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Planning 2023 research in a recession

5 Ways to “Recession-proof” Your 2023 User Research Plan

5 realistic and actionable strategies to help you keep user insights flowing in 2023, plus tips to navigate budget cuts and uncertainty

What a year. Elon Musk took over Twitter, cryptocurrencies plummeted, mass tech layoffs have flooded our LinkedIn newsfeeds, and now the word “recession” is on the tip of our tongues as we see interest rates rise at an alarming pace.

Whether you lean bullish or bearish, predict an economic catastrophe, or prefer to just stick your head in the sand for a while, I can promise you’re not the only one racking your brain to figure out: what the heck should we do?

Here’s what I know: No one really knows what is going to happen. Not large tech companies. Not the tweedy economist on the evening news. Not your Costar app (probably).  But one thing we can be certain of is that we have to embrace the uncertainty of the current climate (AKA this dumpster fire 🔥of an economy) — because the uncertainty is the only thing that’s guaranteed right now.

Becoming recession-proof doesn’t necessarily mean ruthlessly slashing budgets or “downsizing” teams. It means a multitude of things, including:

  • Shifting your focus away from hyper growth at all costs
  • Streamlining the way you work
  • Making smarter use of the resources you already have
  • Building a strategy with the right guardrails to keep your team on track

The key is to be proactive in planning, rather than staying reactive to sudden shifts in a 💩 economy.

But let’s be honest. Planning for the year ahead is difficult at the best of times. And there’s no silver bullet to truly “recession-proof” your 2023 strategy. But there are concrete steps you can take to help weather the storm. 

In this article, we’ve put together valuable tips and recommendations to help you plan a higher-impact and lower-cost user research strategy for 2023. 

You’ll learn about:

  • How 2022 trends and the recession affect the current state of research
  • Why UX is more important during a recession
  • 5 rules for creating a lean UX research strategy 

The current state of user research 

In our 2022 State of User Research Report, published in March of this year, we saw a huge increase in demand for user research by dedicated researchers, UX designers, Ops teams, Product folks, etc. UX teams were growing as organizations of all sizes bought into the value of research. But now it’s time to think about how research and research teams might look different in 2023.

For starters, many UXR teams may be leaner. In 2022, more than 88,000 workers in the U.S. tech sector have been laid off in mass job cuts so far, according to a Crunchbase News tally. Many user researchers, UX and product designers and research ops specialists were included in these layoffs. 

Maybe you’re part of a team that has already experienced this cut. Or maybe the news of continuous layoffs are sparking your anxiety levels at an all-time high. Whatever the case is, just know that you’re not alone.

So what’s a researcher to do? At this moment, more than ever, companies need researchers who can be pragmatic and efficient with their processes and tools, and clearly demonstrate the value of their work.

But in order to demonstrate that value, you need to believe it. And in times of scarcity like now, it’s easy to question the value and validity of the work you do. Is UX research truly important during hard economic times?

📊 Need to demonstrate the value of UXR to your stakeholders? This article breaks down the 4 most common objections to doing research using cold, hard, stats. These will help you show your team that research is worth the time, budget, and effort—even in an uncertain economic climate.

Why UX research is even more important in a bad economy 

It’s easy to fall into panic mode with the “R” word looming over our heads. The threat of a recession might force many organizations to implement more budget cuts and hiring freezes. But the value of user insights remains as important as ever—indeed, perhaps even more so—and slashing resources in the wrong places can do more harm than good.

Good UX research helps inform design, product development, marketing, and other business decisions. We know that timely, high-quality research is key to a business’s growth. It’s just as important for companies who’ve had to switch their goals from growing to simply staying afloat. That’s because user insights help you focus on what really matters for the organization: the users.

Here’s a quick overview of why UX is so important during times of economic uncertainty:

  • UX investments increase ROI for overall business
  • User research helps you plan your next moves
  • User insights help you form a strong risk mitigation strategy
  • Acting on insights helps protect customer loyalty and retention 

Of course, the benefits of UX research varies from company to company—and much of that variation depends on how many resources and effort they pour into UX, and how leadership teams support UX initiatives. But there’s no doubt that investing in the user experience can help businesses survive, and even thrive, during hard times.

