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Doing the Work: Building a Cross-Sector Community of Learners

Learners Co-Founders (formerly UXR Collective) Alec Levin and Maggi Mitchell discuss why learning various disciplines is essential to company growth and collaboration.

Words by Stevie Watts, Visuals by Thumy Phan

As human-centeredness surges in awareness across organizations and industries, there's a need for organizing the emergent corpus of know-how related to design, UX, and product. Field maturity often means making sense of skills, growth paths, and titles, which brings credibility and structure, thereby offering executives hand and footholds for building these functions.

From helping leaders build and scale a team to supporting new and transitioning UX professionals, Alec Levin and Maggi Mitchell have been at the forefront. Co-founders of the popular meetup and Slack community UXR Collective and recent successes with their UXRConf events, they're trying to collate and centralize the existing industry knowledge, and make the space for folks to learn, ask questions, and sharpen their practice.

We chatted with Alec and Maggi to unpack the similarities between building great products and building great communities, the gaps in professional development, and what they're hoping to achieve with their new Learners brand.

dscout: How did you both get started with UXRC?

Alec: UXRC started as a small meetup, simply as a way to connect with other researchers. A lot of folks, especially in Toronto, were working as solo researchers without research support from a manager or any online materials. So a group of us created a meetup and from there it took off.

Maggi: I came on in the early days after its first or second meetup and I thought, "You could really use some support here.” I thought maybe we could incorporate food or try to host more than one speaker. There were opportunities to try out a bunch of different things.

So in the beginning, I was really there to support the growth of the meetup. I wanted to see it become something where a bunch of people could come together and collaborate. Pretty quickly after we started the meetups, we decided to do a conference and it was a lot of fun.

We brought in international folks and actually sold out of tickets a couple days before the event. So originally a lot of the work was just the operations and logistics of putting on larger events. After that, we got into a course and the conferences grew in size and now here we are. We’ve now started building a product, which will be home for content, community, learning and more.

Alec: When we got started, there were never really grand ambitions with this community. It started as simply, "I feel like this is a problem that myself and others like me are experiencing, so let's think of a way that we can address it." It was almost like a side project.

But the thing that I think has made what we're doing different from other communities is actually asking: “What is the essence of this? Why does this exist?” For us, it was to help other people grow and learn about research and that’s something people got behind.

Recently, UXRC changed its name to Learners. We went back and pulled one of your original mission statements:

The UXR Collective is a small team of people who believe that research practitioners have a critical role to play in the development of all new experiences and technologies.


If you were to revise that today, given some of your new aspirations for Learners and what you've learned from UXRC–what might it sound like?

Alec: The thing that's changed is our focus on education and learning more broadly as opposed to solely user research. Honestly, our mission statement can still be applied today, except you can take it and swap research in for design or product management and it would continue to hold true.

Maggi: Research is our first love and passion. UXRs were the first group of people that we identified with and are still some of the best people we get to work with today as we’ve expanded out. But as that passion grew, we saw a lot of opportunity to apply the skills that we gained from designing content for our community to share with other disciplines. We wanted to create more communities where people actually want to meet and get to know one another at conferences.

I think the thing that we really care about now is making education and learning free for everyone. Even from the early days, our first conference was a one-day event and we sold tickets for $129. We provided food and also gave away a bunch of free student tickets. We were hyper focused on making it affordable so that as many people as possible could attend.

We didn't have a lot of money at the time, so we're like, “What’s the most we can offer that’s affordable at this time?” Today, I definitely think we're sticking to the mission of being financially accessible to folks and making sure that we deliver high quality experiences and content as well.

What are some of your tactics for building such a tight-knit community?

Alec: I’ve found that a good starting point for building a community is defining a belief that speaks deeply to you and those around you––people can rally behind that. When you’re building a product, you directly listen to what the user wants and try to sculpt it from there. When you’re starting a community, it’s important to start with a precedent and then shape it around that idea as opposed to directly doing what people say they want.

