Student Project: How to Improve Udemy

* The article was adapted from Ryan Cunningham’s article. Ryan is a graduate of Product School (New York campus) and was one of the top performing students there. Find more of his work at


I have been participating in a product management boot camp called Product School for the past several weeks, engaging with current PMs and learning what it takes to be able to build products that are not just beautiful or functional, but right. The products that help our users win.

One of the methods by which PMs do this in conjunction with their teams is through a design sprint, wherein the engineers, designers, PM and other stakeholders put their heads together, prototype, and test a solution to identified customer problems within a short period of time. We simulated one such design sprint in class for Udemy, an online learning marketplace, and it was an absolute blast so I figured I’d share the experience. The original write-up of our sprint can be found here on my personal website.

Update: I tweeted our design sprint solutions to the CEO of Udemy, and he responded! Very nice of him.


Identifying The Problem

A short list of Udemy’s issues that we identified from customer interviews include:

  • User interviews suggest a high drop-off rate – students leaving classes prior to actually finishing them
  • Lack of marketable certificates
  • Poor quality control – high number of instructors
  • Frequent sales and discounts cheapen brand

The last three are more normative observations, all of which we categorized under the umbrella of “Perception of brand quality.”

We asked ourselves how best we could address the issues of “High user drop-off” and “Cheap brand perception.” The two are more than likely correlated, but we figured there are likely a whole host of variables affecting the former issue aside from brand perception. So we chose to simplify the battlefield and focus on the latter issue, the perception of brand quality.

Creating customer personas

Meet Jack. How do we help him?

Our user segmentation from the interviews we conducted helped us craft several personas of Udemy users we could empathize with – names and stories of different individuals using the product for different reasons. Appropriate given our student status in our PM boot camp, we gravitated toward the “Career Transition” persona. We characterized this person, who we’ll name Jack, as a Udemy user (or potential Udemy user) who is looking to make a change in his career.

Jack is someone in his mid-late 20s who has been on a steady yet unexciting career path for some time. Dissatisfied with his current field and increasingly attracted to the programming world, Jack wants to develop the skill set necessary to adequately prepare and market himself for a new job as a software engineer, hopefully at a leading tech company. To do that, he looks to online education companies like Udemy, Coursera, and Udacity in order to find and engage with high-quality instructional content directly relevant to that field.

Now that we have a general idea of his backstory, we need to think about what he specifically needs from supplemental coursework in order to accomplish his goal of switching into software engineering. To Jack, what does Udemy lack that its competitors like Coursera and Udacity possess? We could spend time making platitudes about comparative brand quality, but what are the tangible characteristics that comprise that contrast between the competitors?

For one thing, Coursera and Udacity both offer structured portfolios of classes (referred to as “specializations” and “nanodegrees,” respectively) that are directly and explicitly applicable to certain career tracks. “Android Developer,” “Data Scientist,” and “Machine Learning Engineer” are some examples. A vetted and curated portfolio of courses labeled as such would certainly evoke some level of verifiable quality.

But considering Jack is trying to get a job in the tech industry (presumably sooner rather than later), wouldn’t it be best for him to invest his money and time into courses he already knows are approved or vouched for by organizations in that industry? You bet it would. It’s one thing for Jack to tell potential employers he successfully completed a Full Stack Engineer course track or Swift course from start to finish – it’s an entirely different statement when those courses are approved, built, or certified by Google, Apple or Facebook.

designing computer

The Solution and Story

Which brings us to the final product we collectively decided to pursue: Company-sponsored course certifications. By sourcing accreditation for certain courses from top companies in the tech field, we will better serve Jack in finding the relevant and high-quality courses to invest in in order to accomplish his goal of becoming a software engineer.

Finally we have our Story for the product:

“As a prospective online student, in order to evoke credibility and competence in a desired field, I want industry-certified curricula.”

It definitely is going to help Jack win in his search for quality content to show employers he knows what’s what in software engineering.

In a business sense, it’s a win-win scenario for both Udemy and the company sponsor:

  • Certifications from well-known companies will deliver positive brand perception for Udemy
  • Users like Jack will be more incentivized to pay for courses they know are approved by the companies they are interested in working for
  • Company sponsors have an opportunity to increase brand presence on e-learning websites with millions of users
  • Revenue from certified courses can be shared with company sponsors to incentivize incremental certifications.

Design Brainstorming

Now we know what to pursue. We brainstormed several ways to communicate company-sponsored course certifications within the current framework of the website, and decided that we could easily apply “badges” to the existing course cards to show that this is a certifiably high-quality class Jack should invest in.

This is the old version of the Udemy course catalog:


And below is the version with a quick-and-very-dirty certification badge. Jack might be more inclined to pay for a class Facebook has put its faith in rather than a badge-less class.


However, we felt that simply putting badges on these course cards isn’t enough: for one thing, the user has to scroll down the home page several times before he even finds course cards, and the catalog is 1 click away. We needed something that the user would find front-and-center upon their first visit to the home page.


