Meet Mailchimp: An all-in-one marketing platform empowering the underdog

A Q&A with Sr. UX Research Manager, Patti Carlson, on their research culture and the importance of engaging the company in UXR

Mailchimp’s UXR team

With a mission to empower the underdog, Mailchimp’s all-in-one marketing platform allows people to bring their big ideas alive.

What started in 2001 as a side project by co-founders Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius is now serving millions of customers worldwide and has been named one of G2 Crowd’s best software companies, just below Google, Adobe, and Slack.

Mailchimp is a company that is super engaged in user research. Not only does the UXR team spend a lot of time with customers, so does co-founder Dan Kurzius, which helps him stay grounded and encourages the rest of the company to do the same.

A sticky note Freddie (Mailchimp mascot) head the Social Media team created as a tribute to the UXR’s team love for sticky notes.

With Mailchimp being one of Strive’s sponsors, we had the chance to sit down with Patti Carlson, Senior Manager of UX Research, to ask her a few questions about the UXR team at Mailchimp and its culture, how the company supports the growth of its researchers, and her advice for companies looking to start a UXR team!

Tell us about yourself and your role at Mailchimp.

I am the Senior Manager of UX Research at Mailchimp. I lead a team that includes UX Researchers, a Research Operations manager, a couple of people managers, and some interns. I report to the Director of UX Research. We have around 19 people altogether.

Tell us about the UXR team at Mailchimp.

I joined the team in 2017. At the time, the team was less specialized, so we weren’t known as UXR specifically, and were just dipping our toes into embedding Researchers into product teams. There were 5 Researchers on the team then.

Since then, the team has nearly quadrupled!! We have become more specialized and officially rebranded ourselves as UX Research. What that means is that we have really leaned into incorporating Design Thinking inspired methodologies into our practice. Whereas previously, the team conducted mostly interviews and usability tests, we now incorporate a greater mix of foundational and strategic methods, in addition to evaluative methods, and we have really dug into becoming experts in driving alignment.

We have a hybrid model now, with some team members as part of a centralized resource group, but a majority embedded in product teams.

Mailchimp’s UXR team

Can you tell us about the research culture at Mailchimp?

Mailchimp as a company is very engaged in User Research. Our co-founder, Dan Kurzius, regularly attends customer visits. He even introduces himself as “Dan from Mailchimp Research”! By committing to spending time with our customers regularly, he stays humble, and helps ensure that the entire company does the same. So, while there’s a team dedicated to conducting the research, we make sure everyone, not just the researchers, are engaged in the research.

As a discipline, the UX Research team tends to follow the mantra of “strong opinions, held loosely.” We are well-versed in UXR and Design Thinking methodologies, but we don’t hide behind theory and methods, and we don’t shy away from difficult conversations with our stakeholders. It’s our job to make sure our products meet the needs of the people using them. A research project doesn’t end with a deliverable tossed over a wall or dropped into Slack — the research is just the beginning. The conversations that follow the research are where the work truly happens.

We have a hybrid operating model consisting of centralized resources as well as Researchers embedded in cross-functional product teams. Because the embedded Researchers are working alongside partners in other disciplines most of the time, we create a ton of opportunities for sharing and collaboration as a UXR practice. Our Researchers regularly present their work to each other for feedback and to promote shared learning and identify collaboration opportunities across the practice. Our centralized practice is still being developed but also serves to connect the dots across the various product teams.

A research project doesn’t end with a deliverable tossed over a wall or dropped into Slack — the research is just the beginning. The conversations that follow the research are where the work truly happens.

Can you tell us about the impact UX Research has had on the company?

Our UXR practice has grown a lot, and really quickly. There is a huge demand for our help, and we often have to be really creative to meet the growing demand. Our work has had a huge impact in helping our product teams understand the context for why they are building the products they are building. Inviting others into our work helps to build empathy for the challenges that our customers (small business owners) have, and helps us rally teams around the desire to make products that meet their needs.

How does Mailchimp support the growth of its UX Researchers?

We want UX Researchers to have long and rewarding careers at Mailchimp. One thing that I am really excited about, is that we have recently hired on two Associate UX Researchers who previously interned with us! Being able to bring people on who are early in their careers and have them learn from our managers and more experienced practitioners and develop in their practice is a dream come true for me. We have an amazingly talented team, and we encourage their continued development in multiple ways. We strongly believe in continuous learning, so we earmark budget for people to attend training and conferences (like Strive!).

Additionally, Mailchimp provides a ton of internal Learning & Development opportunities to develop soft skills, like communication, conflict management, and leadership skills. We even have our own internal Mailchimp University program, open to all employees.

Our team also loves to share and learn from each other, so often our UXR folks will set up internal workshops or Lean Coffee discussions to help provide a forum for them to help each other grow.

Workshop facilitation completed by the UXR team.
We want UX Researchers to have long and rewarding careers at Mailchimp.

You have 13 years of experience in the UX field and have built high-performing teams from the ground up. What advice do you have out there for companies who are looking to build a UX Research team?

My LinkedIn needs an update, because I am up to 14 years now :). This is a great question! I have worked with enough companies to know that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but one thing that holds true, regardless of environment, is that any UX research is better than no UX research.

If that means a Designer or a Product manager is getting on the phone with or visiting your customers because you don’t have a dedicated UXR on staff, start there. If you are taking your product out on the street and having people try it out in a coffee shop because you don’t have the resources to recruit a very specific audience, it’s still better than nothing.

Start small and you will learn so much. Then, SHARE what you have learned with anybody in the company who will listen. Then you can start to build a case for dedicated resources with more specific UXR expertise.

Join Mailchimp at Strive: The 2019 UX Research Conference

Tickets are still available for the Main Stage talks on June 7th and only a few remain for the Research Foundations & Advancing Your Practice tracks on June 6th!

Purchase tickets here.

📅 June 6–7

📍 Roy Thomson Hall, 60 Simcoe St, Toronto, ON, M5J 2H5