A lot of great startups begin with a grand change idea that they think would be good for the world. They then spend a lot of time up front trying to figure out: How do we do this? How do we make this? That’s what we’re trying to do as well. Come up with an idea that can help people, then dig into how we’re going to make it a reality.

So we start with a statement that’s basically, “We believe that research matters. If you also think research matters, you should come hang out with us,” and that’s it.

From there, we'll do meetups, conferences, a slack community, etc. I think that’s the key thing, and that's what the community rallies around. It's a shared belief in something that a lot of people care about.

Your community includes people across many different industries, can you talk about how you connect and build an environment for not only researchers, but those who are research adjacent?

Alec: From early on, we had a lot of non-researchers in the community––and that's a really good thing. The way we moved from working and being UXR Collective to working on Learners was, again, coming back to the initial mission of what we're trying to do, which is that we believe research is important. We needed to create more ways for people to learn about research. Providing opportunities to meet researchers, having research content available, all that stuff.

From there, we got to experience firsthand how exclusive a lot of the learning opportunities are financially. We learned that if you decrease the price, the number of people that participate goes up dramatically because there is a huge gap. So by providing more opportunities to join, you start seeing more people in design, product management, etc.

Once you start providing opportunities for one discipline, then I think you have an obligation to try for all of them. Because it's not right that so many people who have talent are financially unable to take that next step and develop a better career for themselves and earn more income for themselves. It’s not right that they have the skills to deserve it, but they are not able to get to that first step because it's too expensive and risky.

It doesn't make sense that only designers should be learning about design, only researchers should be learning about research, and only product managers should be learning about product management. That makes absolutely no sense when we all work together within an organization. We bring different skills together to accomplish difficult tasks and goals. We need to actually understand how each discipline works, what our collective priorities are, and how we grow.

Alec Levin
Co-Founder, Learners

Any advice for growing a community like this?

Alec: When it comes to growing a community and conferences, I think there’s a problem with education in general. When you hear the term education, I think of the institution of education: schools, universities, and professors––the structure around all of that is often extremely rigid. It has a very specific view about which skills and activities matter. But when you actually leave these institutions and go into the real world, you realize it's nothing like that.

What I think a lot of people are realizing and why there's growing skepticism around universities, bootcamps, courses, and other things that are providing information at significant costs, is that they’re oftentimes not actually helpful. They don’t actually provide the skills you need to grow. Once you realize that's the case and that these things are a lot more mysterious than we'd like, you can start actually talking about what needs to change.

For example, we have a lot of designers and product people that hang out in our research spaces. This makes total sense because they might do some research or work with people who do and they want to work better with them. They want to better understand what research is.

It doesn't make sense that only designers should be learning about design, only researchers should be learning about research, and only product managers should be learning about product management. That makes absolutely no sense when we all work together within an organization. We bring different skills together to accomplish difficult tasks and goals. We need to actually understand how each discipline works, what our collective priorities are, and how we grow.

That's one of the beautiful things about taking a different approach where you're putting more power in the hands of the creators to define what they think is important. Rather than me saying, "We should have things on methods, synthesis, and communication."

The things that we've done for research these last few years, we're going to be doing for design, product management, and other fields as well. I think one of the great things is that just learning about research shouldn't be restricted to researchers and learning about design shouldn't be restricted to designers. That cross-pollination will help us work better together, help us accomplish more when we understand each other better.

Alec Levin
Co-Founder, Learners

What do you feel are some lessons people in our industry typically learn on the job that they didn’t get from school/bootcamp?

Maggi: I think something that we constantly hear from new UXRs that are in bootcamps or university courses is that a lot of the information out there is extremely dated and not actually comparable to what things are like in the industry. I think that's actually a huge selling point for going to conferences or hearing from people that are actually doing the work.

That's something that we care a lot about and it’s actually part of our speaker selection process. We ask ourselves, “Are these the people that are actually moving the practice forward?” and, “Are they people that are actually doing work on the ground or are they not in the field?

