How do you engage with any company and its product or services? That’s the user experience, or UX for short. Good experiences are essential for customer satisfaction, but the way to provide them isn’t always understood.

Alec Levin is changing that. He’s co-founder of UXR Collective, which organizes the world’s largest UX conference in Toronto. The event, launched in 2018, gives a platform to researchers who are changing the field of UX.

When COVID-19 derailed the in-person version of the 2020 conference, Levin did what any UX expert would do. He reached out to his market, conducted research, then created a whole new user experience by transitioning the conference to online.

The pandemic is pushing many companies to pivot. Levin says the ability to do so, by understanding what customers want, is critical to survival.

“A lot of businesses get complacent. If you don’t spend time with your customers, it makes you a lot less resilient,” says Levin.

You have to grasp what’s changing in the market, he says, and see things from a user’s perspective. With this year’s UXR Conference, Levin understood that most people who might attend were working from home. Many were juggling other responsibilities, and all were under stress. While large-scale live events aren’t feasible, people who are paying still want premium experiences.

That is, if they can swing the cost, at a time of tighter budgets and job losses.

Knowing all that, Levin lowered the standard attendance fee, and added a $99 USD fee (on the honour system) for students, people who’d been laid off, anyone who lacked access to a professional development budget, and students. He also brought on a producer, and shipped video rental equipment all over so that presenters could record themselves professionally. The conference couldn’t look like a Zoom patchwork.

Levin spaced out the program, to allow more breaks if attendees had to take care of kids, take the dog for a walk or just move around cramped quarters. To add fun, he had a DJ perform during a lunch break.

The two-day conference in June attracted 2,600-plus attendees, compared to 1,000 last year and 400 in 2018. This year, they “came” from 66 countries. The virtual nature and low fee overcame two of the biggest barriers to professional development – an inability to get to the event and costs.

Now, UXR Collective has built a more welcoming and affordable space for learning, accessible to anyone, any time. It’s a site where paying subscribers can re-watch popular talks on UX, get brand new content and connect with peers worldwide.

“We’re taking a Netflix approach for people who want to learn about user experience research,” says Levin.

He ended up in the UX field by chance. In university, Levin studied biology. One day, he came across a startup working on software for biomedical researchers. He found the idea exciting, and became involved by putting the prototype in front of undergrad and grad students.

That early experience led to Levin doing research work for a startup, then founding his own startup building a user research product. After that, he took on a couple of research roles, followed by a stint as head of product at an insurtech firm. He formed UXR Collective as a small meetup in 2017, and became its full-time CEO this March.

Keeping your finger on the pulse of customers is vital any time, and particularly so during a time of disruption. For businesses, there are losses in times like this, but new possibilities too.

“Every time you have a shock to the system, it’s a catalyst for change,” says Levin. “Many opportunities will open up. Spend time talking to your customers, or the people you’re trying to build something for, and start backwards from there. Think of what value you’re providing, and whether there’s a way to provide similar value with a completely different approach.”


Startup Revival Stories is a series of interviews with Canadian entrepreneurs who have pivoted and persevered during COVID-19. Tune in to learn how these founders navigated challenges and found new avenues of growth during the pandemic — watch the latest episodes on YouTube or at www.startuprevivalstories.ca.