The ROI of UXR investments is sky-high

According to a study by Forrester, every dollar invested in UX brings, on average, $100 in return. This amounts to an ROI of over 9,900%.

Maybe your focus is to simply keep the business afloat, and you’re adjusting spend accordingly. But with an average ROI of nearly 10,000%, is the user experience really the place to be scaling back investments? 

In fact, it’s safe to say that user insights are more crucial during uncertain times

💡User insights help you make confident decisions in uncertain circumstances. With user insights, you have evidence to support sudden pivots and specific decisions. Numbers + qualitative user insights don’t lie. 

Considering making changes to your GTM strategy? Think you should be focusing on a different ICP in the short term? Have a hunch that your product roadmap might need reordering? If you’re not backing up your assumptions with user insights, you risk wasting serious time and resources on the wrong thing. 

User research is a risk mitigation tool

High quality, timely UX research is the backbone of a strong risk mitigation strategy. 

You’re in the middle of putting together your 2023 product development strategy. How will you measure the performance of your new product ideas without UX research? 

As always, when in doubt, talk to your users. Every new idea, iteration, and version of your product costs time, money, and bandwidth that most teams don’t have anymore (not that there was much of a surplus in the first place). 

Slow down the unnecessary burn of resources by strengthening and de-risking your product development strategy with user insights. Because it’s one thing to meet your users’ basic needs and obvious motivations (if you have no idea how to do that, you really need user research!), but it’s quite another thing to “wow” your users with limited resources.

UX research can help you dive deeper into your users’ unarticulated motivations, needs, and desires to truly create highly personalized user experiences and products.

Taking action on user research findings helps you retain (and even upsell) your current customers

Your customers are almost certainly in the same boat. They’re feeling the effects of a shitty economy, trying to prepare for all eventualities, and scaling back their own spending. The subscriptions they keep are going to be for products and experiences that meet their needs in the current moment. 

As your current customers’ buying behaviors, product needs, and intrinsic motivations evolve, you want to make sure you can keep a pulse on these changes. User insights help you stay up to date with your current user base, foster loyalty, and retain revenue that you can’t afford to lose.

Trust and consistency is so important. People want products and experiences that they feel are essential, resilient, consistent, and constantly improving—regardless of the broader economic context. 

⛵️ Staying afloat in 2023 is about more than work—it's about taking care of yourself, the human, too. Read the 2023 Self-Care Playbook for UX Researchers to learn why research can be an emotionally taxing career and get practical advice from fellow UXRs and mental health experts on how to stay centered.

How to create a lean UX research practice

Maybe you’re the sole UX researcher at your organization. Perhaps you’re a designer being called on to do more research in lieu of a full-time UXR hire. Or maybe your organization scaled up its research program and are now looking for ways to cut costs without losing talent.

In any case, lean times call for lean user research—think low-cost, high-impact strategies and tools. 

Here are five golden rules to follow in 2023, and the things you should stop, start, and continue in the year ahead.

Rule 1: Make better use of the tools you have 

You don’t always need the most expensive user testing tools to do good research. There are many ways to conduct more lightweight UX research. For example, combining Zoom’s free video services with Miro’s whiteboards and note-taking features is a simple and cost-efficient way to conduct moderated testing.

When you do need a usability testing tool, avoid committing to an expensive platform full of features you don’t need. Make good use of a lean budget by trialing your tools first. Loop11, Lookback, and UserZoom GO are three examples of tools with free trials; the trial durations vary, but you can use the time to try their moderated and unmoderated usability testing features and decide which tools and methods work best for your budget and research needs.

📕 Don’t know where to start? Don’t sweat it. We’ve outlined actionable strategies and ways to run a research practice on a slim budget in this article, No Budget? No Excuse. Here’s How to Do User Research on Any Budget.

