(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories highlighting Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology students and their summer internships and professional development experiences.)
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Through a summer internship with SiriusXM/Pandora, Renkai Ma is studying how music listeners and creators interact with the company’s product features. While his work will help the legacy music streaming service actively grow brand awareness among younger listeners and improve the process for content creators — such as musicians, curators and label partners — it will also help Ma advance his knowledge and research in the field of human- computer interaction (HCI).
As a doctoral student in the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology, Ma studies how creators experience content moderation on social media and digital streaming platforms — for example, through content removal, lessened visibility or income deductions. In his user experience (UX) research internship role with SiriusXM/Pandora this summer, Ma applies what he’s learned at IST by conducting research with end users and negotiating for stakeholder buy-in to support better product and design decisions.
“(Through) this internship, I am gaining internal knowledge of how industry professionals conceptualize creators in different segmentations or genres,” said Ma. “I have touched on various types of UX research methods during the internship, and I (believe) these methods could, in turn, offer me different angles when thinking about academic research topics.”
The academic and domain knowledge that Ma has developed through his research at Penn State — including research methods like moderated, semi-structured interviews; inferential statistical tests; and data visualization — has helped him confidently tackle real-world industry UX projects.
Along with his adviser Yubo Kou, assistant professor of information sciences and technology, Ma has used these methods to study video content creators. A few of their recent papers, presented at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW) in 2021 and 2022, focus on testing whether esports game players’ identities and regions affect game publishers’ governance outcomes; studying how content moderation generates socioeconomic impacts on creators’ labor and livelihoods by decreasing their incomes; and revealing how certain platforms’ algorithms collectively moderate creators and their practices.
“This knowledge around creator moderation and economy helped me connect with business at Pandora when the team aims to develop and iterate products oriented towards creators,” he said.
In addition to deepening his understanding of users to advance his research and benefiting his future work, the internship is also helping Ma develop critical interpersonal skills, especially those that are different in industry compared to academia. In his internship, he regularly collaborates with product/UX designers, product managers, content strategists and other interns. When stakeholders make design decisions, Ma assesses these decisions to ensure there is no conflict with actual user needs and determines whether further user studies are necessary.
“What I have learned is that I need to change and adjust my mindset from academia to the industry when doing UX research projects,” he said. “In academia, I can consider research projects I work on as ones that I lead from the beginning to the end; however, through my internship, I’ve learned and realized that a project is not usually led by a single person but a collaboration where I might support the research part more, such as collecting and analyzing the data and translating the insights to be digestible to different product teams.”
While Ma is still deciding if his post-Penn State career path will take him into academia or industry, he said he is glad for the opportunity to gain exposure to both experiences.
“My research at the College of IST allows me to work on flexible research topics and rigorous methods, while my internship in the industry offers me room for creative methods and a work routine,” he said. “There are no words to enumerate the pros and cons of each, but accumulating more experience in both academia and industry before graduation will allow me to grow as an HCI researcher.”