Overnight, the user research world was changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Or was it?
If you watch the news, you’re probably drowning in updates about “unprecedented times,” and state-wide stay-at-home mandates. If you’ve left the house for any reason, maybe you’ve noticed your city is deserted — or maybe you haven’t seen any difference at all in the number of people out and about, but it still feels like a strange new world.
So I got curious. What was the truth?
How has COVID-19 affected the people we serve here at EnjoyHQ, the research and design teams? Has it had an impact on user research in general?
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. On 1st of April, we launched a survey to find out exactly how user research and the teams that support it have been impacted.
The results were surprising in so many ways.
The Resilient Group of People Operating in a Whole New Work Environment
First, a quick breakdown of our audience to give you some context for these insights:
Of the 215 people who responded to our survey, 43% came from companies with 1,000+ employees, 35% came from companies with 50-500 employees, and 20% were at companies with 50 or fewer employees.
Most of the respondents (64%) held the title of UX Researcher. About 17% of the respondents were designers, 4% were product managers, and 13% were a smattering of roles including UX architects, UX designers, UX consultants, UX directors and managers, interaction design (IXD), product strategy, community support, human factors engineers, research recruiters, customer success, and research managers and coordinators.
When asked how many full-time researchers work in their organization, 15% said they had zero full-time researchers, 52% had between 1-5, 9% had between 6-10, 7% had 11-20, and 7% had more than 20.
Jumping into remote work head-first
Considering the feedback we got on the open-ended questions, I was surprised to see that a whopping 40% of our survey respondents were not working remotely before the COVID-19 crisis.
Around 21% of respondents shared that they had been working remotely for a while, and 31% had been working remotely a couple of days a week.
Many people (a large portion of the 13% who answered “Other” to the question of working remotely before the crisis) shared that they had worked remotely as needed or just occasionally before stay-at-home orders went into effect.
I was surprised by these answers because — as you’ll read here soon — the overwhelming sentiment was that remote user research and remote work are the new norms … and most of our survey respondents seemed to have embraced that quickly.
How UX Teams Have Been Impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic
We have all been disrupted by this pandemic — personally and professionally. I was happy to see, though, that 31% of our respondents hadn’t experienced any major changes to their work lives.
When we asked what the most disruptive aspect was of working remotely during the COVID-19 crisis, the most common response we got (34%) was not knowing how the situation will affect participants and the research output. Understandable, given that there is no precedence for this experience in human history, and no one knows how things are going to turn out.
About 28% of the respondents were struggling to adjust to different research methods, and almost as many (21%) were struggling to juggle parenting and working at home. A smaller percentage (15%) felt they lacked the appropriate tools to collaborate with colleagues and participants.
But there were plenty of other disruptions for this group of research professionals.
Some cited shrinking budgets, canceled projects, and increased costs. Others talked about struggling to focus while working from home, or having tech problems (like poor network connections or insufficient hardware).
The fear of layoffs and furloughs weighed heavily on these people.
A UX researcher at 1 150-500-person company worried about the “threat of layoffs and furloughs at my company due to the economic downturn.”
Another UX researcher at a company of the same size shared, “In a startup, we had to quickly scale down, many furloughed workers. Development is minimal right now”
Working remotely might be the new norm, but it’s not always easy. Some of the responses to the question of disruption included:
“Less face-to-face time with stakeholders makes it difficult to maintain the same efficiency and rigor with my projects.”
“Dealing with people who are not good with remote work practices”
“consistently being in a different environment with a less than ideal set-up for longterm work”
Finding and accessing participants for research is much harder right now — and in some industries, it’s impossible. Responses included:
“No access to participants”
“Access to our customers due to being aware of their situation, and the most appropriate time to ask them to participate in research”
“Restricted access to participants (B2B clients)”
“we're in the fitness space and it's severely impacted by the stay at home orders. it's uncomfortable to ask for feedback when our clients are very much concerned about the health of their business.”
