Pushing UX education forward

Alec Levin on why in order to be a strategic researcher, it’s necessary to understand the economics of business.

Alec Levin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Learners, a community that provides professional education to UX Researchers, designers, and product managers. In this episode, we hear about the value of engaging in a multidisciplinary community and why in order to be a strategic researcher, it’s necessary to understand the economics of business. 


ALEC LEVIN: I think that a lot of people in the research discipline, and I'm not sure why exactly it is, there seems to be an aversion to talking about money and talking about power and influence. And I think it's definitely to our detriment. One of the big things that I've been trying to push back on is this idea that researchers represent the users. And the reason that I like to push back on that is because the users don't pay your salary. 

ALFONSO DE LA NUEZ, CO-HOST: Welcome to UXpeditious! A show that brings you quick, insightful interviews with design, product, and UX leaders.

DANA BISHOP, CO-HOST: In each interview we dive into how UX research impacts user insights; shaping the design and business strategy of some of our favorite tech tools and products. 

BISHOP: And I’m Dana Bishop, VP of Strategic Research Partners at UserZoom.

DE LA NUEZ: And we are your hosts. 

Joining us on today's episode is Alec Levin, the Co-Founder and CEO of Learners.  The idea for Learners started as a small meetup group called UX Research Collective. It’s grown to include adjacent research disciplines like product management and design.

BISHOP: Today, Learners is a community providing relevant professional education to UX Researchers, designers, and product folks. There's a new app with free videos, resources crowd-sourced directly from the Learners community; and conferences are happening throughout the year. 

DE LA NUEZ: I would love to start by asking you to please introduce yourself.

LEVIN: So my name is Alec, I'm one of the co-founders here at Learners. Our goal is to make learning about professional development, specifically in UX research and increasingly in some other spots as well, accessible to everyone and part of their day to day lives. So there's a few different ways we do this. We're probably best known for the events that we run, including UXRConf, but we've been making all sorts of different learning content in a bunch of different formats for the last little while, including across our mobile app and our web app that people use all the time to help get better at what they do. 

DE LA NUEZ: We understand that the Learners community has people from many different disciplines, not just UX researchers. I wonder if that's also something that happened out of the fact that the pandemic kind of made you go remote. Can you tell us more about hosting and nurturing a community with UX researchers and UX research adjacent disciplines?

LEVIN: I think there's this really interesting phenomenon that feels normal, but I don't think it's necessarily healthy, which is that designers go to design conferences and product managers go to product conferences and researchers go to research conferences. And to some extent, that feels like that makes a lot of sense. Whatever's on your LinkedIn, it's your job title, that's the kind of event you should be going to. And certainly in a world where these types of learnings are very costly, you go to the one that was supposed to be made just for you. But when we think about what it means to be excellent in our roles, of course we don't build anything in isolation, we work with other people and we need to understand who they are and what their processes look like and what their incentives look like and what their challenges look like.

I think, held us back potentially in the past, the fact that as a researcher, for example, I don't know enough about design to really dig in and be extra helpful. And product managers don't know enough about my practice as a researcher to really know how to leverage me to the best of my ability. And one thing that's really magical that can happen when you lower the barriers to participate is all of a sudden someone who's really curious, who's really interested in learning more can take a few hours out of their day and join an event for a bit, like with the ones that we put on and start to become more familiar with a research practice, for example, a design practice.

DE LA NUEZ: We talk about this all the time. Two things that I think will help our industry in my mind. One is UX researchers moving into other areas to learn other things, such as business, for instance, I talk about that all the time.


DE LA NUEZ: Business related stuff. Why is it that what you do matters? Because it matters. You got to expose people to it. You got to talk that language.

BISHOP: You have to speak the language of the business folks, because they want to know the ROI of this investment in UX, right? And we want headcount and we want to keep doing the work that we're doing.

DE LA NUEZ: Better conversion rates, better retention, higher productivity, the list goes on and on and on, but you need to train UX professionals and especially UX leadership to talk that language and to connect to other teams by clearlymeasuring, and articulating and communicating the benefits. 

LEVIN: I think that a lot of people in the research discipline, and I'm not sure why exactly it is, I have some guesses, but there seems to be an aversion to talking about money and talking about power and influence. And I think it's definitely to our detriment. One of the big things that I've been trying to push back on is this idea that researchers represent the users. And the reason that I like to push back on that is because the users don't pay your salary. You've been hired by a business to help achieve business goals. And it's not to say that you're not trying to do right by your customers and right by your users. Hopefully there's kind of a healthy win-win relationship between your employer and your customers.

However, if you don't understand how the business works, then A, you're not going to be effective, and B, you're not going to be open to hearing... If you tell yourself this myth that you represent the users, you represent the users. They didn't elect you. They don't pay your salary. If you tell yourself that over and over again, you're not going to be open-minded to understanding what are the real levers that make the enterprise run. And so we have to have a bit of a reset and an acknowledgement of what our jobs are in the research space, at least in industrial research, it might be different if you work for government or for other nonprofits and stuff like that. But if you work in industry, and you can't specifically point to what you were hired to do in terms of business outcomes, I would have some very urgent conversations with your colleagues right now to make sure that you get a grip on that.

