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February 11, 2021
We surveyed 525 UX professionals and looked at the data to understand how COVID-19 has changed the field of UX—in many ways for the better.
Many researchers have appreciated the increased flexibility. One researcher who recently made the move from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon amid the pandemic, said:
“Remote [now] seems possible. A lot of people are moving, including myself. It’s really made it clear that our team can work remotely and can still communicate and tackle complex things… We don’t need to be in the same office. You know, everyone can work remotely and take breaks.”
Indeed, 14% of the researchers from our survey said that as yet, their company has no plans to return to the office.
They’re not alone—giants like Microsoft and Twitter have announced that employees can choose to work from home permanently, and in November 2020, Facebook even hired Annie Dean as Director of Remote Work to support the company’s decision to make half its global workforce remote within the next 5 to 10 years. What’s more, an August 2020 Glassdoor report notes a significant increase (about 60%) in remote job listings since August 2019.
Still, going from a mostly (or entirely) in-office environment to being fully remote is a big shift, and it’s come with its fair share of challenges.
The biggest challenge of working remotely during COVID, according to 42% of respondents, has been the lack of in-person communication with teammates. In an effort to solve for this, many companies adopted new tools designed to make remote collaboration easier.
Remote-friendly tools Miro and Mural were big winners this year, according to our survey: 60% of researchers said they use Miro to make sense of their notes and gather feedback—a 650% increase from the 8% who said the same last year. Similarly, 22% of researchers said Mural was part of their stack, a 1000% increase from the 2% in last year’s survey.
In addition to our annual State of User Research survey, we also interviewed researchers about how COVID has impacted their work. Most of the people we spoke to said that they enjoyed the new collaboration tools and strategies their team had adopted, and were eager to stick with them.
Notably, one researcher expressed an appreciation for the way Figma allowed their team to work asynchronously in a single document, something they weren’t doing regularly before COVID due to tight industry regulations around cloud-based tools. We predict that the adoption of similar tools and platforms by teams that previously relied on synchronous collaboration will have a lasting, positive impact on the way UXers work, allowing for increased flexibility and speed.
Another upside of UXers working remotely is the fact that teams are doing more remote research.
Remote research isn’t a replacement for in-person research in the long-term—the folks we talked to made that clear—but it’s an important supplement to traditional research methods.
Recruiting services and platforms like User Interviews make finding participants for research quicker and easier than ever before (the average time it takes us to recruit the first participant to a project is just 3 hours).
Even more importantly, doing remote research makes it easier to recruit a diverse and representative pool of participants, as one of the researchers we talked to found:
“The other thing I really like about remote recruiting is that the base that recruiters is pulling from is a lot broader. That helps us meet our new diversity and inclusion mandate much more easily… We had previously tried doing this with a legacy recruiter. They were unable to find [investors with diverse gender identities] and barely able to meet our ethnic and racial diversity mandates.
Now with some of our remote recruit vendors, I can fill a recruit of, say, 10 trans/non-binary investors investing at over 500k in real estate in 10 hours. It’s just mind-blowing how available [different] perspectives are. It’s terrible to say, but [in this respect] the pandemic has been a net benefit.”
Of course, user researchers and UX designers aren’t the only people working remotely. Early in 2020, swaths of the global population were suddenly, abruptly forced to move much of their daily lives online. From grocery shopping to education to birthday celebrations to big business dealings—so much of life has happened through computers since the pandemic began, that our pre-COVID digital use almost seems quaint.
As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella puts it:
“We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.”
We’ll talk about the big, industry-wide changes that transformation is having in just a moment—but first, it’s worth mentioning one of the seemingly small ways in which the pandemic has impacted user research and the work it supports. Namely:
Widespread familiarity with video conferencing tools makes doing remote research easier. This is a great thing—it means teams can continue to do remote research when it’s the better, faster, cheaper option (and it often is).
Matt Brown, the Director of UX at Marketade, has also noticed a surprising silver lining to doing research during COVID.
