There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed UX research. However, there is a deeper question that also requires an answer: how has the pandemic impacted the future of UX research? I wanted to understand not only how our industry has had to adapt during the pandemic, but also catch a glimpse at what any lasting changes might be. Comparing the way we worked more than two years ago with what we’re doing now, how has our approach changed? Perhaps even more interestingly, what will we be doing two years from now?
It would have been easy to do a thought piece and try to predict the future, but none of us has a crystal ball. So I thought we might collectively be able to compare what we’re doing now with past practice and also peer over the horizon. So, in September 2021, my company Bold Insight launched a survey to answer these questions through social media—predominantly, by leveraging LinkedIn.
We asked UX researchers questions about how their work has changed because of the pandemic and received over 100 responses. We wanted to hear primarily from UX professionals who are doing UX research for the majority of their time—not mainly doing UX design, UI design, or UI programming—and who had been engaged in UX research prior to the pandemic. Everyone in our sample had three or more years of experience—and more than 50% had more than six years of experience. Seventy-five percent of our respondents had a team reporting to them.
In the end, we whittled the feedback down to 63 respondents from 22 countries, who represented UX research in-house, at agencies, and in government. Figure 1 depicts the countries in which our respondents work.
Changes UX Researchers Experienced During the Pandemic
From our respondents, we learned that the effects of the pandemic have impacted four key aspects of our industry:
The demand for UX research
The size of UX research teams
Changes in UX research methods
Increases in UX researchers’ skills
1. The demand for UX research increased during the pandemic.
After an initial lull in UX research work, 60% of respondents saw an increase in interest in UX research, as shown in Figure 2. Only 5% saw a decrease in interest. Plus, more than 60% of the respondents found that the pace of UX research was faster during the pandemic than prior to the pandemic, while only 7% thought UX research was slower. Figure 3 represents the pace of UX research.
This is brilliant news for the industry, but what drove this change? The pandemic forced the world to learn new ways of going to work, interacting with healthcare, buying groceries, and other day-to-day aspects of our lives that required the rapid and large-scale digitalization of products and services. At that point, it was no longer primarily UX researchers who were demanding more testing, but company leadership as well. To quote a respondent from Sri Lanka, “Consumer-facing processes that were completed physically are now forced to go online due to the restrictions of the pandemic. Thus, more companies are looking to develop digital platforms and tackle the UX/CX problems that arise….” In short, the change brought about by the pandemic accelerated the need for UX research.
2. The headcounts of UX research teams increased.
Coupled with the increase in demand, many respondents reported growth in the headcount of their team. Specifically, 45% reported an increase in net headcount since the beginning of the pandemic. Because it was no longer necessary to conduct UX research in person, nearly 50% of respondents found it easier to recruit UX researchers than it was two years ago. However, some felt that it was more difficult to find experienced researchers. “There are so many bootcamps and other programs churning out people who don’t have a lot of the research experience I value,” said a respondent from the US. “There’s … quantity of candidates, but quality hasn’t been there.” Figure 4 shows the data about headcount and recruitment.
3. Research methods changed by necessity.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic forced the majority of UX research to shift from in-person methods to remote methods. As shown in Figure 5, in-person, one-on-one interviews fell below 10%, while the use of remote methods such as remote one-on-ones, focus groups, and digital-diary studies skyrocketed.
Through conducting pandemic-era UX research, the benefits and limitations of remote research quickly became clear. We saw increased buy-in from stakeholders, who—by eliminating travel as a time-consuming factor—were more easily able to drop in and watch sessions during their workday. However, some drawbacks of remote testing also surfaced. Researchers reported difficulties with some aspects of data collection: technology issues, distracted participants, loss of context or the inability to read participants’ body language in a remote context, and platform mismatches—for example, logging in via mobile versus using a computer. “Not getting into user environments and seeing them in action is tough,” said a respondent from Canada.
4. UX researchers’ skills increased during the pandemic.
We were curious about how the pandemic might affect UX researchers’ career growth and skills development. So we asked respondents specifically about what effects they believe the lessons they’ve learned during the pandemic have had on their growth as a UX researcher. A surprising 84% of respondents said their skills had improved or increased during the pandemic, as shown in Figure 6. We have no specific insights on why people reported this, but the pandemic certainly did not seem to put researchers into career suspended animation. We think UX researchers have grown because we were disrupted.
Four Pandemic-Based Future Trends in UX Research
Beyond our noting the changes to UX research that have shifted the way we work, how did the pandemic impact the industry’s future? What did we learn that will be sustainable? What practices or habits will we return to? As we move into a post-COVID environment, these trends won’t stay the same. But expecting a return to a prepandemic scenario isn’t realistic either.
Remote research is here to stay. The unique benefits of in-person UX research became clear when they were no longer available to us, but remote methods have outperformed our expectations, provided access to high-quality data, given us the ability to conduct research over a broader range of geographies and demographics, and increased the involvement of stakeholders. While UX researchers will probably return to in-person research in some cases, most of our respondents have seen in-person research fall to only 10–15% below their current level of remote research. The reasons for this include increased confidence in the validity of the remote research. In fact, only 24% of respondents thought the quality of their research had gone down during the pandemic, despite the change in methods.
Online research reached broader populations, but a digital divide still exists. One of the greatest benefits of remote research is the ability to recruit participants from a wider range of locations and, thus, to incorporate greater diversity than is often possible with in-person research. The fact that the pandemic drove us to recruit from a broader pool of research participants has also opened our eyes to the fact that some populations could not successfully join remote sessions because of their lack of the necessary technical skills. For participants at the edges of digital capability, who may or may not even have access to a stable Internet connection, remote research can be difficult or even impossible. And these are often the very people we are designing for! A respondent from Brazil noted, “Prototypes are created just for powerful devices and Internet connections, and this is not the reality for the population.”
Improved ways of recruiting high-quality UX researchers are necessary. As the increasing demand for UX research requires our teams to grow and as recruiting becomes more competitive, we’ll need to establish better ways of ensuring that we can find the experienced researchers we need.
We’ve emerged stronger from the pandemic. Through their survey responses, our respondents offered a bright view of the future of UX research—one with its fair share of challenges, but also equally with innovative solutions and new possibilities. Our respondents reported growth in their amount of business and their own capabilities as researchers. The adaptations all of us were forced to make because of COVID-19 have helped us confront and solve issues of which we weren’t yet even aware. We are now prepared to embrace a changed UX research–industry landscape in a post-pandemic world.
Reading Between the Lines
The pandemic forced both societal and technical shifts everywhere we looked. As UX researchers, we were called upon to do our share—to help people connect with family and friends, get goods and services, keep people healthy, and often, to do things we hadn’t known needed to be done. At least our respondents thought we had risen to the challenges the pandemic imposed on us. Of that, we can be proud.
Bob is an experienced global UX research leader, entrepreneur, and author of The Handbook of Global User Research and coauthor with Gavin Lew of AI and UX, Why Artificial Intelligence Needs User Experience. He has co-founded UX research companies in the US and China and, most recently in London, in 2022. Bob has more than 25 years of professional experience in UX research and has taught UX research at Northwestern University and DePaul University. He holds several patents and speaks frequently on the latest trends in UX research at national and international conferences. Bob holds a PhD in Cognitive and Experimental Psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Read More