The Role of UX: 2020 Benchmark Study Report and Analysis

July 5, 2021

UXmatters and the UX research consultancy User Fountain recently teamed up to survey UX professionals around the world on the role of User Experience within their organization. The Role of UX: 2020 Benchmark Study explores UX roles, tools, methods, and organizational structures, as well as organizations’ various levels of UX maturity.

Our analysis of the survey’s findings explores three key themes:

  1. How did the work of UX teams change in 2020? What impact did the COVID-19 pandemic have on these teams and their work?
  2. What might 2021 bring for UX professionals?
  3. What impact has User Experience had on organizations?

Finally, we’ll take a look at the UX professionals who participated in our survey—particularly their role within their organization—and the UX community resources on which they rely.

Champion Advertisement
Continue Reading…

2020: The Year of COVID-19 and Remote Work

The COVID-19 pandemic that began in February 2020 has had varied impacts on our respondents—affecting their work, personal life, mental health, and job security. The majority of respondents (65%) indicated that COVID-19 had impacted their UX team’s work in some way. By far the greatest impact was the need to work remotely. Some organizations closed their offices, while others reduced workers’ time on site, and many workers were hesitant to return to their office. Therefore, it’s no surprise that most respondents reported working remotely full time (42%) or part time (46%), with only 12% working on site, full time. In fact, in 2020, the shift toward more remote work was by far the biggest trend among UX teams. Overall, 76% of respondents’ UX teams have already increased the amount of remote work they’re doing and, in 2021, about 23% of teams plan to work remotely even more. So there appears to be cautious optimism that working remotely will continue, but perhaps lessen as some employees return to the office.

For many respondents, the cascading effects of working remotely have likely amplified other impacts of COVID-19—specifically, the need to conduct all UX research remotely (24%), maintain work/life balance (17%), and adapt to remote collaboration (12%).

2020 was a year of resilience. While most respondents (93%) thought their workload had not decreased in 2020, a little more than half (51%) thought their workload had increased. With the line between work and personal life blurring because of their working from home (WFH), many UX professionals found it all too easy to commute directly from their bedroom to their desk or home office to start their workday. But it’s clear that our respondents pressed forward, doing whatever it took to get the job done.

In addition to the negative psychological effects of working from home—such as having feelings of isolation and self-doubt—some respondents (6%) have struggled with their work/life balance. When working from home, it’s nearly impossible to keep work at work and reserve time for one’s home life. Unfortunately, the perception exists that one should always be available when working from home. This perception creates undue stress on workers. Reflecting on his own experience, Mike couldn’t help wondering, early during the pandemic: How am I really doing?

Although the impact of COVID-19 on jobs and job prospects has produced tempered optimism within the UX community, the pandemic has hurt some UX professionals. More than half of our respondents (58%) indicated that the pandemic hasn’t affected their sense of job security and are relying on the resilience they’ve acquired during 2020, but one-third said that they now feel less secure. With so much uncertainty and client budgets contracting, some respondents either have less work or have even been laid off (18%).

The pandemic has created a great deal of uncertainty for everyone. Although the majority of our respondents (72%) were optimistic about their future career progression, almost a quarter (21%) felt somewhat neutral about their prospects for career growth. With UX professionals—and everyone else—waiting for businesses to open up and hoping to meet with their colleagues face to face once again, their uncertainty about what the new normal might look like in 2021 and beyond has tempered their optimism.

As more people get vaccinated and businesses start welcoming their employees back into their offices, many employees may return to working on site full time. However, some companies plan to let their employees work from home forever. As Laura Keller discussed in her Service Design column “Employee-Centered Workplace Transformation,” her organization is planning to make working from home a permanent solution. This suggests that a hybrid model of on-site and remote work might very well be the future of work.

Since the pandemic struck, UXmatters has published more articles about remote work than ever—particularly remote UX research.

Other Changes for UX Teams in 2020

In the field of User Experience, talking to other people is absolutely essential for success. During the pandemic, UX professionals have had to rethink how to collaborate effectively when they’re working remotely, as well as how to conduct remote UX research with digital tools they may not have been accustomed to using. Thus, in addition to the shift toward more remote work as a result of the pandemic, many of our survey respondents reported that their UX teams had adopted new tools (54%) and methods (48%) in 2020. The adoption of new tools is likely the result of the availability of many new design, prototyping, and research tools on the market. In contrast, since UX design and research methods have been relatively stable over many years, the adoption of new methods is likely a consequence of the maturation of UX teams. Additionally, 43% of UX teams hired new team members—predominantly designers and, to a lesser extent, UX researchers—while 36% modified their team structure.