“We design learning environments together with students (co-design), so have had to press pause on that. We are doing some remote usability testing.”
“Not being able to access participants as readily they are otherwise occupied with covid response”
“My research subjects are doctors! I cannot visit them and they do not have time to “meet.
Managing physical and mental health, as well as social needs, are also major disruptions for research and design teams …
“Too much screen time causing headaches”
“Mental health, coping w/ grief, physical health”
“Managing my own mental health”
“I did not have a possibility to discuss my concerns / hesitations with other UX team members on the go, since we were in different locations. I missed the face-to-face contact with my team mates the most.”
So are UX research budget cuts a big worry?
It turns out that, even with all the disruptions to the work and to the economy as a whole, budget cuts aren’t always a concern. In fact, more than half of respondents (54%) said that they are not concerned.
Adoption is accelerating for tools for remote collaboration
With all the talk of economic impact, budget cuts, and businesses shutting down entirely right now, I expected that there would be a slowdown in the adoption of better tools for remote collaboration — even though remote is the new way of working.
I was surprised when 59% of respondents said that their adoption of tools for remote collaboration was actually accelerating.
Most of the respondents who chose “Other” as their answer shared some variation of this answer: “We’ve already been collaborating remotely for a while, and we have all the tools we need.”
How Will COVID-19 Change the Way User Research Is Done?
This was the million-dollar question. I left this field open on the survey so we could learn what user research professionals were thinking, in their own words. A few distinct themes emerged quickly …
Conducting user research remotely will be the new norm — and it may be an adjustment, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“More thought has to be put into conducting virtual tests and remote research but I think it will also open a larger pool of testers, leading to larger insights. I think overall it’ll be good once we get over the initial dip.” – Designer, 1-10-person company
“More flexibility and capability to incorporate remote research methods.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“I have already starting doing a lot more online research in my past few roles, but I think that for teams reliant on in-person research this will be an adjustment - the last team I was on just built a big in-person lab, but still don't have the online tools necessary to do mobile testing remotely. Field Research might need some more creative tools & approaches.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“Probably a shift towards remote research, which I have done a lot before. Since our product teams are also distributed internationally, we have also worked together remotely before.” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
“Probably more remote video interviews, less contextual inquiries. Also final presentations will involve more Video with remote stakeholders.” – UX Researcher, 1-10-person company
“I think there’s a heightened appreciation for remote study types and platforms that allow for participant recruitment from afar.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“We will see a lot more emphasis on remote. The biggest challenge would be convincing clients that remote quant work needs to be balanced with remote qual work.” – Owner, 1-10-person company
“We'll be doing more remote research on a daily basis, even when we left this behind us” – UX Researcher, 10-50-person company
"In my company, we'll continue to rely on remote methods and not bother with on-site customer visits (which we were trying to get budget to do). Industry-wide, I think it will be a big shift to remote tools." – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
Of course, it’s not all rainbows for everyone as they experience the growing pains of this change…
“It will become more and more done remotely with less direct contact with the users. Last week we were conducting testing and due to connectivity issues we were not able to proceed.” .” – Designer, 1,000+-person company
And there are legitimate concerns about the long-term implications …
“Increase skills and acceptance of remote and quantitative testing. However, might create a mis-conception, among non-UX professionals, that remote could replace enthographic and face to face research.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“concerned future post Covid-19 that contextual studies will be off and everything will be forced into a remote setting for budget reasons” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“More remote and thus a limitation in how we would conduct contextual inquiry and observational research, this will limit the insights we can gather. More remote also means more challenges in getting participants to open up, as traditional interview techniques (eg mirroring) cannot be used.” – UX Manager, 1,000+-person company
“Far more remote/online studies. In-lab, moderated sessions will have to be pushed to online studies and researchers have to get more creative with presenting their stimuli” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
Working from home will be more accepted — and there are a lot of benefits to that.