BISHOP: I'm someone who passionately speaks on a probably daily basis about connecting the UX experience and improvements there to the business goals, moving the needle in both, right? And how they really need to be aligned and tied together and understand the connection and not just, "Hey, we're improving the user experience," in a bubble, and obviously it's affecting, and it's driving towards the business goals. And if it's not, like you said, it's very hard to get that seat at the table, it's hard to get budget, head count, and any visibility for the work that you're doing.

LEVIN: Yeah. I think on the flip side too, if there are people who are in leadership positions that are listening in, I think one thing that... If you have people on a team doing research and you just don't see the benefits that you are hoping to see, I think it's also okay for you to open up the conversation as well. And to just be frank about, "Hey, these are the kinds of things that we need to see in order to be successful. These are the types of movements and numbers and change that we need to see in order to be successful. How can you help us achieve that?" Because not all people, even if they're very talented researchers, have realized how important it is to become smart business people, this whole "strategic research." As I gave a talk recently about this, and I said, "It's impossible to be a strategic researcher, unless you understand the economics of the business."

BISHOP: And do you think these conferences and events that you're doing that are combining across disciplines are helping to foster those conversations and raise awareness?

LEVIN: Yeah, for sure. We are always experimenting with this stuff. Our goal is to deliver the learnings that are going to make people better at what they do. You think about these as different types of vehicles, they're good for different things. So a conference has a particular cadence to it. All the talks have to be very punchy, they have to be brief, but really catch your attention. There are certain types of messages that are very effective to deliver in that kind of setting. And there's other ones that require different types of vehicles. So one thing that we've tried for the first time that went very well, was this program that we collaborated with a friend of ours, Colette Kolenda, called Good Research, and that was phenomenal.

BISHOP: I was going to ask you about that.

LEVIN: Yeah, it was really something. You know, I think we see these things happen in waves where there's something that's created, and then all of a sudden, a lot of other people start catching on. This year in particular, especially with the rise of these remote events, we're seeing at least a dozen, maybe more. But the problem is, is that as you have more, then they become less effective, they become less popular. So you have to figure out what's something new to keep pushing the envelope forward. And this is one of the things that we decided to test out that worked out really nicely, which is a more in depth program that focuses on going deep into different areas of the practice, where you could actually spend a few hours on a particular topic. Where you could do some actual work to test your metal a bit in these different areas.

So, for this week-long program, we did a day on qualitative research, focusing a lot on synthesis and analysis. I mean, a lot of people are comfortable doing interviews, but how do you take your interviewing skills to the next level? Doing some quantitative stuff. So messing around with data, talking about how we build and structure teams and work within broader organizations, how we get better at storytelling and relationship building. So it's all these different core parts of the practice. And we had kind of every morning, it started with a baseline of this is what good looks like in each of these areas, by Colette, who's very competent and smart and capable and all that good stuff. Each day had a couple of kind of expert speakers that were really, really good in one of these areas, to come and talk about what excellence looks like. And it just worked really, really well.

DE LA NUEZ: So I very happy to see that turned out well and hopefully there'll be more for you guys.

LEVIN: Yeah. Sometimes you got to have the right moment to really go in on a thing, because one thing, especially with events like this, we have certain constraints that are self-imposed. So for example, all of our events are free to attend online. That's not negotiable. 

The other one is that we won't compromise on the quality of the experience for anybody. So took us a little while to find the right moment to really take this for a ride. And for this program in particular, we thought it was really important not to have us decide what the content was going to be on our own. One of the things that I think is been a bit of a plague in our industry has been the fact that such a very, very small number of individuals who often haven't been in the field for a very long time are deciding what topics are worth giving platforms for.

And it's understandable why, they made the events, they started them, whatever. However, I think to create the highest quality learning experiences, we need to figure out how to empower other people to actually be in charge of the content and the editorial, because the people that are closest to the work are the ones who really know what needs to be talked about, what's modern practice, what are the challenges we're facing. And so that's been a very important thing for us to try and figure out and again, with Good Research, this was one of the things that we did. We supported with the content, we probably contributed 20% of the talks and whatnot, and we support the content in other ways, but it was actually Colette that got to decide what were the things that we were going to talk about and in what way and who the speakers were and that kind of thing. So that's another thing that I think has held our industry back quite a bit for the last few years.

BISHOP: It's amazing that you've broken down the cost barrier because as we all know, like you said, in the beginning, attending these conferences is so expensive and for a lot of people, it's just out of reach.

DE LA NUEZ: I think it's been a super interesting conversation, taking us in many directions related to the field of learning UX, good UX research. And so thank you very much for joining us today, Alec.

LEVIN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

DE LA NUEZ:  That's Alec Levin, Co-Founder and CEO of Learners.

BISHOP:  Thanks for listening to UXpeditious. Make sure to continue listening to our new episodes each week for quality insights from UX industry leaders. If you like what you heard, help us out by rating and reviewing the show on your favorite podcast platform.

DE LA NUEZ:  UXpeditious is produced by UserZoom in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to our production team: Christopher Ratcliff from UserZoom; and the team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Aimee Machado, Hannah Pedersen, Colleen Pellissier, and Michael Aquino.