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Discovering how online support networks can improve user health

A College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences graduate has landed a remarkable position at Facebook Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif., leveraging his doctoral training and experience in health care and user design.Spencer Ingels, PhD, Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology (2018), serves as a new user experience researcher (UXR) on the health team at Facebook. Ingels, whose hometown is Berkeley, CA, says he is focused on conducting research to inform and improve how products, tools and features are used to support better health.

“Currently much of this work is focused on understanding our users’ experience with Covid-19 and evaluating interventions to support prevention behaviors and vaccination,” Ingels said. “I am most excited to start work focusing on understanding how Facebook's tools as an online support network can be used to support better health outcomes.”

Prior to WVU, Ingels worked in multiple roles where he coached individuals and groups toward better health by helping them create and sustain new habits, like eating healthier or increasing activity. “At WVU I continued this work and started doing more research focused on health behavior and how to support better health through behavior change,” he said.

After graduation Ingels worked in population health for Lifelong Medical Care, a federally qualified health center, and as a UXR for Change Healthcare, a healthcare technology company. “Both roles were great and provided important experience in healthcare, technology, and research that set me up for my work on Facebook's health team,” Ingels said.

Ingels says he chose the SEP program at WVU CPASS because it was the top program in the country. “It had two faculty members who were focused on research in the public health and health behavior space, which no other SEP programs had. I felt confident it would be a place where I could build off my M.A. in sport psychology to establish a career focused on health behavior,” he added.

Ingels explains his passion for the sport and exercise psychology field. “I love helping people achieve their goals and live their best lives. SEP focuses on this, both from a sport performance perspective, and with helping non-athletes or former athletes achieve their goals,” he said.

WVU CPASS offered critical support for Ingels’ career advancement. “I had great mentor support from all the faculty, both in CPASS and other departments. This is especially true of my doctoral advisor, Sam Zizzi,” he said. “I came to WVU to learn from Sam and work in the PEIA weight management program he was running out of CPASS. I learned a lot about applied research, which has been critical in my transition to UXR,” he explained.

In addition, Ingels says that he learned a lot about health management programs. “I discovered what it takes to create and run one and how that can interface with a health insurance provider. These experiences have helped me see opportunities and guide research focus throughout my career,” he said.

Morgantown brings back special memories. “I love how close it is to nature. I could always see the green and, within a few minutes, I could be lost in some woods, reconnecting with my soul,” Ingels said.

Ingels urges SEP students to think outside the box when considering career opportunities. “There is a lot we can do with our degree besides teaching and consulting,” he explained.

For Ingels, a standard day entails research planning, research execution and socializing research. “Within these three areas I am typically doing pieces of each everyday. Some days I am only doing execution, if for example I am running interviews or working on data analysis. Other days I am working on planning and socializing,” he said.

Research planning involves a lot of upfront work for the team Ingels says. “Getting research briefs created to go through our internal review process, sort of like an IRB, that all research needs to go through,” he said. “This area also includes creating survey items, interview discussion guides, pulling together product design stimuli to test, working with vendors to get quotes for recruitment or leading research, and other research planning.”

“For international research, where we need a local team to lead the interviews, I'll work with vendors to get recruitment set up and make sure the moderator of the interview understands the research goals and the interview guide.”

Ingels says that research execution process is ‘straightforward.’ “It involves running and analyzing the research. For surveys it's organizing, launching and analyzing the data. For interviews it's leading the sessions if in the US or other English-speaking countries,” he added. “Or, if international, it involves observing the sessions, chatting with the local team to give in-the-moment feedback and taking in-depth notes to kick-start analysis. Once the data is collected the focus is on creating reports for the product teams.”

Socializing research involves meeting regularly with different stakeholders from product managers to designers to make sure they understand the results and the implications for how the product or feature can better meet the user need. “This step also involves regular collaboration with stakeholders to make sure research is considered in our strategy. Often these chats and meetings lead to new questions and discussion of future research to address them, and I am back to step one.”

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