We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Janel, a senior UX researcher at Udemy. Udemy is one of the largest online learning platforms in the world, and it was fascinating to learn how Janel and her team have scaled their research operations using an embedded model. Let's dive in to learn more:

Sofia: Let’s start by learning about your role and company - can you tell us what you do?

Janel: I joined the UX Research team at Udemy a little over a year ago, mainly supporting the product team on the marketplace, B2C side of our business. Udemy is the leading global marketplace for teaching and learning, with more than 30 million students learning from over 42,000 instructors in over 50 languages, and offers learning both to consumers and businesses through Udemy for Business.

It’s a really exciting time to be at Udemy as we continue to expand, including recently opening a new office in Denver. From day one, it has been super encouraging to see that almost every department in the company understands the full value of research. Folks across the organization are continually banging on our door wanting deeper understanding of our customers and business to drive their decisions.

Sofia: How has research evolved at Udemy?

Janel: Our research function has grown and evolved since its inception. We started with a solid foundation including building relationships and encouraging the company to a user-first mindset, enabling myself and four other researchers to jump in and start adding value from day one.

As the company has grown, we’ve moved to a more embedded research model, primarily supporting product & design, marketing, and content operations. We’re already starting to see the benefits of an embedded framework, including fostering stronger relationships with our stakeholders and better visibility into agile team roadmaps.

Sofia: What other benefits have you seen as you’ve shifted to an embedded team model?

Janel: Stakeholders start bringing you into the product process sooner and sooner, which is something all researchers strive for. We really want to be involved as soon as possible to ensure we’re making informed, data-driven decisions, bringing research (existing research included!) into the process sooner and more often which saves everyone time.

With researchers spread across the organization, we’re able to shift our approach to being more proactive versus reactive, giving researchers the chance to propose and initiate projects. We’re looped in much earlier and more often, creating space for holistic, deeper thinking into every project, ultimately helping avoid wasting precious design and engineering resources while also increasing our confidence in everything we do.

Sofia: What are the components of a strong research foundation?

Janel: That's a great question. When it comes to a strong foundation, you need to have enough company-wide understanding of the value, role, and application of research. Secondly, having a high level understanding of your user base is a gift that keeps on giving. Early-stage companies sometimes skimp on research early on, which is a lost opportunity, as I’ve seen how valuable it can be, from guiding initial company strategy to day-to-day product vision/execution.

It starts little by little, proving how research can (and should) be used, one project at a time. I think a lot of that involves making your case, and building trust with your company along the way. Just doing the research and passing it off won’t cut it, creating that trust means translating users behaviors/attitudes into tangible implications to empower your stakeholders to take action. An “insight” is only insightful if you can tactically demonstrate what it means for your stakeholder or company. We strive to communicate findings in a clear way that ties back to original objectives and hypotheses and give specific next steps/recommendations.

Sofia: What challenges do UX research teams face? What are you doing to improve the efficiency of your research?

Janel: One challenge we face is with the logistical aspects of research. We spend a good amount of time scheduling interviews, distributing incentives, and rescheduling interviews. That’s normal and expected for smaller research teams. As the team is growing, we’ve already started incorporating new tools to expedite some pieces of the process, including scheduling, participant communication, survey distribution, among others.

Not only does that increase our efficiency, it also creates space for us to focus on broader, strategic initiatives where we know we can have larger company-wide impact. To me, foundational research is where the magic happens - when you’re able to identify the true finding/underlying behavior or attitude that's shaping a user's behavior or how they actually interact with your product. When we can provide that type of information, the whole company benefits.

Another challenge, or rather, opportunity we’re excited about improving on is ensuring our research is as representative of our user base as possible. We’ve started exploring ways to incorporate diverse, international populations in every study.

Sofia: What do you wish you knew five years ago?  

Janel: That my strengths really shine in UX research. I started my career in market research, and while I learned so many invaluable skills that I still utilize today, I wish I would have been more open to other types of research sooner. When I started exploring my next move, I was surprised and thrilled to see more and more UX-focused research roles emerging.

I would also tell myself that there are benefits to working at a larger company, but that they often approach/structure research differently, so it’s important to experiment and get a variety of experiences, as it can really have an impact on the type and velocity of career trajectory.

Sofia: What advice would you give to a researcher on a small team who doesn’t have the same foundation that you did when you joined Udemy?

Janel: It's worth fighting the fight - building that foundation yourself or with a small team is great experience for any researcher! Having the opportunity to establish a research function would be an amazing challenge for me.

I would say that building relationships with a variety of people across a company is key. If you're the first or second researcher, it will take time. Getting to know folks on a personal level will create a platform to work with them professionally - you'll start to more deeply understand their work, making it easier to connect the dots between seemingly different projects and leveling up your impact. Making time for basic human interaction increases your understanding (and empathy) of the problems your stakeholders face which is a really great place to start.