Types of UX Projects

For most UX teams, Web projects dominated their project portfolio in 2020, with 72% working on Web applications, 54% on Web sites, and 19% on intranets, as shown in Figure 1. Mobile-app projects were the focus of 57% of UX teams, which is unsurprising with mobile-app revenues steadily increasing since 2014. But desktop applications are still alive and kicking, with 42% of respondents working on desktop applications. While some companies may just be sticking with their legacy desktop applications and iteratively improving them, more successful companies are reaping the benefits of their applications’ remaining stalwarts on their customers’ desktops. Many highly specialized desktop applications fall into the latter category—in some cases, because their performance may benefit from the power of a desktop operating system. As David Bolton has aptly noted: “You wouldn’t write high-frequency trading software to run in a browser app.” With the Internet of Things (IoT) marketplace likely to nearly double over the next five years, embedded-software projects are becoming ever more common, with 24% of UX projects focusing on their user interfaces. Ten percent of UX teams’ projects focused on voice user interfaces. Several UX teams were working on service-design projects and user interfaces for various types of vehicles and robots.

Figure 1—UX teams’ types of projects
UX teams' types of projects

Image source: User Fountain’s report (PDF) on The Role of UX: 2020 Benchmark Study

The Prevalence of In-House Versus Agency Work

The great majority of respondents (71%) worked in house in 2020, while the remaining 29% of respondents worked as consultants (12%), at an agency (10%), or did freelance work (5%). Only 33% of respondents’ in-house UX teams worked with external agencies in 2020. In most cases, their use of external agencies for UX projects either remained unchanged (42%) or declined (33%), in comparison to previous years.

With so much uncertainty throughout 2020, it is possible that companies were reluctant to spend more money on agency services. Nevertheless, 23% of teams actually increased their use of agencies—perhaps rather than hiring new employees during the pandemic. When companies did work with agencies, they relied on them primarily for UX research (33%), visual interface–design (33%), and usability-testing (30%) projects—as has been typical in the past. But, according to our survey respondents, some companies relied on external agencies for a variety of design services, as well as other services, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2—Top-10 agency services in 2020
Top-10 agency services in 2020

What’s in Store for UX Teams in 2021?

Looking ahead in 2021, UX teams are planning to ride the wave of momentum they gained in 2020 by learning new tools and methods. Their pace of change will likely slow a bit in 2021 in regard to their adoption of new tools—only 42% versus 53% in 2020—probably because these teams have already invested in and standardized on their UX toolkit. However, our survey respondents actually projected an increase in their team’s focus on adopting new methods—54% versus 48% in 2020. They expect to add more headcount to their teams, with hiring to remain at approximately the same level, but fewer respondents anticipate further modifications to their team’s structure—only 27%.

Hiring UX Designers and Researchers

What kinds of UX professionals are companies planning to hire in 2021? What types of expertise do UX teams want to build in 2021? According to our survey respondents whose companies are planning to hire in 2021, the hottest roles are UX designers (58%) and UX researchers (35%). Figure 3 shows additional roles that UX teams are planning to fill. For those of you who are looking for potential new opportunities, consider this a positive sign for 2021 and beyond!

Figure 3—Top-5 UX roles for hire in 2021
Top-5 UX roles for hire in 2021

Leveraging More UX Methods

The UX methods that most respondents want to employ more often in 2021 include a mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods. More than half of respondents plan to use the following methods more: usability testing and user interviews (64%), user observation (58%); and remote, moderated testing (52%). Some of the other methods that our respondents want to use more are less invasive in nature—for example, A/B testing (47%) and contextual analysis (44%). Their interest in adopting more new methods suggests a desire to be more creative and resourceful as they navigate working from home and slowly embracing a new normal.

Adapting to the reality of working in a remote environment and acknowledging that the popularity of some UX methods is waning, our respondents plan to use some UX research methods much less in 2021, including face-to-face testing (32%), surveys (24%); remote, unmoderated testing (18%); A/B testing (16%), and diary studies (15%).

The Impact of User Experience on the Organization

Next, we’ll examine the impact of User Experience on our respondents’ companies. What level of involvement does User Experience have in the product-development lifecycle? At what stage do product teams typically engage UX teams? Are they engaged too late to have significant impacts on products?

