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March 15, 2021
We surveyed 525 user researchers in 44 countries to bring you the third annual State of User Research report.
The State of User Research gets bigger and better every year.
We’ve run this report annually since 2019, using data we collect by surveying user researchers about their work over the past year.
For our 2021 report, we collected responses through our newsletter and social media channels (Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook) and by posting in Slack, Facebook, and LinkedIn communities. The breakdown of responses from our own channels versus external communities was an even 50/50 split. Our survey was open from December 2020 to January 2021.
In the end, we heard back from 525 people who do research (PwDRs) as at least part of their job.
We hope that the insights in this report will help you to have important conversations and empower your team to do more and better research in 2021.
This year, 525 people who do research (PwDRs) completed our survey—up from 336 respondents last year. These are people who spend more than 10% of their time on research. Most (67%) describe their primary job as UX/user research, with a further 17% working in product/UX design. Three-fourths (75%) of the people surveyed are individual contributors.
The majority (52%) of the people we heard from are 25 to 34 years old. On the whole, user researchers are a highly educated bunch—just under half of those surveyed (49%) hold graduate degrees.
Over half (51%) of respondents live in the United States, with the majority located in major cities like San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Austin, and Portland, OR.
We’re also going global: We received responses from 44 different countries (compared to 33 last year). After the US, the countries most represented in our sample are Canada, the UK, Germany, India, Israel, and the Netherlands.
🇳🇬 (Special shout out to the lone survey takers in Bulgaria, Nigeria, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Peru!)
This year, we made our gender and racial/ethnic identity questions multiselect. For example, someone could select both “African American, Black” and “Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander” or both “male/man” and “transgender.”
Most respondents (68%) identify as female/women—which matches up with last year’s survey (67%), as well data from Payscale in which 70.4% of survey respondents identified as female.
This was the first year we asked about racial/ethnic identities. Most respondents (62%) identify as white, followed by Asian and/or Desi (15%), Hispanic/Latinx/Latin(a/o) (9%), and African American/Black (4%).
All demographics questions were optional.
As the field matures, user researchers are becoming more experienced each year. In last year’s survey, 14% of people said they had 15 or more years of experience; this year, that number grew to 20%.
A plurality (30%) of the researchers we heard from have 5 to 9 years of experience. Over half (53%) of people surveyed have been working in the field for less than a decade.
The vast majority (85%) have been in their current role for less than 4 years—29% of people said they’ve held their current role for less than a year.
Salaries varied widely, depending on experience and location. Among non-US researchers, a plurality (25%) reported a salary of $50,000 to $75,000. Close to half (44%) of researchers living outside the United States say they earn under $50,000 annually.
The numbers look quite different for researchers living in the United States, where the median household income (in 2019) was $68,703. The most commonly reported salary range among US researchers was $100,000 to $150,000, with 46% of people saying they earn this much per year—1.5 to 2.2 times the median income.
Fewer than 5% of US-based researchers said they earn under $50,000. The same percentage reported salaries of over $200,000 annually.
All those salaries are hard-earned—36% of people say they typically work more than 40 hours per week.
There is evidence of a gender-pay gap among researchers: Close to half (47%) of all survey takers who indentify as male/men reported salaries over $100,000 per year; 37% of people who identify as female/women reported the same, along with 36% of genderqueer/gender non-conforming/non-binary folks.
Among US-based researchers, 70% who identify as white (n=87/125) report salaries of $100k+. Over half (55%) of people who identify as Asian and/or Desi (n=15/27) reported the same, along with 50% of Hispanic/Latinx/Latin(a/o) (n=4/8) and 45% of African American/Black researchers (n=5/11).
Each year that we run this survey, we end up hearing from more and more people working in large, enterprise companies. This year, 21% of survey responses came from researchers working in companies with 10,000 or more employees.
Still, nearly half (49%) of responses came from folks at companies with fewer than 500 employees. Just over 5% of people described themselves as freelancers.
A little over 16% of people work at an agency (of any size), the same as last year and the year before.
