67 minutes | Apr 3, 2020

30. Laith Ulaby of Udemy

In this episode of Dollars to Donuts I speak with Laith Ullaby, the Head of Research at Udemy. I’m really into the idea of questioning what we do. That can be the methods and that conversation about getting out of our comfort zone. It can be thinking about our relationships with stakeholders and trying to reimagine and iterate on those. And it can be thinking about the historical trajectory of the field and the legacies that that has imbued us with. And I think that being ready to iterate and question the assumptions that a lot of those things are built on, is the thing that I’d really want folks to come away with. – Laith Ullaby Show Links Laith on LinkedIn Udemy UC Berkeley School of Information See One, Do One, Teach One Acquisition of Fjord Partners At Teehan+Lax Join Facebook Facebook Acq-Hires Part Of Design Firm Bolt | Peters Adaptive Path Acquired By Capital One Edward Tufte Understanding Your Users by Kathy Baxter, Catherine Courage, and Kelly Caine Insights Association Code of Standards and Ethics Advancing Research conference Advancing Research community Research Skills Framework Follow Dollars to Donuts on Twitter and help other people find the podcast by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts. Transcript Steve Portigal: Welcome to Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I talk with the people who lead user research in their organization. I had a profound moment this week. I was facilitating a meeting, not a user research setting at all. But we were having a fairly open-ended conversation. One of the people in the meeting shared some very specific advice for the rest of us, offering almost an impromptu speech or pep talk, filled with passion and encouragement. It was very inspiring. But as the facilitator, perhaps because of my work as a user researcher, I wondered if maybe that wasn’t enough. This person articulated their richly-realized state of being, and it may be easy for anyone else to dismiss it, oh, that’s just so-and-so, they’re just like that. But, we’re not born with insight about ourselves, or clarity about a new way of being, so I was curious – and I thought it would be helpful – to understand more about how this person accomplished this. How did they get here? And even though I wasn’t asking followups in this session, it seemed like an opportunity to shift my role slightly. And so I asked “How did you get to this stage, where you have this clarity in your approach?” This person paused, and said, “Well, if you really want to know” and then proceeded to share very personal details about their life, from hardship through to today and what they had overcome and how that had shaped them. The details aren’t important for my story, though, and they really belong to the individual who chose to share them, not me. Anyway, it was an impactful moment for all of us in the meeting. And it reminded me about a fundamental in user research, that you don’t know what’s behind a door, it could be something banal, I mean, it usually is, right, but you don’t know until you open it. And sometimes what you’ll find is new, surprising, and impactful. But if you assume that it’s always banal, you’ll never try to cross those thresholds, and never have the opportunity to hear those significant perspectives. I’m describing this as a doorway and that what we do as researchers do is step into that space, but I don’t think that’s sufficient to capture what it is that we do. Yes, we are stepping into something ourselves, but also, and probably most importantly, is that we’re making space for someone else, choosing to ask that question, to be interested, invites someone else to take a step forward themselves. You can call this a holding environment, or a safe space, but I think the additional point I want to make is that it’s not just what you do as a user researcher, it’s what you do for someone else. I’m putting another episode here done without the benefit of a professional editor or transcriptionist. I’m focusing in the near term on how I can contribute but of course this is a difficult time for many people including those who operate a small business. It’s a challenge right now for Portigal Consulting. If you’re in a position to consider me as a partner, that’s appreciated. I lead research projects, I help companies build a more research practice including assessments, training, and coaching. Thank you! Okay here we go with my conversation with Laith Ullaby, the Head of Research at Udemy. Well, Laith, thanks so much for being on Dollars to Donuts. It’s great to have the chance to speak with you today. Laith Ullaby: Pleasure to be here excited for the conversation. Steve: All right, well, let’s, let’s get into it. Why don’t you introduce yourself? Laith: Sure. So my name is Laith Ullaby. I’m currently the head of research at Udemy, which is an online education platform. I have a academic background in ethnography, and have bounced around the UX research world for a few years now. And then I’m also really passionate about teaching. So for the last few years, I’ve been teaching at the UC Berkeley School of Information and at the UC Berkeley Extension. Steve: So what does it mean to have a degree in ethnography? Not? I feel like that’s not a phrase that everyone can say exactly. Laith: Sure. So technically, the field that I studied was ethnomusicology. Which is using ethnographic methods to look at the intersection of music and popular culture, and so my focus was on how governments in the Middle East, were using technology to disseminate national identity through folk culture. So it was a little niche. But, you know, it was fun to sort of build that foundation and ethnographic research and think about how sort of the interplay between popular culture and technology. Steve: Do you? Are there echoes of that in, you know, your daily practice? Like, can you draw the threads back to what your what that program was about for you what that research was about? Laith: For sure, you know, I think that the, the, you know, when I think about user research, it’s really combining the strands from a lot of different places, different academic places, different you know, parts of sort of the applied world. And one of those is sort of the design anthropology world which I think is really steeped in ethnography and for me that really raises some of these really interesting questions about identity and community and how we sort of come to understand ourselves, as well as power relationships. So working on a marketplace for education, thinking cross culturally about, you know, who feels empowered to be a creator of knowledge, I think really hearkens back to some of the core areas of exploration that you might encounter in an academic program like that. Steve: Maybe, can you say more about, you know, the organization where you’re at? What, what, what Udemy does, and a marketplace for education as a compelling phrase, maybe you can impact that? Laith: Sure. Yeah, I’d love to. So, um, as opposed to some other, you know, awesome companies in the space. We’re not a publisher, we’re a marketplace. And so we have a platform for instructors to come and to find learners. So just to get a sense of the scale, we have 50 million students, 57,000 instructors and over 150,000 courses. So, you know, in other models, we might say, Hey, you know, here’s sort of the Python course that we think is cool. And in our model, you know, any instructor can come on and make any variation of a Python course. And then it’s those sort of marketplace dynamics like reviews and number of enrollments and social proof and those kind of things like you might do on an e commerce platform that folks would be familiar with, in which students then get to evaluate what’s the right course for their learning need. So it’s really exciting to sort of see that that proliferation and that there’s so many different approaches to you know, finding the right student, the right course with the right instructor at the right time. It can be overwhelming you know, you there’s obviously I’m sure a lot of folks minds are going to that, you know, moment of overload of too many options. So, it We do try and help out with that. But that’s sort of the the core value proposition of what Udemy does. Steve: And so as a researcher in a marketplace company, I’m going to guess that there’s research focused on when you describe two players in the marketplace, right, the instructors and the students credit research is, would you describe research as kind of focusing on, you know, ultimately, one or the other? Laith: Yeah, and that’s kind of the fun part is, you know, I think sometimes if we’re thinking about sort of the very, you know, naive version of user research, it’s, you know, we’re trying to help out the one user. And, you know, for us, it gets more complicated, because you have to think about that balance. And so, you know, you can make something a lot easier for the learners, but that could put a huge burden on the instructor. And so you have to be able to triangulate and sort of balance those. Similarly, we also have a b2b offering. So in that world, there’s also an administrator role or sort of a buyer role that can enter the fray as well. So we have to then sometimes think about the the balance and trying to find Win Win wins for any kind of change that we do. So it’s definitely a bigger challenge at times, but it’s a fun one. Steve: So in that third example, the b2b so someone, this is a scenario where that Python course might be used by like a learning development person inside an organization to bring that in for training set the scenario. Laith: Exactly. And so we have soft skills, we have technical skills, there’s thereR
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