What about UX leadership? How high has User Experience risen on the corporate ladder? Has User Experience permeated the work of employees in every role, from Engineering to Marketing to Product Development? Or does User Experience function within an isolated silo?

Early Involvement of User Experience on Projects

Is UX involvement early in the product-development lifecycle a pipe dream, a sad reality, or a fully realized goal? Ideally, on most projects, product teams should involve User Experience from the very beginning of a project. During a Discovery phase, UX teams should conduct UX research to discover users’ needs and help inform requirements definition for a product. According to our survey findings, when we asked “At what stage of most projects do product teams initially involve User Experience?” 40% of respondents indicated that product teams involve User Experience from the very beginning. Another third (33%) of product teams are getting close to the ideal, involving User Experience during the definition of requirements. However, it may unfortunately be too late to do any detailed discovery research at that point. Another 22% of product teams involve User Experience during design strategy, which is not ideal, but better than the 5% of product teams that either do not involve User Experience prior to development or not at all.

When we asked respondents “At what stages does UX research typically occur?” we learned that the UX teams of 63% of our respondents do UX research during Discovery, prior to the definition of requirements. Plus, more than half of our respondents indicated that UX research also or alternatively occurs at subsequent stages of the design process: during design strategy (54%) and iterative design (54%). Usability testing plays an essential role in iterative design. Therefore, the best UX teams conduct UX research throughout the product-development lifecycle. Only about 13% of respondents’ UX teams have attained this ideal. Unfortunately, a few of our respondents’ teams conduct UX research only once code is complete or even after deployment, when it typically takes the form of usability testing and occurs too late for the research to have any impact on the current release. Even worse, fully 8% of our respondents’ UX teams conduct no UX research at all.

In your own organization, is there more demand than supply for UX researchers? If the answer is yes, some UX design projects might be uninformed by UX research.

Levels of UX Leadership

Have UX leadership gotten their foot in the door of the executive suite? The titles of the leaders of our respondents’ UX teams suggest that UX leadership still has some way to go to gain access to the executive suite. Their three most common titles were UX Manager (37%), Director, UX (23%), and Senior UX Manager (22%). Only 9% of our respondents’ teams include a C-level executive, while 8% have a Senior Director, UX; 7%, a VP, UX; and 6%, a Senior VP, UX, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4—Levels of UX leadership within respondents’ organizations
Levels of UX leadership within respondents' organizations

Ownership of User Experience

What functions within our respondents’ organizations own User Experience? About 23% of our respondents indicated that UX leadership in upper management or at the executive level owns the UX capability within their firm. This suggests that more companies are starting to appreciate the value of User Experience as a competitive advantage.

But, unfortunately, UX ownership—and likely accountability for user-experience outcomes as well—often belongs to functions other than User Experience—most commonly to Product Management, in 29% of organizations. Thus, User Experience is often subordinate to other functions, which is at least less than ideal, can work against User Experience having the impact it should, and often leads to poor user-experience outcomes. Even worse, 19% of respondents indicated that User Experience has no clear owner. In 10% of our respondents’ organizations, the CEO is a UX champion, which again suggests that these companies see the value of User Experience, but remain unclear about where this function belongs within their organization.

Multidisciplinary Teams

User Experience requires multidisciplinary collaboration. According to respondents, most UX teams comprise a variety of hands-on roles, including designers in various specialties—UX designers (84%), visual-interface designers (48%), interaction designers (41%), information architects (28%), and UX writers (23%). Among UX researchers, 64% focus on user research; 29% on usability testing. Other common UX roles include prototypers (35%), UX strategists (29%), and content strategists (20%)—the latter indicating the increasing importance of content to the user experience.

Adoption of User-Centered Design Methods

Our respondents’ organizations have adopted a variety of user-centered design (UCD) methods and are taking full advantage of the breadth of available methods, as appropriate to their stage in their product-development lifecycle. Most are earlier-stage methods such as user research (82%), persona development (68%), user-requirements definition (54%), user-needs analysis (51%), task analysis (46%), and UX strategy definition (40%). Popular later-stage methods include UX design (86%) and evaluative forms of UX research such as usability testing (82%).

Mike conducted a cross-tabulation analysis of UCD methods by region—eliminating APAC (Asia-Pacific) from the analysis because of its relatively small sample size—to evaluate whether a relationship exists between region and the methods that UX teams employ. According to his analysis of the survey, UX professionals in EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) countries are using evaluative methods such as usability testing (p=0.00613), as well as needs-driven techniques such as persona development (p=0.0219) and user-needs analysis (p=0.0218) significantly more often than those working in the Americas. Figure 5 shows additional details.