We also asked people what industry they work in. A plurality of user researchers work in “tech” (no real surprise there) with 30% working in fields like IT, internet, and network security.
Over 10% said they work in banking or financial services, which may include folks in fintech. We also heard from people in medicine, health, and wellness-related fields (9%), design (7%), telecommunications (3.5%), and education (3%).
One person also wrote in that they work in matchmaking. 🖤
In general, the number of people who do research scales up with company size. This is true for both dedicated researchers and PwDRs. At SMBs with 50 to 199 employees, the average number of dedicated researchers is 3; that number increases to 5 for a company with 500 to 999 employees, 8 for a company with 1,000 to 5,000 employees and so on.
When we look at the entire data set, the average number of dedicated researchers and PwDRs is 6 and 8, respectively. These numbers point to a growing need for Research Ops; according to Kate Towsey, once a company has around 8 people doing research on a regular basis, the demand for organization around research reaches a threshold, beyond which a dedicated operations function is needed for research to be effective.
User research is a big task, with lots of moving parts. We asked people who do research how they typically plan and recruit for sessions.
The design/prototyping phase is the most popular time to do research (93%) followed by the pre-design stage (90%). But in fact, research happens throughout the product life cycle—over half (54%) of people said their company does research at all stages of the product life cycle, from before design to after launch.
Most (72%) said their research is planned over a week in advance, with over 33% of people indicating that typically they start planning for a research session 2 to 4 weeks ahead of time.
Recruiting closer to the date of research can help reduce no-shows, since it gives participants less time to forget about the session. And indeed, it seems there’s about a week of lag time between planning and recruiting. Most (72%) people said they start recruiting within 2 weeks of a research session, and 11% said they start recruiting just a few days before.
In general, companies conduct research using their own customers or a panel of participants more often than with participants sourced by an agency or recruiting tool. Just over 60% of people said they use their own participants more than half of the time.
This isn’t surprising—it’s easier to get consistent insights from people who are already invested in the success of your business, like your customers. What’s more (👋 shameless self-promotion alert!) solutions like Research Hub make managing a panel of participants a breeze.
The most popular tool for recruiting your own users is Calendly (used by 30%), followed by User Interviews (23%) and SurveyMonkey (21%).
For recruiting outside participants, User Interviews was tied with external recruiting agencies as the most popular solution (27% each).
What do we mean when we talk about user research? Depending on the product, project, or team, “user research” could entail usability tests, generative interviews, field studies, and so on.
We asked researchers about what kind of research they do, and what tools they use to do it.
According to our survey, the most popular form of research is user/generative interviews—46% of people surveyed said it was the form of research they do most often—followed by moderated usability tests (19%) and surveys (15%).
The least common (but not the least important) type of research is accessibility testing. Over a quarter (26%) of researchers said they do this the least frequently, followed by diary studies (19%) and tree tests (13%).
2020 was the year of Zoom, so it’s no huge surprise that the video conferencing tool was the most popular tool for conducting sessions—59% of people said it was part of their stack, up from 48% in last year’s survey.
Other popular tools for video sessions were Google Hangouts (32%), Microsoft Teams (28%) and UserTesting (17%).
For surveys, Google Forms and SurveyMonkey are neck and neck, with 46% and 45% of people saying they use these tools to conduct research, respectively. Qualtrics (22%) and Typeform (22% again) were other popular options.
Collecting insights is only one part of doing research. Analyzing results, storing research artifacts, and presenting research to stakeholders and the wider team are all part of an effective user research practice.
So how are user researchers doing all that?
Most of the researchers we heard from leave their sessions with more than one type of artifact and 14% said they leave sessions with transcripts, video recordings, raw notes, coded notes, and participant-created materials.
After a research session, most researchers communicate their findings in a variety of ways: 90% have a meeting with stakeholders to share their results and 83% share a summarized report of their findings (76% do both).
As a result, most researchers said that at least some of their stakeholders know how and where to access research results (and do so).
That’s a good thing, for more reasons than you may think. People who said most stakeholders know how to access research findings and do so at least some of the time rated themselves as more fulfilled than those who said stakeholders never access research—7/10 on average vs. 5.5/10.