Having too many tools can be a headache too. A workflow that is spread across 50+ tools isn’t exactly time and cost-efficient. In this case, a single UX research software suite that offers tools for recruiting, analyzing, and conducting several types of user research may be the right choice for your needs. 

Whether an “all-in-one” solution ends up being cheaper or more costly (in terms of money and time) in the long run really depends on how your team does research. If you predominantly conduct user interviews and surveys, for instance, you may be better off buying best-in-class solutions for those methods (it’s easier to swap out tools that way, too, if you decide to migrate to a different platform). But if, for example, you’re looking for a single tool that product managers, designers, marketers, and other folks on the team can be trained to use on a regular basis, an out-of-the-box solution may indeed be more efficient. 

If you’re not sure how to effectively lean on your tool stack, it’s helpful to see how other researchers have done it. Here’s a great article on how to do lightweight research with budget-friendly tools: My UX Research toolbox as a team of one. It’s a great source of inspiration that shows how to mix and match budget-friendly tools by use-case while keeping research tasks automated and scalable.

Another good source of inspiration for your research toolbox is Zapier's UX Research Tech Stack. You can explore how research teams (like Zapier’s) lean on their tools to run a research practice for a growing organization. 

Whether you’re a team of one or five researchers, the key is to maximize your tools to free up as much time as possible. Spend less time building research from scratch, and more time actually doing research and creating a strong research strategy for your organization with the right tools.

🔴 Stop: Spreading yourself thin across 50+ costly tools that you barely use.  

🟢 Start: Making the most of the tools you already have and cut out the tools that are redundant.

🟢 Continue: Exploring new ways to conduct lightweight research with better tools.

🗺️ Explore more tools in our 2022 Tools Map. Browse through the fantastical landscape of 230+ UX research software tools from transcription tools to UX analysis tools, and more.

Rule 2: Don’t skimp on participant quality

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. Low-quality participants= low quality insights. 

You don’t necessarily need highly specialized tools to do great research, but you do need the right people. Here at User Interviews, we’re huge advocates for streamlining access to the right participants. 

Our VP of Product, JH Forster, speaks about the importance of finding great participants at scale for good UX research:

“You do research because you want to have impact, so you want to do impactful research that drives better decisions and helps business outcomes. And the two components of that to get really reductive is— it needs to be quality research. You need useful insights, but it also needs to be timely. You need to have the research at the right time to impact the decision. And if you don’t have the participant piece figured out, you can’t really do either of those things. So if you don’t have high quality participants, that’s kind of a non-starter.”

But let’s be honest, it takes a lot of patience, money, and time to really find users who align with your research goals.

This is especially true for large teams. Scaling your participant recruitment can be a pain to manage. That’s why our vision is to help teams of all sizes invest in a fast recruiting solution that streamlines access to the people they need, when they need it. A great recruitment and participant management solution can help you save loads of time, stress, and money.

🔴 Stop: Wasting time talking to the wrong people and using overpriced recruiting tools that don’t allow you to filter out ill-fit participants.  

🟢 Start: Investing in a smarter recruiting solution with custom filters to help you find your target personas quickly and accurately.

🟢 Continue: Keeping a pulse on your participants and their evolving needs, motivations, and behaviors.

🏆 User Interviews is the best place to recruit and manage research participants, even if you’re on a budget. Streamline your recruitment 

Rule 3. Compensate people for their time

I’m not sure if I can stress this one enough. You have to pay people for their time, period.  

Because UX research isn’t simply about squeezing information out of your users to achieve your company’s bottom line goals. Good user research should serve both your users and your organization’s business goals at the same time

For one thing, compensating people for their time is just common decency. For another thing, it’s a bad look when companies  ask people to take time out of their day to help you gain something (in this case, highly valuable user insights) without offering something in return.