Figure 5—UCD methods by region
UCD methods by region

The Development of Standards

Working within their resource constraints, UX teams are standardizing as much as possible. Most respondents (68%) indicated that they employ design principles, standards, and guidelines. They mentioned forms of standardization that are more challenging to implement much less frequently—for example, a UX research repository (42%), templates for UX research (42%), and the most challenging one of all, a UX design framework that is implemented in code (30%). As the UX capabilities within respondents’ organizations mature, we can expect them to take on these greater challenges and achieve more rigorous standardization practices. Unfortunately, codifying standards costs a lot of money, time, and resources. Companies that have smaller UX budgets or reluctant leadership are less likely to invest in such endeavors.

According to one respondent, “Our design framework is partially complete (with code), but it’s been a challenge. Not a lot of C-suite support for common libraries to accelerate teams.” Another respondent said, “Attempting to do all [of these things], but [they’re] relegated to background / side projects—[that is, there’s] no progress. Biggest obstacle is headcount.”

Support for UX Research and Design

About 50% of our respondents reported that UX research is receiving adequate support in their organization, with a ratio of one researcher to five or fewer UX designers. However, 17% of respondents’ UX teams have no UX researchers. Designers do their own research on about 9% of these teams, but 8% of these teams conduct no UX research at all.

The ratio of UX designers to engineers is low in many organizations. With 46% of our respondents indicating that their ratio of UX designers to developers is one to ten or fewer, just under half of respondents’ organizations are providing adequate design support for their engineering teams. With 34% of respondents’ organizations having designer-to-developer ratios ranging from 1:11 to 1:70, they have much hiring to do if they are to ensure that UX teams are adequately staffed to support Engineering.

The Organizational Structure of the UX Team

Product-development organizations can benefit from having a centralized UX team, while also building expertise within specific product areas. The majority of our survey’s respondents (61%) indicated that their organization’s UX team is centralized. Among the UX teams that operate under centralized models, 37% follow the centralized internal services model and function as in-house agencies that are organized by function and provide services for specific projects; while 25% follow the centralized partnership model, in which coherent UX teams are dedicated to particular product teams over the long term. Only 25% of UX teams follow a decentralized model, in which UX designers are fully embedded in specific product teams. Ideally, User Experience should be an integral part of an organization’s product-development process, functioning effectively on every product team. While an organization could benefit from the existence of a centralized community of UX professionals, having UX designers as dotted-line reports into a central UX department can also work well. The fact that the UX teams of 25% of respondents follow a centralized partnership model suggests that companies are trying to imbue product teams with UX magic from within rather just attempting to lend teams UX skills.

For more information about these organizational models for UX teams, refer to Pabini’s in-depth review of Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner’s excellent workshop “Org Design for Design Orgs,” which they presented at the O’Reilly Design Conference, in 2017.

The Impact of User Experience

Almost a third of respondents (29%) were cautiously optimistic about User Experience having high, strategic impact across the entire customer experience. Slightly more than a third of respondents (35%) indicated that User Experience has significant impact across the entire product experience. Almost another third of respondents (30%) felt that User Experience has only a moderate impact on some, but not all product experiences. About 5% thought User Experience has only minimal impact. So about 35% of our respondents felt that their UX team must do more to foster positive change, improve the user experience, and have strategic impact. Their lack of significant impact likely reflects UX teams’ having insufficient resources to fully support product teams, as well as their not having a voice in the executive suite.

UX Maturity

While UX teams have progressively made more and more impact on their organization, the UX maturity of most organizations has significant room for improvement. It is evident from our survey’s results that our respondents’ UX teams still have a long way to go in maturing their tactical role within their organization and in attaining a strategic level of UX maturity. Only a quarter (25%) of respondents thought their organization’s level of UX maturity was either very good (20%) or excellent (5%), while more than another quarter (28%) thought their UX maturity was good. However, about 45% of respondents indicated their organization’s UX maturity was either just moderate (26%) or low (19%).

Our Respondents

Now, let’s take a look at the 211 UX professionals who completed the survey for The Role of UX: 2020 Benchmark Study. With the specialized roles that a UX team comprises, there is no such thing as a typical UX professional.

With about three-quarters of our respondents hailing from just six countries—the United States (32%), United Kingdom (32%), Canada (4%), India (4%), Australia (3.0%), and Germany (3.0%)—APAC was underrepresented in our survey responses.