Most people (81%) use a spreadsheet tool like Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel to make sense of their notes and gather feedback.
The second-most popular tool for this purpose was Miro, which 60% of people said they use. That’s a huge leap from last year, when 8% of researchers said the same. Miro’s soaring popularity in 2020 can likely be attributed to it’s remote-friendliness—a whopping 90% of researchers said they were fully remote this past year.
Mural was another remote-friendly tool that saw a big rise this year—22% of researchers reported it as part of their stack, compared to just 2% in last year’s survey. That’s a 1000% increase in popularity year over year.
All of these tools and sessions come at a cost. We wanted to know how much.
Unfortunately, close to half (44%) of researchers couldn’t tell us, because they weren’t sure of what their research budget was in the first place. This is the same percentage as last year, so there hasn’t been any increase in transparency. As research grows as a discipline and a practice, we hope to see more benchmarks around this.
Of those who did know, a plurality (19%) said their budget was under $100. Half of researchers with a sense of their budget estimated it to be under $1,000. Meanwhile, 10% of those in the know reported a research budget of $75,000 or more (lucky them!).
Most (56%) people told us their research budget didn’t change this year. We failed to include an “I don’t know” option for this question, so it’s possible some people picked this as a “neutral” option, rather than skipping the question.
Nevertheless, a quarter (25%) of researchers said their research budget actually increased in 2020. That’s more than the 20% who said their budget was cut.
No two users are the same. Without a diverse group of research participants (and researchers, for that matter), can you truly create products that are inclusive, accessible, and useful for all the people who want or need to use them?
Of course not.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are essential considerations for doing ethical and unbiased research.
In 2020, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the United States and around the world inspired many teams to take a closer look at their own work, and the ways in which it contributes—however unintentionally—to systems of inequality.
For some teams, this meant paying closer attention to details like the identity questions on surveys or the accessibility of particular design elements. Many companies also took time to reflect and make meaningful changes to things like hiring practices and research participant diversity.
So how do user researchers feel they’re doing on that front?
On the whole, not so great. On average, people gave their company’s accessibility efforts a rating of 3.9/10. They rated efforts to ensure that their research is equitable and inclusive of diverse/representative perspectives slightly higher at 4.5/10.
But when we asked researchers about how their team tries to make sure their work is diverse, equitable, and accessible, we found that most (88%) are making an effort. And a fifth of people (21%) said they made changes to their research practice this year in service of DEI goals.
Only 11% of people said a DEI committee or function serves as a stakeholder in research. These researchers rated their accessibility and inclusion efforts a 5/10 and 5.7/10, respectively—about 1 point higher than the average.
It’s hardly possible to talk about 2020 without talking about COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic continues to claim lives, livelihoods, and entire industries.
Without minimizing the individual losses and struggles of user researchers around the globe, as a field, user research has fared quite well.
Of the researchers in our survey, 30% said their company experienced COVID-related layoffs. Yet a third (34%) reported that their company hired normally despite the crisis.
What’s more, most researchers (67%) said their compensation and benefits were unaffected. A handful of people even told us their benefits improved; several said they now receive more vacation and/or mental health days, stipends to offset the cost of working from home, and (in one case) paid internet and psychiatric care.
Still, a sizable minority of researchers (28%) said their pay or benefits package was negatively impacted, and others wrote in that they had turned to freelancing after losing their job due to the pandemic.
For many researchers, the most dramatic change to their work was not salary or staffing but location: 90% of people surveyed said they’ve been exclusively working from home since the pandemic began, including 87% of people who rarely or never worked remote before. And 14% of researchers said their previously on-site companies still have no plans of returning to the office.
That’s a big shift, and one that’s not without its challenges. Over 42% of people said the hardest part of working remotely has been the lack of in-person communication with teammates. Another 25% cited the blurring of lines between work and home life as the most challenging aspect.
Not everyone agrees—19% of researchers feel that in terms of working remotely, everything is actually going pretty great. That includes 17% of people who never or rarely worked remotely pre-COVID.