“I think we will see more emphasis on remote working. We're proving we can do it now!” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“Will emphasize more the importance of having remote tools as a backup and change systems of collaboration.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“I had to switch to remote research overnight and would like to keep it at least partially (was lazy to set it up before)” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“Working remotely and working from home will be more acceptable. Remote research methods and tools will be more widely adopted.” – UX Researcher, 50-150-person company
“More will be done remotely. More will be done more quickly to get to the root of problems” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“It will allow us to be okay doing a lot more remotely. Sure, there’s some things we just can’t do remotely, but a lot we can. My org had been pretty set on in person studies when we didn’t need to be, wasting a lot of time and money. This is a good thing for us” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
Working from home can be great, but there are still challenges …
“Our customer calls were remote anyway but we often have follow up conversations with team members after sessions to capture reactions and process learnings. We need to make an effort not to skip those talks as many great ideas come out at that time.” – Designer, 50-150-person company
“unsure - we did mostly remote already, but now there's less collaboration or communicating how to run research among a distributed team.” – UX Research Operations, 1,000+-person company
Less face-to-face interaction will take a toll on working relationships and the ability to get the user insight researchers need.
"Inability to meet casually and quickly with coworkers face to face. Interviews are done from home with a few less niceties that are available at the office." – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
“Reduce the opportunities of in-person interviews and observations which are important to user research.” – Designer, 1-10-person company
“There will be no interaction to find out how users behave or work out their journeys in realtime.” – Designer, 50-150-person company
“Contextual research has to stop due to social distancing. All other types of research can be run.” – UX Researcher, 10-50-person company
“Obviously fewer in-person interviews. We will have to get better about building rapport via video conference” – Designer, 10-50-person company
“In the short-term at least, it won't be possible to do in-person usability testing or visit users in their work environments.” – Designer, 1,000+-person company
But there are bright sides, too …
“Nothing will beat Face to Face research. However, I do feel that online tools/collaborators will have strengthened their product as a result of COVID-19.” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
“Make it much more acceptable for field work to happen by internet video than face to face” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“More video calls, less office visits :)” – Community Support, 50-150-person company
Underneath the rapid changes, confusion, and economic shakeup, there are great opportunities to be found.
“We can do more research as we feel we can do less face to face, it opens up our recruitment, removes some restrictions” – Lead UX Consultant, 10-50-person company
“We will get more used to doing it remote, and less scared of it. It also brings opportunities I would say” – UX Researcher, 50-150-person company
“More opportunity for remote group activities (e.g. workshops). Greater use of asynchronous, unmoderated Research techniques.” – UX Researcher, 1-10-person company
“A lot more remote sessions. We were already doing a lot of remote, but the situation shows just how easy it is. I think its great because it'll open up the pool of participants to be broader than just those that can travel for a face-to-face” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
“We have to look different ways to do our research remotely. Its an opportunity to empower this kind of research” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“more potential participants will be more used to video calls, so there will be less technical barriers to doing remote research” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
“For us it's a trial by fire to get the remote research we've been talking about to actually happen.” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
“Industry-wise, we will definitely run more remote user research (including unmoderated usability testing). We should have done it months ago, Covid-19 came as sort of ‘enabler’ ;)” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
It’s not just the working environment that’s changing — users are changing, too. And research participants are more valuable than ever.