Diversity in Academic Backgrounds, Experience, and Industries

Most respondents (86%) hold one or more college degrees—42% have earned a bachelor’s degree; 40%, a master’s degree; and 4%, a PhD; and another 9% have some college experience or an associate’s degree, as Figure 6 shows.

Figure 6—Respondents’ levels of academic achievement
Respondents' levels of academic achievement

Image source: User Fountain’s report (PDF) on The Role of UX: 2020 Benchmark Study

The great diversity in respondents’ academic backgrounds reaffirms that a typical UX professional really does not exist. The five most common fields in which respondents have degrees or certifications relate closely to User Experience and technology and include the following areas of study: design (39%)—including the 9% who have degrees in interaction design—Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) (18%), user experience (14%), psychology (12%), and computer science (14%). Another 4% have degrees in Library and Information Science (LIS). Figure 7 shows our respondents’ most common areas of academic study.

Figure 7—Respondents’ areas of academic study
Respondents' areas of academic study

Image source: User Fountain’s report (PDF) on The Role of UX: 2020 Benchmark Study

Respondents have diverse levels of experience in their UX career—comprehending highly experienced UX professionals (37%), mid-career UX professionals (44%), and UX professionals in the early years of their UX career (19%), as shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8—Respondents’ levels of experience in User Experience
Respondents' levels of experience in User Experience

Image source: User Fountain’s report (PDF) on The Role of UX: 2020 Benchmark Study

Our respondents have experience in a breadth of industries. The top-five industries include Finance / Banking / Insurance (14%), Software / App Development (13%), User Experience (9%), Internet / Web (6%), and Design (6%). Another 5% are consultants, and 4% work in the field of Education. However, more traditional industries are also represented in the long tail—for example, Transportation / Distribution, Manufacturing, Aerospace / Aviation / Automotive, and Utilities.

UX Roles

Respondents’ top-five standardized job titles are UX designer (25%), UI designer (14%), UX lead (14%), product designer (7%), and UX researcher (7%). About 46% of our respondents hold some type of designer role, as shown in Figure 9.

Half of respondents’ job titles include the adjective UX, while many fewer contain the term product (11%) or lead (17%). Many respondents hold senior roles. These job titles might suggest points at which respondents’ organizations fall in their journey toward UX maturity.

Figure 9—Respondents’ UX roles
Respondents' UX roles

Image source: User Fountain’s report (PDF) on The Role of UX: 2020 Benchmark Study

Almost three-quarters (71%) of respondents work in house, 12% are consultants, 10% work for agencies, and 5% are freelancers.

UX Community Resources

Both experienced and inexperienced UX professionals generally rely on digital resources that UX professionals who are experts in the field have created or curated. Web sites that offer training, consulting, or research are popular among a third of the respondents—including the Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) (17%) and Interaction Design Foundation (IDF) (15%).

UX professionals contribute their knowledge and experience to UX design publications and blogs (15%) and publishing platforms such as Medium (8%). The top-two UX publications were UXmatters (6%) and UX Collective (4%). Respondents also go to their social networks (11%) and colleagues at work (5%) for information about User Experience.

Respondents mentioned traditional media such as magazines (3%) and books (less than 1%) much less frequently, suggesting the dominance of digital media for accessing UX resources. They also obtain information from the associations and groups to which they belong (6%), including attending local meetings. 

Check out User Fountain’s report (PDF) on The Role of UX: 2020 Benchmark Study.

Acknowledgment—Thanks to Mike Morgan who did the heavy lifting in massaging the survey data and conducting this analysis. Thanks to User Fountain for allowing us to include some of the images they created for their report, including the hero image.

Senior UX Researcher at Bloomberg L.P.

New York, New York, USA

Michael A. MorganMichael has worked in the field of IT (Information Technology) for more than 20 years—as an engineer, business analyst, and, for the last ten years, as a UX researcher. He has written on UX topics such as research methodology, UX strategy, and innovation for industry publications that include UXmatters, UX Mastery, Boxes and Arrows, UX Planet, and UX Collective. In Discovery, his quarterly column on UXmatters, Michael writes about the insights that derive from formative UX-research studies. He has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Binghamton University, an M.B.A. in Finance and Strategy from NYU Stern, and an M.S. in Human-Computer Interaction from Iowa State University.  Read More

Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

Other Columns by Michael Morgan

Other Columns by Pabini Gabriel-Petit

Other Articles on Industry Report

New on UXmatters