Are researchers happy?
We asked people to rate their fulfillment at work on a scale from 1 (unfulfilled) to 10 (very fulfilled). The average score was 6.4—just 0.3 points lower than the last time we asked this question. Considering the 2020 we had, that feels like a win.
We also asked researchers about their biggest frustration at work. A plurality (29%) said organizational structure or bureaucracy was the biggest thorn in their side. This frustration was felt harder among people who work at enterprise companies; 37% of enterprise researchers said this was their biggest frustration, compared to 24% of non-enterprise folks.
The second-most common frustration was around budget and/or resource constraints (18%)—including 3 of the people who said their monthly research budget was over $75,000!
Yet the lowest average fulfillment score (5.3) actually came from the 14% of researchers who felt most frustrated by the lack of buy-in about the importance of research. The second-lowest score (5.7) came from the 8% of researchers who felt most frustrated by no clear path for career growth.
When asked if they felt their company did enough research, most (73%) gave a score of 5/10 or less.
A plurality of researchers (30%) think their companies use research somewhat effectively to meet goals, but could be doing better; the average score was 4.7/10. That’s a steep drop from last year, when researchers rated effectiveness of research at 6.8.
People were slightly happier with the way research was used to make decisions—the average rating was 5.5/10.
The scores researchers gave on these three questions had a big impact on how fulfilled they feel at work. People who rated the amount and effectiveness of research at their company higher than the average also had higher fulfillment scores—7.2 in both instances. And those who gave a higher-than-average rating of the way research is used to make decisions were the most fulfilled at work; their average fulfillment score was 7.5.
All this talk about fulfillment and job satisfaction (or dissatisfaction, as the case may be) begs the question: Why do people do research in the first place?
More specifically, what are researchers’ main goals? And what do they love most about their work?
The answers to both of these questions have been remarkably consistent year over year.
Understanding customer needs has been ranked at the most important goal by researchers every year that we’ve run our survey (it was ranked as slightly more important this year than last: 6.3/7 versus 6.1/7). This goal is followed by validating early-stage solutions, voice of the customer/internal education, validating late-stage solutions, understanding quantitative data, settling internal disputes, and testing for accessibility—always in that order.
Similarly, researchers’ favorite thing about user research has remained unchanged: It’s the ability to make decisions with better evidence.
At least, that’s the case for 43% of people surveyed—the same percent as last year.
User researchers also love bringing the voice of the customer to the wider team (32%) and simply talking to fellow human beings (20%).
Some folks wrote in to say that they love all these aspects equally, while one person summed up the value of user research quite nicely: Their favorite thing about research is “solving the problems real people have [in order] to make their lives better.”
We're so happy to put this third annual report into the world. Thank you again to everyone who participated in our survey.
In addition to satisfying our curiosity, the insights we gather through this report help us create more relevant, thoughtful UXR resources year round. On the User Interviews blog, we’ll continue exploring the data we gathered, what it means for user research, and what we can expect from the year ahead.
If you’d like to be a part of this survey next year, sign up for our newsletter—we’ll let you know when the State of User Research 2022 survey rolls around. In the meantime, happy researching!
Here at User Interviews, we believe quick, easy access to qualitative insights is the key to better decision-making and faster growth. (And we should know—our founders’ first company failed without user research.) With our panel of over 450,000 vetted users, our platform is the fastest way to recruit research participants.
User Interviews is made for user researchers who need to:
Give us a try. Your first three participants are free!
🙌 Big shoutout to our own Carrie Boyd for putting together, distributing, and analyzing the results of the 2021 State of User Research survey. And a huge thanks to the talented Caroline Nolan, who designed this year’s report.
*Editor's note: An earlier version of this report included a few small copy errors (the data was accurate). These were corrected on February 19, 2021.
Content marketer by day, thankless servant to cats Elaine Benes and Mr. Maxwell Sheffield by night. Loves to travel, has a terrible sense of direction. Bakes a mean chocolate tart, makes a mediocre cup of coffee. Thinks most pine trees are just okay. "Eclectic."