“I think it'll be a while till I can go shadow someone in their office again since they aren't there, and they probably don't want visitors. Also our users are changing their work behavior so that'll be new things to study.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“Tactically, it will require researchers to account for users new realities which will influence numerous research aspects including study design, recruitment, compensation (incentives), etc.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“As of now, we are very sensitive to reaching out to customers or target persona types and asking for their participation. Instead, we are using recruiting services and online unmoderated sessions to connect with participants.” – Designer, 50-150-person company
“As an industry: more difficult to weed out professional participants, because of pressure to earn money in remote ways is sending them to us. More flexibility about ‘requirements’ for participants: they may need last min-rescheduling & shouldn’t be blacklisted for that.; or may not have a place to be alone so there may be others in-screen, eg kids, family members. UXRs will need to find new ways to ‘see around the corner’ to imagine what post-Covid world may entail and help their employer/paying clients can provide value in that world.... instead of (as I’m seeing currently in some cases) expecting things to go back to ‘normal’” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“I think for many professional participants with families - they will need more remote, unmoderated, and quick methods to participate or they will be less able to sign up.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“More remote studies, more sensitivity to response fatigue” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
“Users are busy surviving COVID and they care less of future product development.” – Product Manager, 1,000+-person company
"More thought has to be put into conducting virtual tests and remote research but I think it will also open a larger pool of testers, leading to larger insights. I think overall it’ll be good once we get over the initial dip” – Designer, 1-10-person company
Some audiences are strictly off-limits right now … and there’s no indication of when that will change …
“We’re in healthcare and our research subjects are on the front lines of the pandemic. We are utilizing inside (company) experts as subjects for the time being.” – UX Designer, 1,000+-person company
“My research is in the healthcare field, and the primary impact on my work is that I am avoiding doing research that requires care provider participants (doctors, nurses, etc), and am focusing on research that I can do without participants, or with patient participants. Even though some of my work may help providers provide care during this crisis or one like it, I want to avoid adding burden to their workload as much as I can.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“More remote research, absolutely. In addition, I tend to do a lot of research in the travel industry, and I think that the focus of that research is going to change dramatically as far as recruiting participants and even research questions.” – UX Researcher, 10-50-person company
“We can’t reach out to our retail workers for usability testing because they’re so busy, so we have to find corporate employees that used to work in our retail stores to make assumptions on how the retail workers would feel about the changes we make.” – Designer, 1,000+-person company
“We'll have to invest even more time in recruitment to run more remote studies, to prevent exhausting our participant pool for such studies. But I suppose that would have been the case in any case. Nonetheless, some studies that would have been run remote by a vendor on site, will now also have to move to remote testing. In our sector (health) I am not sure how easy that will be.” – Human Factors Engineer, 50-150-person company
“In our company we made an approach to recruit people close to the workers who were interested in providing feedback. This was to avoid disturbing people that we don't know if they are going through a rough time. So the UR team provided everyone with a sort of preset message that we could share amongst our close circle.” – Designer, 1,000+-person company
“Our primary users are healthcare systems and hospitals, so we cannot ethically do any direct user testing or user research while they are managing this pandemic. The other methods we are now focusing on are still valid and valuable methods, but without that direct user feedback on new designs it's difficult to explain to stakeholders why we shouldn't go forward with certain design or development changes, without invalidating the other methods we're now using.” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
Hopes are high that new tools and approaches are going to emerge out of this situation.
