Changes Over the Last 25 Years of UX Research

August 21, 2023

It’s hard to believe that I first started in the field of User Experience 25 years ago. In 1998, I began the Master’s degree program in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) at DePaul University. Since then, I’ve worked for four different companies—as both a generalist UX designer/researcher and as a UX research specialist.

In this column, I’ll look back at the changes I’ve observed in UX research over the last 25 years. My goal is not to provide a definitive history of UX research during that period—just to note the changes that I’ve noticed and share my perspectives on them.

UX Education Expanded

The number of UX-related degrees and nondegree certificate programs has grown over the last 25 years. When I started in the HCI program at DePaul University, it was one of a much smaller number of schools with programs in HCI or similar degrees. I don’t think any of these programs used the term User Experience back then. Now, there are many more colleges all over the world with UX courses and degrees. In addition to degree programs, there are many UX design and research certificate programs and bootcamps, too.

Champion Advertisement
Continue Reading…

Usability Became User Experience

Of course, there have been many terminology changes over the past 25 years. In 1998, the names of most educational programs included terms such as Human-Computer Interaction, Human Factors, Cognitive Psychology or other forms of psychology, or Design. The ideal for which we advocated and sometimes got to practice was user-centered design (UCD). In UCD, we would first conduct user research, then perform iterative design and usability testing to evaluate whether our designs met users’ needs. Although Don Norman had coined the term User Experience in 1993 for his group at Apple, the term didn’t come into wide use until the mid-2000s.

Although the term User Experience ultimately supplanted the term usability, this doesn’t mean that, before the mid-2000s, we had focused exclusively on usability, then suddenly changed our focus to the wider practice of user experience. In actuality, we were already focused on understanding users’ experiences, then found that the term User Experience was a more accurate fit for our existing focus. When conducting UX research and usability testing, most UX researchers had not focused solely on usability. We had interviewed users about how well a product met their needs, whether it would be useful, desirable, and more. The term usability was too narrow to encompass all the aspects of design that we were evaluating.

Job Titles Changed

Similar to the change from usability to User Experience, our job titles have gone through plenty of changes over the last 25 years. Throughout my career, I’ve been a Usability Analyst, User-Centered Designer, Human Factors Analyst, Design Researcher, UX Architect, and UX Researcher.

Most of these titles were meant to communicate something to those outside the field. The term Analyst was used to sound more scientific and garner greater respect from management, who were not yet completely convinced about the value of usability. Similarly, the term Human Factors sounded more scientific than user research. To convey the idea that we were generalists who conducted UX research, designed user interfaces, and conducted usability testing, we called ourselves User-Centered Designers. To avoid using the term user and instead tie into design, we called ourselves Design Researchers. To avoid confusing people who associated design with graphic design and indicate that we practiced interaction design and information architecture, we called ourselves UX Architects. Finally, I’m now in a job that has settled on what is now the most common term for those who perform user research: UX Researcher.

The 2000s were the decade of very specific job titles: Information Architect, UX Architect, Interaction Designer, Information Designer, UI Designer, Visual Designer, Experience Designer, UX Strategist, and more. However, these titles were very confusing to those outside the field—especially because some people were true specialists, while others were generalists covering several overlapping specialties. Although there are still some people who are specialists, most designers have fortunately now coalesced around the common term UX Designer, while most researchers have coalesced around the term UX Researcher. These simpler titles have made it much easier for those outside UX to understand them.

Businesses Began to See the Value of UX Design and Research

When I started in the field, most people in business and even technology had never heard the terms usability, user research, user-centered design, or User Experience. We constantly had to explain what we did and justify the importance of usability, user research, and user-centered design to a skeptical audience.

The prevalent attitude at the time was that technology is naturally difficult for the average user to understand, so it was natural that people would have difficulty using a new user interface. They just needed to take the time to learn how to use it. They could overcome any problems that they faced through training, Help, and other documentation and learn how to use a software system.

To overcome this skepticism, we spent a lot of time in the early 2000s, trying to prove the return on investment (ROI) of usability. Therefore, we needed to have measurable results both before and after a completing a user-centered redesign project—such as improved times on task, decreased error rates, and increased task completions. However, we often lacked before measurements, and after completing a redesign, no one wanted to pay to conduct usability testing just to gather after measurements. Ironically, gathering the measurements that we needed to prove ROI cost a lot of money, which decreased the ROI. It was much less expensive to just believe in the value of usability improvements.

Fortunately, throughout the 2000s, more businesses began believing in the value of UX research and design. The need to prove the ROI of User Experience decreased greatly because people had generally bought into the idea that understanding users and designing around their needs was important to the success of products. Today, nearly everyone in technology and most people in business understand the terms usability, User Experience, UX design, and UX research.