Alec: Another specific thing that I think is really important to understand coming into the industry is that great researchers really have to be business advisors to the people that they work with. Our job is not just gathering random stories from users, it's actually understanding the business that we work in. Our job is to better understand what drives revenue and expenses, what drives the priorities of our colleagues, and how we help the people we work with get promoted and look awesome.

This job is one one where you need to actually understand the beast that you work in in order to be successful and this is something that no schools really teach. They focus so much on methods and methods are fine, but anyone who has enough interest and basic communication skills can learn a method. But do they know how to use that method in a context of a business where no one is giving you a clear, crafted problem?

There’s an issue in our industry where we have an abundance of senior role opportunities and limited opportunities for juniors and entry-level positions. Are you seeing any companies or initiatives trying to fill the skill gap?

Alec: I think people are doing some stuff around this, but I think it's a far cry from the amount that's required. There are definitely some companies that are starting to explore this, but we're also not the only discipline that has this problem. Product management is another area facing this issue. It seems like there are a lot of people interested in the field, but there's isn’t really an incentive for employers to do that type of training––so they don't.

Maggi: A lot of job postings out there right now are looking for a junior researcher with four years of experience and then offer them an entry level salary.

Some companies are leveling up their own employees by hosting internal conferences, providing learning budgets, and bringing people in from industry that are working on their problem––which is great. But there's a huge lack of things to level up completely new junior folks. The current path is pretty much taking on projects for free, getting some references, and spending the next couple of years doing the same thing and continuously applying to then get rejected for not having enough experience. It's a really rough process.

How do you want to see Learners continue to grow? How can people get involved?

Alec: I want to see Learners grow into a space of professional growth for people, teams, and companies. A place where people can share ideas with individuals who are doing actual work and people can collectively get better at what they do. A place for people to connect with others in and outside of their role and learn together.

If people want to get involved, they can certainly reach out to us directly. Through Learners, you can apply to become a content creator if that’s of interest. We're always looking for people with new ideas who have been doing the work and have something they’d like to share. If you find you're struggling to get it out onto paper or video, we definitely help tell that story and share your insights with the world.

Maggi: At its core, Learners is here for everyone. Not just people who can afford to learn or people who are just getting started in the industry, it's really here for everyone to learn to level up in their craft. We’re a community of people that are creating it for a community of people.

Alec and I might be more visible, but it's definitely not just us. There is a whole team behind this, folks who've worked on this in the past, and folks who'll work on it in the future too. Many people deserve a lot of praise for contributing to what Learners is today.

We want to see people learn, grow, get better jobs, communicate better, and really just become better workers, colleagues, teammates, and people.

Alec: The things that we've done for research these last few years, we're going to be doing for design, product management, and other fields as well. I think one of the great things is that just learning about research shouldn't be restricted to researchers and learning about design shouldn't be restricted to designers. That cross-pollination will help us work better together, help us accomplish more when we understand each other better.

At its core, Learners is here for everyone. Not just people who can afford to learn or people who are just getting started in the industry, it's really here for everyone to learn to level up in their craft. We’re a community of people that are creating it for a community of people.

Maggi Mitchell
Co-Founder, Learners

What do you imagine UXRConf 2025 is going to look like? What sort of speakers are you hoping to attract and what do you think the audience will look like?

Alec: Well, I think the field is definitely going to continue to grow significantly year over year at an exponential rate. I think one of the big things we’ll see are central insights functions within companies. I foresee that as being how research is organized.

Right now, a lot of research priorities are set by the product managers that they work closely with. In a couple years, priorities are going to be set by a research leader based on the requirements, the objectives of the board of directors, and the CEO in consultation with other senior executives to figure out what needs to be learned on what timeframe.

We’re going to see a lot more non-researchers doing research and the industry being more supported in structured ways, all the democratization things we've been talking about.

Some of these things are happening already and they’re only going to grow and centralize. The actual activities are going to decentralize, but the people will centralize.

Stevie Watts is the Copywriter at dscout. She enjoys telling compelling user research stories, growing social channels, and exploring all things video production. As a newer Chicagoan, you'll likely find her at a concert or walking her corgi, but undoubtedly heads down looking at Google Maps.

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