“More online sessions will lead to the creation of better online moderation tools.” – Designer, 1,000+-person company
“More enriched online formats of traditional research methods and techniques.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“A lot of people will begin to learn the value of remote research, will be willing to hire Ux researchers remotely and I am hoping new tools and methods will come around” – UX Researcher, 50-150-person company
“it will make us exploit boundaries and possibilities of different tools and methods and certainly learn a lot.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“There will be more remote studies and remote tools used... possibly new remote research methods will emerge” – UX Researcher, 50-150-person company
“I think it will help improve tools and tactics for remote research as a viable strategy rather than a fallback. I personally collect better data for my users (developers) remotely than I would if I had to try and convince them to visit me in person.” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
“Hopefully more and more via chat, video conferences and new technologies.” – Designer, 1-10-person company
“Increasing the adoption and development of remote moderated/unmoderated testing tools. Greater focus on presenting research after-the-fact.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“I think diary studies will become more common in replace of ethnographic field studies. I think researchers will have to review footage and form additional questions to follow up with the subject.” – Senior UX Designer & Research Consultant, 1,000+-person company
“more online, less in place. a lot of research focused on the new customer pain-points and to answer questions like ‘how might we adapt to the new customer habits’” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“The strategic research questions we ask will change. The remote tools will hopefully improve. Recruitment of participants may change — unsure exactly how but people lifestyles have flipped upside down.” – UX Practice Lead, 150-500-person company
“new evolutions of UXR-enabling tools, especially for self-serve communication / learning by non-UXRs (eg Research/insights repositories with contributions from more than just UXR - eg data science team’s insights & findings )” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“We are researching new tools that were not considered before. Realizing the benefits of unmoderated user testing for rapid quantitative feedback alongside the moderated behavioral analysis user testing of the lab and how we move that online” – Designer, 1,000+-person company
“It will push more and better collaboration tools to be adopted more quickly.” – CX Strategy Research, 1,000+-person company
“way more remote. more methods for recruitment that don't involved permanent panels.” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
“Remote research will get a better standing, because well-crafted digital products will receive more attention as we all shift to remote work. Also, we will have to adapt tools, processes and methods to be optimized for remote set ups." – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
Some people expect more of a need for research, more efficiency, organizations opening to the possibility of new locations, and researchers being more trusting of online tools.
“After talking with a few friends who own agencies or run their own UX departments, they say their requests for more research and studies has increased substantially since quarantining. My guess is that now that most companies are going remote, they must rely heavily on their web presence. Research and testing is now even more important because you don’t have many opportunities to get it wrong or have other avenues to fall back on." – Designer, 1-10-person company
“Personally, I have seen improvements in efficiency of the research done since I am able to give justified time to plan and execute the activities while delivering accessory requirements. Less meetings more time” – UX Researcher, 50-150-person company
“We started considering have researchers from other places inside our country to make the time bigger and bring more realities to the research discussion, what we were not considering before.” – ResearchOps Manager, 1,000+-person company
“I think it will open up possibilities across locations that organizations may have been hesitant to utilize prior” – Research Coordinator, 10-50-person company
“Not much change for my company but I would say trusting online tools. One of the fear they have is the stealing of information when testing remotely either by hackers or participants” – Designer, 1,000+-person company
For some, the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t visible yet.
“Almost impossible to do usability testing on hardware products or to do site/gemba visits.” – Designer, 1,000+-person company
“more remote engagements, less enthusiasm internally” – Designer, 1,000+-person company
“We had a RIF and had to take on CX/NPS responsibilities in addition to user research with one research while also balancing some furlough impact to that person.” – Title unknown, 50-150-person company
“They furloughed the entire UX design team” – UX Researcher, 50-150-person company
“Within my company, it has delayed several projects. We will need to use remote testing tools and get people online on video conference apps.” – Designer, 10-50-person company
“Generally: more remote work, more of the time. For us: it's much more ‘just enough research’ because I'm the only researcher and a solo parent to a toddler, so I have to triage my work.” – Director of User Research, 1-10-person company
“Less in-person workshops, which is really difficult because you can't engage people in the same way remotely. More stakeholder time is being taken up by what value they can provide immediately to the company, so it is hard to put time on the calendar that people actually find as having some type of usefulness.” – Designer, 150-500-person company
“My team is working on a product which isn't focusing on the market the team is based. And the team may not be able to fully relate to how the COVID-19 will affect our users' life.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“I won't be as good facilitating research because of interruptions from my kids. Demands will be as high, but support is much lower.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“Make it harder to sell the value of user research due to general budget cuts, and also increase the % of remote research (vs in-person research)” – Product Manager, 1,000+-person company.
One thing is for sure: Everyone is having to adapt to change.