UX Research Survived Many Economic Downturns

Over the last 25 years, I’ve nervously lived through several economic downturns that affected the field of User Experience: the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, the Great Recession from 2007–2009, and the current technology layoffs of 2023. Although things looked dire at the time and people in User Experience lost their jobs, the field recovered as the economy recovered.

I’ve heard some people say that the current 2023 layoffs are a sign that UX research has not done enough to show its business value. I don’t agree with that assessment. There’s no sign that UX researchers or UX designers have gotten laid off in greater proportions than people in other roles in the technology industry. Plus, layoffs don’t indicate that businesses place less value on these roles. So I’m confident that UX research and design jobs will bounce back as economic conditions improve.

Usability Testing Occurs Earlier in the Design Process

When I started in the field of UX research, we advocated the ideal of conducting iterative design and usability testing throughout the product-development process, starting with creating low-fidelity prototypes through higher-fidelity designs. However, in reality, we usually got to conduct usability testing only after development to find problems before launch or evaluate an existing user interface before doing a redesign. As a result, we usually found many usability problems that we couldn’t fix without a major redesign. The developers fixed a few very minor issues, then we covered the other issues in Help, documentation, and training or just ignored them.

However, throughout the 2000s, usability testing began to take place earlier in the design process. This change coincided with the increasing number of UX designers who believed in the value of iterative design and usability testing. Also, during this time, the development of new prototyping tools had made it much easier for designers to create interactive prototypes, which we could then test with users. These tools made it easier and quicker for most project teams to do at least one round of usability testing during the design phase.

Heuristic Evaluations Declined

In the early 2000s, we conducted many heuristic evaluations because that was the easiest and least expensive usability-evaluation method. For teams who were skeptical about spending the time, money, and effort to conduct usability testing or user research, it seemed far easier to have a usability expert review a user interface and point out the problems to fix. People may have been more comfortable with heuristic evaluations because the approach seemed similar to what quality-assurance people were already doing: finding and logging QA issues to fix.

Certainly, UX researchers and designers still evaluate user experiences informally all the time, based on our knowledge of usability and UX design principles. However, it’s become rare to conduct formal heuristic evaluations or produce long reports these days. Heuristic evaluations have declined as companies began to see the value of conducting UX research with actual users. People began to see the opinions of a UX expert as just one more person’s opinion. Heuristic evaluations were certainly no substitute for getting feedback from real users.

Generative UX Research Increased

In the early 2000s, we were lucky to get project teams to agree to conduct usability testing on a design before the development phase began. Trying to convince teams to conduct generative UX research during the discovery phase—to understand the users, their tasks, and their needs—was much more difficult. By the time most projects had been planned, teams hadn’t included any time for up-front UX research. In fact, we were lucky if they had even included any usability testing.

Over time, more project teams began to see the value of conducting generative research at the beginning of a project. Unfortunately, even though generative research has become more prevalent, most companies aren’t conducting enough generative UX research even today. Hopefully, the number of generative UX research studies will continue to grow over the next 25 years.

People Began Demanding Better User Experiences

In the early 2000s, most users had the same beliefs about technology that the people working in technology had: technology is naturally difficult to understand and use, and people would just have to get used to it. Users blamed themselves for usability problems that they experienced and made excuses for user interfaces. We often heard usability-test participants say, “It’s like anything. Once you use it a few times and get used to it, it’s okay. I just need to learn how to use it.”

Fortunately, that has changed over the years, as people have begun to expect better user experiences. Users’ expectations rose as they encountered well-designed user interfaces more frequently. They changed from blaming themselves for the problems they faced to blaming companies for providing poor user experiences. We began to hear participants use the terminology user friendly and easy to use. In recent years, I’ve even heard a few participants use the terms usability and User Experience.

The Number of UX Jobs Increased Greatly

The number of UX research and design jobs has increased greatly over the last 25 years. When I started in the field, most UX jobs were concentrated in the technology centers of the US, such as Silicon Valley, the Northwest, and New York City. In most cities—such as Chicago, where I lived at the time—there were only a limited number of UX positions. UX professionals often had to move to the cities where the jobs were located.

Since the late 2000s, there’s been a huge boom in the number of UX jobs—to the point where nearly every technology company and major corporation now has its own UX designers and researchers. Now, with so many UX jobs and the ability to work remotely, there is far less need for UX professionals to move to where the jobs are. It’s much easier to choose where you want to live, then find a UX job that you can do in that location.

