessibility of the first Quest headset. By adjusting physical requirements for the Guardian system setup, such as touching the controllers to the ground, she and her team made it possible for more people in wheelchairs to enjoy VR around the world. This experience sparked an interest in accessibility that led Sheila to join Meta full-time in September 2020, turning what began as a side passion into her primary role as the first accessibility-focused researcher within Reality Labs.

Today, Sheila is a powerful advocate for accessibility within Meta. “I focus on solving current accessibility challenges and building new accessibility features to make VR a better experience for those who are differently abled, which helps us build better products for everyone,” she says. “For example, we developed a raised view feature, which enables people sitting in wheelchairs to change their vantage point. This feature also benefits anyone who wants to play while sitting on the couch — another example of how building for accessibility helps us think deeper and more creatively about people’s experiences in general.”

From early on, it has been important to Sheila to advocate for accessibility beyond her team. She drew inspiration from the other accessibility-focused researchers outside of Reality Labs to scale her work — from creating a guidebook for doing accessibility research in hardware to hosting a panel at Reality Labs featuring users who are differently abled and use VR headsets. “Most importantly, I learned how to ‘sell’ the value of doing accessibility work to other researchers, teams, and departments,” Sheila says. “When advocating for work you care about, it’s important to show how the research will make a difference for different groups of people. This often means looking beyond the numbers to tell a bigger story.”

When Sheila transitioned to Meta from academia, she says she felt inspired and empowered from the start. “Things move fast, teams are incredibly collaborative, and I get to see the direct impact of my research so quickly,” she says. “I’m continuously motivated to lead groups with other researchers, share lessons learned, and serve on review boards when new products come out — whatever it takes to ensure that more people can enjoy Meta technologies.”

Approaching UX with empathy

For Manivone Phommahaxay, accessibility has been threaded throughout her career for over two decades. Manivone has worked at several consulting firms, and her industry background deeply informs how she understands users’ needs​​ and how those needs impact the business. She started at Meta in June 2021 as a Research Manager on the Product Excellence team and now seeks to understand user experience through an accessibility lens.

Manivone believes that empathy is crucial to making UX more equitable. “To work in accessibility, you need to be an advocate for people and empathize with their needs,” she says. “I don’t see accessibility as different from any UX project. It’s just recognizing that some users have more specialized needs, whether it’s requiring alt text or wanting to feel represented by their avatars.”

To ensure that these needs are reflected authentically, Manivone is intentional about bringing people who are differently abled into the conversation as products are being built. “I aim to be really thoughtful about reaching the right people,” she explains. “It takes time, but insight is necessary. For instance, I learned that when it comes to content creation, someone with a visual impairment may ask a friend to review a video before posting it. That experience is incredibly valuable for my team to know about as we find ways to optimize UX moving forward.”

Manivone appreciates how accessibility is baked into the culture at Meta. “The Accessibility team has developed an onboarding curriculum to show new hires who they’re building products for,” she says. “At Meta, we have a mission to connect people, and I get to be a thread that connects teams, departments, and ideas together to increase awareness around accessibility.”

Embracing curiosity for creative problem-solving

Dorie Rosenberg studied psychology, human factors, and cognitive science in her graduate program at Bentley University before becoming interested in accessibility. She was a UX Researcher at Meta for three and a half years, left to work at Haven for a bit, and then returned to Meta in 2020 to be a Senior Research Manager at Instagram. “I boomeranged back to Meta because of the unparalleled opportunities to make a meaningful impact and collaborate with talented teams every day,” Dorie explains.

Dorie says she’ll never be done growing, whether she’s learning something new from her teammates or bringing curiosity to everything she does. “My curiosity comes from caring about the people who use Instagram,” she says. “When I helped redesign Instagram’s information architecture — the first time Instagram changed its layout in 10 years — we had to consider every population that would touch the product.” Currently, Dorie and her team are working on another redesign that will address captions for the accessibility community. “We hope these features will help draw new people to Instagram as it becomes more accessible, helping them connect better with family and friends.”

Dorie remains curious in her work by taking courses to help her better understand people with disabilities. “From expanding the definition of disability to eliciting feedback from people with disabilities, I’ll always be learning,” she says. “I’m grateful to be part of a team that encourages my curiosity and for the ongoing opportunity to transform it into impact.”

For those considering a career path in accessibility, Dorie suggests keeping an open mind. “The path to UX is nonlinear, and things are continuously evolving. I continue to meet mentors and supporters who encourage me to explore new interests and pursue my passions. This has brought me to work I love.”