The organization absolutely matters
Finding a company that truly values what you can bring to the table is the #1 biggest factor that will determine your ability to build a team. If you don’t have advocates for your function within the organization, it can be an uphill battle the whole way.
Fortunately for me, the company culture at Udemy is one that has so naturally allowed research to blossom and bloom. At Udemy I’ve found an incredibly curious and user-forward employee base that has embraced research 150% — from all levels of the organizational structure. And as the team has grown, so has the user-centric culture. As an example, it’s been amazing to see the meeting language evolve with more exposure to research — overhearing PMs and designers say things like “what would be best for the user?” and “Here are my hypotheses about this user problem…” makes my nerdy researcher heart sing ️😊.
Without Udemy’s learning-centric culture and genuine desire to improve learners lives that radiates throughout the organization, UXR as a function would not have seen the growth it did.
Nothing happens overnight
I hear a lot of comments in the research community about the continual “fight” to get research a “seat at the table”. I do believe that continual advocacy is an essential part of the job. Of any job, really. But I don’t see it as a “fight”. I heartily embrace advocacy, relationship building, and conveyance of the value research because I know they are key to making sure we are in the right rooms and answering the most interesting and important questions. Because my team is awesome at what they do the research largely speaks for itself, but it has taken time to get us positioned to have the degree of impact we currently do.
The key to getting buy-in early in my time at Udemy was to land some quick wins — small or large projects completed in the first two months that had significant impact (e.g. shift company direction, improve a feature, etc.). Visible results in combination from some heavy advocacy on my part opened up the first headcount. Adding more intelligent and compassionate researchers to the team increased the scope and proactivity to our work, which in turn helped us grow the team.
Your career (just like your org.) is a living organism
Most humans are creatures of comfort — we like stasis and stability. Contrary to that, companies and teams are ever-changing organisms. Companies continually shift and change size to accommodate evolving business needs. When I joined Udemy three years ago, we were roughly 90 employees, and as such we didn’t have the same volume of research need we do now as a company of more than 400.
As the company has evolved, so too has the UX research team. As a team of one, I scrambled as a centralized service resource. When we added the second researcher we still only had the capacity to work centrally — fielding requests from teams across the company and attacking the most urgent and impactful projects with gusto (see this article on my prioritization techniques for small teams if this sounds like you!). But as soon as the third person joined the team, all previous systems and processes broke down. To accomodate we moved to an embedded model, with each researcher working closely with a small subset of PM-designer pairs. A million other process changes had to happen to accommodate the increasing complexity. As a side note I love that there is a growing movement around Research Ops and building research processes!
As the organization has changed, so has my role leading the team. I went from seeing the direct impact of my work to watching that impact through the eyes of my teammates. There are more meetings for me now, and coaching, guidance, and strategic thinking have become how I influence the organization. And while I’ve enjoyed that change, I recognize it’s not for everyone 🙂
Ah, meetings. They’re often reviled, but in actuality are an essential part of any manager’s playbook. At first I felt that meetings were getting in the way of “my work”. However, my perspective changed after I took Harrison Metal’s General Management course (highly recommended!) in which we read Andy Grove’s High Output Management. In one chapter he described his daily schedule in detail — his day largely comprised of meetings. But he had a beautiful way of reframing the function of meetings:
“…some two thirds of my time was spent in a meeting of one kind or another. Before you are horrified by how much time I spend in meetings, answer a question: which of the following activities — information-gathering, information-giving, decision-making, nudging, and being a role model — could I have performed outside a meeting? The answer is practically none…a meeting is nothing less than the medium through which managerial work is performed.” — Andy Grove
Meetings are the most important thing you can do as a manager. You gather information, redistribute it, and help troubleshoot as you go. I’ve come to realize that as a manager “my work” is actually to attend meetings! With the help of Andy Grove I’ve shifted my mindset and now see meetings as opportunities rather than as space fillers.
Take your time and “hire right”
Hiring is an essential part of building a team. In that arena I received amazing support from a patient and strategic recruiting partner (❤️ you, Brie!). She helped me articulate my needs and iterate on the process until we reached the quality of process and candidate caliber I was hoping for. It took some time to set it up correctly, but that patience has paid off dividends. Since that point we’ve gone on to hire five more amazing and high-quality researchers.
And like true researchers, the buck didn’t stop there. To this day we’re always iterating on the recruiting process. Every time I hire, I reassess the process and talk with the folks involved to see what we can do to make it better. I also ask the team members who went through the process most recently to learn more about how we could’ve improved their experience.
Don’t be afraid to keep pushing to find the right process, as that dictates the types of candidates that walk through your door. If you can get that right, you should (hopefully) start fielding better candidates for the role.
It takes a village
Genuinely the UX research team would not be at this point without the amazing support of so many people across Udemy.
Our team, like many research teams, sits at a unique nexus in between the users and the product both organizationally and tactically. Therefore we interface with so many different functions in a research capacity — PMs, designers, engineers, marketing folk, content strategists, support agents, etc. I have been able to find so many wonderful friends and advocates among them who were the voices that spoke up and suggested research be brought into the room. Without them and their passion for the user, there wouldn’t have been drive to build the team.
But beyond the direct day-to-day colleagues, I’ve received so much support from the backbones of the company as well. From the front desk office managers, to recruiters, finance, legal, IT, and beyond — though often overlooked, they too stuck their necks out for me and really made this team growth possible.
Lastly, but not least of all, a manager can make or break an employee’s experience. My manager has been incredibly supportive. While he keeps a rational head on his shoulder, he has advocated for me and for more user research every step of the way — opening headcount, approving budgets, giving us the green light to tackle bigger and more interesting projects. Archie, I couldn’t have 5X’ed the team without you!