In some cases—like when there are ethical restrictions in place—it may not be possible to pay your participants in cash. Other times, you may simply be operating on a bare bones budget. But having no budget is not an excuse for taking more than you can give back. 

There are so many reasons why incentives matter, including:

  • Your reputation. This one is a no-brainer. If you don’t pay your participants for their time with any kind of incentive, it won’t be long before you’re known as “the people who don’t even pay you.” 💀
  • Improved response rates. 📈 The more motivated users feel to complete a test, the more likely they will respond to your questions. Participants should feel incentivized to respond to your questions. 
  • Building trust. Paying people for their time shows that you value their time as much as they do. Create a level of trust with your participants and let them know you have their best interests in mind.
  • Enforces equity. Not everyone can afford to take time off work to complete a user research study. Paying incentives closes the equity gap and enables participation regardless of whether or not someone can afford to make a financial sacrifice to participate. 
  • And the list goes on!

📕 If you need more reasons why you should pay your participants, we have an entire article that explains this. Cut the “recruiting-without-incentives” BS and know that incentives are non-negotiable for good UX research.

The good news is, you can still gain valuable insights and do impactful user research on any budget. It’s just a matter of adjusting the scale of your testing, knowing your limits, and understanding the type of incentives to give to your users.

🔴 Stop: Wasting your participants’ time with imaginary participation points. Your users’ two cents are not free. No budget for incentives? Explain to the people in charge of resource allocation that if there’s no budget for incentives, there’s no budget for user research. 

🟢 Start: Figuring out which incentives are truly valuable for your participants, and do some research on what an appropriate incentive amount is. 

💸 Need help calculating the appropriate incentive amount? We have an updated 2022 Incentives Calculator to help you figure out how much to research participants, based on data from nearly 20,000 research studies.

🟢 Continue: Becoming more flexible, creative, and personal with your incentives. Cash is king, but money isn’t the only way to compensate your users.

The right incentive should be something that gets your customers excited about participating in your research. Consider offering them: 

  • Specific in-product benefits
  • Behind the scenes access 
  • Charitable donations
  • Awesome swag

Rule 4. Enable non-UXRs to do good research, too 

As we weather the current storm, teams everywhere will need to take a step back, reevaluate, and find ways to collaborate better with less resources.

Organizational silos and having a “that’s not a part of my job” mentality just isn’t going to cut it anymore. Teams across your organization will need to find ways to help each other out. No, that doesn’t mean doing someone else’s job for them—but it does mean learning how to find the answers to your own questions whenever possible.

Research is for everyone. That’s why it’s important to find ways to enable non UX research teams to do their own research too, without compromising the quality of insights. In other words, start democratizing user research and align with other teams on good research practices. 

“What does it mean to democratize research?... I think it's more of the evolution of the role that we need to embrace, which is that at the end of the day, the researchers won't be able to take on every decision that happened with the org. And so their role has to shift from a role that's technical, running the research to a role that's educational, which is how do I help every team to run their own research?” - Jonathan Widawski, CEO of Maze

Not everyone is an expert in UX research. But with the right resources, non-researchers can help research teams create great tests, do great research, and accurately analyze data. It’s about empowering other PWDRs to practice high-quality, lightweight research on their own.

Here are some ways to enable your team to do good research on their own:

  • Identify which team members are responsible for each phase of the research project
  • Set up more streamlined workflows using the tools you have
  • Find smart ways to conduct DIY unmoderated research +  best practices
  • Share foundational knowledge with resources (like our UX Research Field Guide)

🔴 Stop: Taking on all of the research burden on your shoulders, especially if you’re running research alone. 

🟢 Start: Learning how to share the research responsibilities and educate others to do good research on their own using lightweight tools and strategies. 

🟢 Continue: Using smart and easy-to-use tools to help streamline your work, conduct unmoderated studies, take advantage of templates, and more.

Rule 5. Tap into existing user insights 

Planning for the new year doesn’t mean you have to completely reinvent the wheel. Instead, focus on the work that you’ve already done and make use of existing insights with a good user research repository. 