“Many of the people I’ve spoken to live alone, and even those that are blessed to reside with friends or family members still cannot escape the inevitable feeling of isolation. Multiple times this year have I been greeted not with the obligatory, “Let’s get through this,” but with a much more excited, “Hello! You’re the first person I’ve talked to all day!” As always, happier, more talkative participants yield consistently better data.”
Google Classroom went from 30 million users to hundreds of millions overnight. Food delivery apps’ business has more than doubled—including UberEats, in contrast to dwindling revenue from the company’s ride hailing app. American consumers express an up-to-40% increase in intent to shop online, even after the pandemic subsides. The list of statistics could go on and on.
The fact is, user behaviors have changed. Understanding those needs—and effectively meeting them—has never been more important. Kate Moran of Nielsen Norman Group explains:
“People’s behaviors and preferences have shifted. Research will help you figure out how your users have changed and how your designs need to adapt.”
“Self-diagnosis at home, monitoring those who are infected, widespread testing, and contact tracing are just a few design problems that need solving. Dealing with emergent mental health issues, panic buying, and social distancing caused by lockdowns is another. Endless design problems with unique challenges present themselves during global crises, and exciting design opportunities abound.”
All of these new design challenges—and old design challenges that are finally being treated with urgency—require UX designers and researchers to solve them. Colman Walsh CEO, UX Design Institute predicts:
"If anything, Covid-19 is going to have a positive effect on the UX industry. It will accelerate its growth because it is accelerating much of what was already happening in the tech sector. [The disruption of services like finance, travel, retail, and entertainment] has led to a huge demand for software development. And wherever software is being developed, there is a need for UX professionals to design that software.
So as more and more industries and companies improve their online capabilities in the aftermath of Covid, this can only be good news for anybody working in technology, including UX designers. There will be more demand for these skills (and unfortunately, probably less demand for some traditional ones)."
We can already see this increased demand in hiring trends. According to that same August 2020 Glassdoor report:
“Tech job openings increased 13.4 percent month-over-month. This large increase is driven primarily by shifting consumer demand for e-commerce and other online services.”
And although 30% of the researchers we spoke to in our State of User Research 2021 survey said their company had experienced COVID-related layoffs in the last year, 34% said that their company hired normally throughout the pandemic. In fact, 29% of the people surveyed said they had been in their current job for less than a year. (We didn’t ask about exact hiring dates; our survey ran from December 2020 to January 2021, so unless all those people were hired between December 2019 and February 2020, we can surmise that a significant minority of our survey takers were hired during the pandemic.)
Things also looked good for research budgets, all things considered. Over 55% of people said their budget did not change this year—and nearly 25% said that their research budget actually increased. There’s no reason we can think of why these trends shouldn’t continue (or even accelerate) as the economy recovers.
In 2017, Jakob Nielson predicted that by 2050, 100 million people (or 1% of the global population) will be employed in the UX industry. With the rapid acceleration of the digital transformation, we may well hit that milestone even sooner.
So what will the UX industry look like? What does a “post-COVID” world hold for UX professionals, present and future?
We’re prepared to make a few predictions:
It will take years for the world to come to grips with all the ways the pandemic has changed our daily lives, for better and for worse. But amid all the uncertainty, disruption, and loss, there is a silver lining. Miklos Phillips writes:
“Tumult and upheaval have altered history with wars, plagues, and chaos, sometimes leading to positive growth. We can look for a silver lining in the current calamity: COVID-19 is forcing the world to rethink its outmoded routines and power a remarkable pace of design innovation.
Many design breakthroughs of the current crisis will be short-lived, but many will have staying power because they solve big problems. It’s up to designers to get to work.”
Content marketer by day, thankless servant to cats Frodo and Elaine Benes by night. Loves to travel, has a terrible sense of direction. Bakes a mean chocolate tart, makes a mediocre cup of coffee. "Eclectic."