User Experiences Improved

With companies’ increased perception of the value of User Experience and their hiring of more UX researchers and designers, user experiences have improved greatly over the last 25 years. Of course, there are still many poorly designed user experiences today, and there’s still much room for improvement. Still, overall, it seems that the average user interface is much better designed today.

Early in my career, heuristic evaluations and usability tests identified many basic usability problems, and we often needed to create very long reports just to list them all. Now, most the designs that we’re evaluating in usability testing are well designed. By doing good UX design up front, teams now avoid the obvious usability problems that we used to see in the old days. Of course, even the best UX designer can’t know how well their design will fit users’ needs and mental models, so usability testing is still important and valuable. However, we don’t waste as much time observing participants trip over obvious usability problems as we used to.

Remote UX Research Increased

As remote-meeting technology has improved, there has increasingly been a shift from in-person to remote UX research. The original ideal of conducting user research was to observe people in their natural environment, so you could see them perform their tasks using their own tools and artifacts and observe the actual environmental conditions they experienced. While this goal is still important, it’s always been difficult and expensive to travel to visit participants in person. To save money and time, we often brought UX research participants into a usability lab or market-research facility. In the early days, when online-meeting software didn’t exist or was very primitive, there was no other way for UX researchers to observe people using technology than to be with them in person.

In the early to mid-2000s, technical issues with using online-meeting software made remote UX research difficult. Often, test participants didn’t have fast enough Internet connections, and the online-meeting software had technical or usability problems. At the time, most participants were unfamiliar with online meetings, and some were leery about downloading online-meeting software or sharing their screen. Until a few years ago, it was not possible to share a mobile phone or tablet screen during an online meeting.

Gradually, as online-meeting software improved, more people became accustomed to participating in remote meetings at work. The technical problems decreased, Internet speeds increased, and online-meeting software became much easier to use. Thus, it is now much easier to conduct UX research remotely.

Then, in 2020, COVID forced all UX research to go remote. We had to figure out the best ways to overcome remote research’s remaining limitations. Since COVID has eased, remote research hasn’t completely replaced in-person research, but everyone has seen how easy and convenient remote research can be. The downside now is that it seems we’ve forgotten the importance of observing people perform tasks in their own natural environment. Hopefully, we will get back to that again soon.

Research Operations Eased the Burden on UX Researchers

For a long time, UX researchers had to recruit and schedule their own research participants. In my first job, working on a company intranet and enterprise applications, we had to use creative methods to find UX research participants. We found participants in employee-training classes and by looking through the employee-phonebook intranet site for the right types of people. Recruiting research participants involved a lot of emailing and scheduling. Later, in the mid-to-late 2000s, when I was working as a UX researcher at a design firm, we had to write our own screeners and worked with recruiting companies to screen, recruit, and schedule participants.

In the last ten years, research operations has emerged as a new specialty and takes some of the burden off UX researchers by handling the creation of screeners, participant recruitment—or working with recruiting companies—coordinating consent forms and NDAs, and scheduling sessions. This lets researchers spend more time on planning their research studies, conducting sessions, analyzing results, and creating reports.

UX Research Easily Adapted to Technology Changes

While technology has certainly changed over the last 25 years, the great thing about UX research is that it easily adapts to each new change in technology. The principles of human psychology and perception, design principles, and the basics of UX research methods don’t need to change, and we can easily apply them to any new technology.

Although new UX research methods have evolved, the basics of UX research still involve observing people’s actions and behaviors and interviewing people to learn more about them. We can apply these techniques to any new technology. Although it helps to be somewhat knowledgeable about new technologies, we don’t need to have expert knowledge. In fact, there is an advantage in not knowing too much about technology, so we can better understand the average user’s level of knowledge about that technology.

What Does the Future Hold?

It’s difficult to predict the future, but one thing we can be sure of is that technology will continue to change. Currently, there is a lot of buzz around artificial intelligence (AI) and whether it could be a useful tool for UX researchers or might eventually replace us. Personally, I think AI is at the Peak of Inflated Expectations on the Gartner Hype Cycle, and it will be a long time, if ever, that it becomes a threat to the jobs of UX researchers. Fortunately, what won’t change is the importance of understanding users’ needs to creating good user experiences. The basics of UX research—observing and interviewing people—will always remain the same.

Although most companies have now accepted the importance of providing good user experiences, most UX research is still evaluative and focuses on assessing the usability of prototypes or existing user interfaces, instead of generative—that is, focusing on up-front, exploratory research to understand users, their tasks, and their needs to inform design. My hope is that generative research will increase over the next 25 years. 

Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

Other Columns by Jim Ross

Other Articles on UX Research

New on UXmatters