“The world will not be the same once the crisis is over. Humans, their personalities and characters will change a bit for a while. The real problems would be masked by different problems. The real needs and goals would be masked by different ones. Fortunately or unfortunately the changes are unpredictable and inevitable. People would be either living in baby steps or thinking in extremities but, us, the user researchers we will have to learn and adapt all of it yet empathize as we use to.” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
“I think the current situation will change how people is thinking to words incidents and this will affect our results in our researches. you must be ready to be shocked from the answers and the reactions. Human being is a social creature and everyday he/she use to build lots of probabilities of incidents faces his/her. And this virus succeeded to affect the structure of humans thinking and changes lots of daily life priorities. So UX researchers must restructure and update their way of handling cases.” – UX Researcher, 1-10-person company
“As researchers we will have to think a lot more about how we can effectively relate, connect with and understand our users. This is an isolating time for people and we have an even higher ethical responsibility of care in our research studies.” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
"A lot of people are realizing they don't need to just do in person research. I am hoping this leads to more inclusive research but I am doubtful researchers/designers will take that into consideration and just create the same patterns we had in person to a new remote situation"– UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
“Will impact everyone in a way that will moreso change the data than methods.” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
“I hope it will force us to communicate better because we have to be more intentional. I’ve always had to work across departments and this breaks down easily without good communication.” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
“It will increase the need for more flexible/ adaptable research methods using a combination of various communication, collaboration and recording tools” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
“Well, there's gonna be a change for everyone. The economy and the mental health are my biggest concerns.” – UX Researcher, 10-50-person company
“I work as a researcher in a B2B company, and most research is conducted remotely, due to time zones. I think we and most other companies will default to remote-first for the foreseeable future. I'm also launching a product advisory council, which typically involves two in-person meetings in a 12-month stretch. I haven't decided how to adjust that yet, but I think companies who have thought through how to hold effective, virtual meetups / conferences / etc will come out ahead after this.” – Designer, 1,000+-person company
“More remote interviews and testing, getting creative when testing with ‘on-site’ devices and products, rethinking guerrilla research.” – Title unknown, 150-500-person company
“This is a really interesting question. I wonder about how willing people will be to touch a test phone, for example. Card sorts, paper prototypes anything that is high-touch seems really tricky. We might need to sit in separate rooms for an in-person study which is pretty unfortunate. I wonder how longer term ethnographic studies will be able to be executed. I think we will use more diary studies.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“More remote sessions, less field research, and rely much more on digital tools. Also, a lot of consumer research especially would have to be compared against the covid-19 timeline with how severely it's impacted people's lives. I'd love to see better ways of conducting remote focus groups and other in context studies, that is difficult with video software.” – UX Researcher, 150-500-person company
"more pressure on good communication between the researcher & rest of the team they’re working with" – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“I think there will be a need to embrace smaller, mixed methods of user research to actually obtain statistically viable data.” – UX Researcher, 50-150-person company
“I think that research has advanced from a remote perspective. It's more about building the empathy and being more sensitive to participant situations. And if this will be a temporary state or a permanent one that will impact what findings we get.” – UX Researcher, 50-150-person company
“User research needs to evolve to understand the effects business has on people, not just users. User research should be an ethical check on business and foresight into future societies. It should be grounded in inclusivity, not segmentation, to inform strategic visioning and measuring the effects as the organization progresses towards that vision.” – UX Researcher, 1,000+-person company
“There's high demand of our product and we are trying to compress the design process, to add value faster.” – Designer, 50-150-person company
We don’t yet know exactly how COVID-19 will affect research and design teams, and user research in general, for the long term. Only time will tell.
But the initial changes everyone is experiencing are seismic.
This survey was one of the most interesting surveys I’ve ever run. Not just because respondents surprised me with their answers, but because of the can-do spirit that came through.
I was pleasantly surprised that, despite the incredible uncertainty right now, researchers and designers are remaining optimistic — about continued investment in research, and also about the likely future of collaborating more online.
It seems to me that a bright new future for UX could lie just on the other side of this crisis.