About edX: edX is an online learning platform that provides 7 million+ learners monthly access to 2500+ courses from today’s top institutions and universities.

The Problem: During March 2020, I was hired as edX’s UX Research Manager and responsible for building a culture of customer centricity from the ground up. Prior to joining the team, the Product and UX team at edX went over 22+ months without speaking to a customer about their needs.

My Role: As UX Research Manager, I was the founding member of the UX research function at edX. Through key partnerships with members from UX, Product, Engineering, Marketing, Customer Success and the executive teams, I drove a cultural shift around customer centricity and user empathy inside of the company.

Approach

Understanding Internal Perception of Research

To kick start my work and help narrow the focus of the newly formed research function, I conducted an internal study to gain a deeper understanding around the hopes, dreams, expectations, and perception of research at edX.

I conducted this research in 2 phases:

  • First, I conducted a survey to understand core stakeholders skill levels related to UX Research competency areas
  • Next, I set up 1:1 conversations to dive deeper into the stakeholders current perception and hopes and dreams for the future of research at edX

The initial research confirmed that there were some deep rooted fears around UX Research at edX. Particularly around research:

  • Being a blocker 
  • Taking up too much of the team’s time
  • Not leading to actionable insights
  • Being overly academic and not approachable to team members

Despite the overwhelming fears around research, there was excitement for the future of the new function! Particularly around:

  • The opportunity for research to influence and drive company strategy
  • Driving actionable outcomes
  • Creating a shared understanding of our customers

Overall, the team at edX envisioned a future of collaboration with UX Research where the new function helped to:

  • Partner with product squads to gain a deeper understanding of our customers
  • Educate team members around the benefits, value, and conducting UX Research
  • Create a centralized hub of research artifacts to drive the company’s understanding of its customer base

See here view the full synthesis of the internal research study.

Creating a Strategy

Armed with a deeper understanding of the current state of research and needs for the future, I drove the creation of a foundational vision and strategy for building the research team at edX.

NOTE: The phases illustrated in the strategy graphic above often happened concurrently rather than in a linear manner.

I also started to narrow the focus of the initial research function on 3 core areas:

  • Building strong relationships with the existing functions at edX
  • Evangelizing customer centricity across the organization 
  • Supporting UX research knowledge development for individuals and teams.

Click here to view the full UX Research Strategy for edX.

Building Strong Collaborative Relationships

As a solo researcher who would be supporting 12 agile product teams, I knew that it would be important to build a foundation of trust with the teams I would be supporting in order to combat the deep rooted fears around research.

I did this by creating a pilot operating model where I embedded myself within 3 of the agile teams that I was supporting. By embedding myself within the product development process for these teams, I led everything from generative to evaluative research studies to showcase the value and impact that research could have on the organization.

Evangelizing Customer Centricity Across the Organization

As I continued to pilot a working operating model with teams, I began to shift my focus on evangelizing customer centricity across the organization.

I built a system of slack channels where I would communicate and promote customer insights that were learned during and after studies.

I also built a UX Research repository called the UX Insights Hub where any edX employee could easily find and understand who our customers were and how it applies to their work. The Hub also housed 20+ templates and tip sheets that were created to help enable individuals and teams to conduct research.

Additionally, I invested time in building out edX’s UX Research tool stack from the ground up. This included vetting, purchasing, and educating team members on tools that supported everything from passive insight collection, usability testing, surveys, participant recruitment, and transcription. 

Supporting UX Insights Knowledge Development

After demonstrating the value of UX Research and building trust with the teams I was working with, I began to see a tremendous increase in research requests coming in. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, budgets were strapped and we were unable to hire additional headcount for the research team. My focus very quickly shifted to democratizing research and enabling individuals and teams to conduct studies on their own.

I designed and facilitated a 4 part synchronous workshop series aimed at skilling up individuals and teams on how to conduct research inside of edX. 

In addition to the workshop series, I also offered personalized coaching to team members who were conducting research studies and began offering bi-weekly office hours to answer any research related questions.

Outcome

As a result of the cultural shift around customer centricity that I was able to drive at edX, the team went from over 22+ months without talking to customers to connecting to thousands of learners through 40+ research studies in just 6 months!

There was an increase in trust between the UX and product team as well as increased awareness and interest in delivering solutions that met the needs of edX’s customer base.

To this day, the edX team uses the templates and resources that I created to connect with it’s customers and team members store insights learned during studies in the UX Insight Hub.