Home Page Redesign


This is the current version of the Udemy home page. Some of the text and logos, especially at the bottom, are extraneous, but there’s nothing necessarily wrongwith it (Unrelated observation: the girl looks bored. Like she’s just passing the time on her phone. I’m not sure how this is supposed to convey that she’s using Udemy, or that this is something Udemy users aspire to).

The current homepage is relatively simple, but the content just about fills the page. Any more might be too much.

We experimented with a few ideas that kept the existing div, text, and search bar intact, but all our ideas ran into the same problem of noise.

Ultimately, we figured we could try to free up space by simplifying the existing page even further. We removed extraneous copy and logos, reducing it all to a single search bar, the text for which reads “What would you like to learn?”

Below is a Balsamiq mockup of the new, way slimmer home page.


Although a fun exercise in minimalism, this doesn’t independently solve what we are trying to accomplish – the communication of industry-certified course marketability. But it does clean up the page a bit and gives us room to display that message.

In keeping with our minimalist design theme, we agreed that a well-crafted text title on the page might be enough to draw Jack’s attention to perform an action like scrolling or clicking, without burdening the design or cheapening the look of the website. So we extended the first page just a little bit – enough to catch the reader’s eye.


After scrolling down, Jack could then see examples of high-quality courses certified by leading companies in the tech field. We figured that he’d be delighted to learn that the very companies he admires have already given their blessing to some of these courses on Udemy!


On the full home page, Jack can select “Learn more” to go directly to the landing page we’ve set up for this new feature (which we’ll get into later), or hit “View courses” to go the catalog and check out the rest of the courses.

After the “Learn more” and “View courses” buttons, the original homepage design would continue. That small injection above would be our only disruption to the original page, so it shouldn’t be too burdensome for our designers.


External Marketing

Facebook ads and the landing page

The wonderful thing about the home page redesign is that it immediately conveys the solution we’ve crafted to the viewer – but we need to get the viewers in the first place! We need to communicate this message externally.

Facebook ads are a great place to start, because given a user’s age, interests, browsing habits, etc., we would be able to deliver dynamic ads specifically tailored to the user. For Jack, such an ad would look like this:


This is an example of a new Udemy News Feed ad. Jack happens to like Facebook and has “programming” listed as an interest of his.

We could do the same on other platforms like LinkedIn, which would be especially useful given the focus on careers. People are usually on LinkedIn either to build their network, reinforce their marketability, or shop around for different careers. Udemy could be a helpful tool in that endeavor.

In any case, the advertisement would take Jack directly to a landing page specifically designed to show the new certified feature:


This is a specific landing page that all ads and the “Learn more” button on the home page will lead to.  Jack could either watch a video specifically prepared to educate him on the new feature, go directly to the course catalog to browse around, or just scroll down to see some featured sponsors and coursework.


A Happy Accident

After we all had decided on these new features to exhibit the company-sponsored certifications – the home page redesign, the external advertising and the new landing page – we had actually started browsing competitors’ pages and realized that the features we had independently created were near-exact replicas of our competitors’ home pages.


Udacity: The careers listed after “Become A” cycle through the site’s list of nanodegrees, just like our landing page. And look at the bottom! Immediately it displays the company partners that have created content on the site for users to engage with!


Coursera: The search bar text in our respective home pages is off by literally one word.

We were stunned at the similarities. Anyone could have seen our mockups and would have been completely justified in assuming we copied elements of our competitors’ home pages. But none of us had even so much as looked at either site during that sprint up to now.

At first we asked ourselves if we should change our approach, but that thought quickly vanished. If anything, the fact that our independent analysis, brainstorming, and prototyping arrived at a solution that is already being used by our competitors, that meant we were probably on the right track.



Our presentation of the product to the other team in class was met with highly positive feedback. They agreed that the core product – company-sponsored course certifications – would certainly address our identified problems, specifically:

  • The lack of marketable certifications – Companies help directly identify which courses are in fact marketable
  • Quality control – same as above, company certification of courses identifies and communicates quality of that content

The home page redesign was definitely appreciated, and they were very positive about the targeted external marketing plan.

Addressing all of these issues should certainly help Jack in his search for credible content to prepare and market him to top tech employers. For Udemy, this means a higher chance of a customer transaction, and may lead to fewer drop-offs as customers are more invested in the completion of a high-quality, certified, marketable course. For the companies certifying the purchased courses, this means brand recognition and incremental revenue-share. Like we said before, everyone wins.

Ultimately I had a lot of fun with this exercise. The team was very honest, deliberate, and unanimous in its decision-making. We were on the same page with each other practically every step of the way, finishing with plenty of time to doodle around on the whiteboard.

If company sponsorships or certifications are in the pipeline at Udemy (which I hope they are as they are the only competitor that doesn’t advertise its corporate partners to customers) then I would feel very confident presenting this feature as a recommendation for the product. Get on it guys!

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