Here are some of the benefits of a great user research repository:

  • Provides visibility of information across teams: Retrievable and shareable insights should be easily shared across teams. 
  • Helps you ask questions that can be answered with secondary research: You’ve already done the work to compile the data for previous research, so how can you use this information towards new research projects?
  • Helps you avoid throwaway research: Conducting research with limited budgets, resources, and bandwidth means you shouldn’t waste too much time on disposable research.
  • Helps you build long-term organizational knowledge: Rather than zipping through disposable insights every time you have a research project, rely on an archive of timeless insights. 
“ Disposable research is the stuff you throw away, after you ship. To be truly lean, get rid of that wasteful process. Instead, focus your research team’s time on making connections between past insights, then reusing and remixing them in new contexts.” - Joe Munko, the Director of User Research, Mixed Reality/AI at Microsoft

Research repositories help you build on past insights. Trace the insight back to its source material, and figure out if you can use this insight for new research projects. In some cases, you can use your secondary source of information to help you answer new questions.

A good research repository helps power the flow of lightweight, continuous research and helps all stakeholders of the product team and researchers align on insights. A common mistake that organizations make when using research repositories is to solely lean on their archive of insights for research needs. Isolating research repositories from other teams is a lost opportunity for collaborative continuous research. The key is to build a research repository that enables all research and product stakeholders to become active generators of insights.

Here are some ways you can improve your research repository:

  • Create a tagging structure for your repository insights that focuses on stakeholders' search requirements. Make it easy for others to find insights in your research repo. If you're ambitious, you can explore the concept of creating atomic research nuggets for your insights repository. But that's just one strategy for sharing research findings with stakeholders. Find what works best for you and the involved teams.
  • Share the responsibility of maintaining your database with stakeholders. Having a clean and well-maintained database ensures your insights repository doesn't become an archive of disposable research.
  • Invite non-research stakeholders to synthesize insights. Designers can help point out UI best practices, developers can bring a technical perspective, and product people can add product-focused viewpoints. This helps cover any gaps that you (the researcher) might have missed.

In other words, don't let your repository become a dead library of knowledge that no one uses. Make your research repository a rich, living collection of insights that are useful for everyone involved in the research process.

If you’re not able to repurpose or make connections with secondary research you’ve already done, it’s time to make room for insights that are valuable for long-term knowledge. 

🔴 Stop: Discarding user insights after a project is done. Now is not the time to be wasting resources on throwaway research.

🟢 Start: Reusing and remixing old insights to make new connections and discoveries. 

🟢 Continue: Building your research repository with timeless, meaningful insights that help you build long-term knowledge. 

📕 Want to learn more about creating a solid user research repository? Read this: Creating the Best User Research Repository for Your Team 

Good research is in our control 

As we approach the end of the year, take some time to reflect on the factors that are within your control. We can’t control rising inflation rates, supply chain disruption, or most other current events that are flooding news headlines. But we can control how we allocate our time, money, and resources, and redefine the way we approach user research in 2023.

Here’s a summary of our strategies to help keep those user insights flowing in 2023:

  • Maximize the use of your existing tool stack and find lightweight ways to conduct research.
  • Invest in high-quality participants and always compensate them for their time.
  • Share resources, strategies, and guidelines with non-research teams to help them do research on their own.
  • Build a great research repository to help you build long-term organizational knowledge.

Whether you’re just starting out with user research or you’re knee-deep in the trenches of trying to salvage your user research plan amidst the changing state of the world, take this time as an opportunity to handle times of uncertainty through a more strategic and actionable approach. Use these rules to help you not only survive, but thrive on lean budgets and uncertainty.

Rachell Lee
Copywriter at Seamless.AI

Rachell is a SEO Copywriter at Seamless.AI and former Content Marketing Manager at User Interviews. Content writer. Marketing enthusiast. INFJ. Inspired by humans and their stories. She spends ridiculous amounts of time on Duolingo and cooking new recipes.

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