In the past few months we surveyed and interviewed more than a hundred researchers. Primarily we set out to learn what a 'minimally lovable product' for UX researchers might look like, but along the way we also learned how the pandemic impacted research programs and the people behind them. While we heard a lot of expected impacts such as more remote sessions and increased workloads, we also learned a few unexpected insights as well.

Below are 6 insights on the changed landscape of UX research. On a macro level we hope by sharing we might collectively be more aware of how these changes impacted the industry; and on a micro level we hope sharing helps other researchers feel less alone in a time that has been marked by loneliness, change, and uncertainty.

#1 Research was reprioritized, not de-prioritized.

You don't have to be in the research field very long to know that research (and researchers) is often something that's advocated for. It's a struggle to get organizations to admit that, despite its egos, opinions, and smart thinkers, there are still unknowns and learnings worth investing in.

Though the times are changing, there are still organizations that don't see research as a dedicated function or necessity. With many industries grinding to a halt and the resulting economic impacts, one of the assumptions we were wrong about was that research might have been one of the first organizational casualties of the pandemic.

While there are likely many researchers who were laid off or furloughed, the researchers we spoke with told another story. We heard how instead of research being de-prioritized, research was suddenly reprioritized... and in some cases valued even more than before.

For some organizations a rapid increase in new problems and sudden shifts in behavior meant more demand, open-mindedness, and support for research. It was so collectively obvious that this past year was uncharted territory that even the smartest and most opinionated executives were unwilling to make certain decisions without research.

We heard stories about research teams shifting gears to learn about things like:

  • How can we include curbside pickup for vulnerable shoppers?
  • How can we help travelers change their travel plans in massive numbers?
  • How can we train our nurses and medics in the field while keeping everyone as safe as possible?
  • How can we onboard new customers with a sudden influx of non-typical demand?
  • How can we pivot our product to survive?
During a time when organizations faced new, challenging, and sometimes life-threatening problems that needed solutions fast, researchers stepped up and answered the call.

From late nights and early mornings, to stressful shifts in priorities, and uncomfortable conversations, researchers were behind many of the rapid innovations we saw unfold this past year. Research work is hardly ever glamorous. It's always behind the scenes and often separated from its outcomes by time. But we see you.

#2 Recruiting participants for research programs got easier... and better.

Call us pessimistic, but this was another surprising silver lining we discovered in our research. In an open-ended question about how the pandemic impacted the research process, 20% of researchers mentioned that recruiting participants for research sessions was either easier or better than it was before the pandemic.

Several researchers mentioned that shifting to remote research expanded their audience size. Others mentioned that it seemed easier to connect with a more diverse audience. Another mentioned that people seemed more willing to connect for research during business hours because participants working from home had a more flexible schedule.

One researcher theorized that people seemed more willing to participate in research because incentives (cash, gift cards, etc) could make a difference to someone if they recently lost their job or their financial future was uncertain. Another researcher mentioned that he thought people were stuck at home and genuinely wanted to do something (anything!) that might be helpful to the world, so saying yes to participate in a study meant being a small part of a solution or being useful.

Whatever the reason might be, we were glad to hear this part of work felt a little easier for some.

#3 Collaborative synthesis is harder... and nostalgia is brewing.

Before the pandemic, researchers would often find themselves in "war rooms" surrounded by sticky notes, sketches, cups of coffee, and, most importantly, each other.

When it came time to synthesize research, it was an exciting, collaborative, and often physical experience.

Now as teams shift to remote synthesis, researchers told us they find this aspect of their work more challenging.

  • It's hard to build the same type of energy on Zoom.
  • Watching your teammate's mouse drag and drop stickies on a virtual whiteboard isn't as predictable as moving around a physical space.
  • "It just isn't the same."

When researchers talked about the old way vs the new ways of remote research synthesis, many had a tone of nostalgia in their voices.

Some said they felt like their teams had to work harder or longer for the same results. Others hinted at the need for more collaboration, though they weren't sure spending more time on Zoom together was the answer they were looking for.

#4 Remote user research sessions lack depth without environmental context.

A common point we heard from researchers who were used to doing in-person or field work is that a lot of potential insights are either lost... or, like mentioned above, you have to work harder to find them. For example, you learn a lot about someone or a particular problem just by showing up to the interview and observing someone in their environment. In a remote interview, if you want to learn about someone's environment, you have to spend time explicitly asking them to describe it.

The contextual insights gleaned from sharing a physical space with a participant can be valuable factors of a research study. Yet these factors are easy to overlook when creating the protocol for remote research.

In addition, many researchers said it was harder or more time-consuming to build rapport with participants remotely. The trade-off of deciding whether to invest in rapport building, at the expense of time available for interview questions, when everyone's schedule is already stretched thin, is anxiety-inducing. Researchers told us that they know it's important to build rapport and understand a participant's environment, but weren't sure if, despite their best effort, it is possible or worthwhile to hold remote research to the same standards.

#5 The Digital Divide is Increasing Inequality and Decreasing Representation.

As more researchers rely on remote interviews, the accessibility barriers faced by low-income, senior citizens, and minority groups increases inequality and decreases representation.

From limited access to technology to the lack of a quiet space to participate in an interview, there are many reasons why it's more difficult for certain groups to participate in remote research. Some households might not have a computer, or if they do, it might be shared across several members of a family as even children relied on devices this past year for remote learning.

Public spaces such as libraries or community centers where research with low-income or the unhoused population traditionally took place have been closed. Access to senior citizens, another group that often doesn't have high digital engagement, was also extremely limited and underrepresented this past year.

At a time when problems were exacerbated for these populations, it's been harder than ever to make sure they're included and represented in remote research.

#6 People are longing for a genuine human connection.

This was one of the most memorable and moving impacts of the pandemic on research that we heard. It stuck with us because when we heard others talk about it, we discovered a name for what we ourselves felt as well: connection.

This past year, and even still, people are longing for a genuine human connection.

Several researchers shared that people (including themselves) were prone to spending a little more time talking off topic. That the typical small talk to build rapport wasn't the usual "where do you live" or "how's the weather" types of conversations. That more than ever people felt the need to put their conversations in context of the pandemic. It wasn't uncommon for an interviewer or a participant to check in on one another, offer condolences, or share experiences, even as perfect strangers.

It's not surprising that researchers had these 'more intense than usual' experiences and that the aspects of human connection in an interview were amplified this past year. Even before the pandemic, people always want to be asked questions and share their thoughts. People want to have something to talk about. A user research interview is a ripe environment for this kind of connection. It's a neutral topic. It's a chance to have a bit of small talk and meet someone new. It's structured and flows. It's predictable and safe.

We know that organizations and researchers have reacted and adapted to many changes this past year. Many trying to strike a balance between investing in solutions for problems, many of which we still don't know how temporary they might be, and trying to get by using the old ways of doing things, even if they know they're falling short.

The pandemic physically forced our society apart, during a very political and contentious time no less. And although many of us confronted similar emotions of fear, loneliness, and outrage... we weren't able to process these experiences collectively or with the support systems we were used to having. We're all feeling it. And that sentiment was definitely highlighted as researchers described the emotional toll it sometimes takes to facilitate engaging conversations and innovative ideas when they themselves are exhausted, worried, or afraid. It's a reminder that this work is emotional work. It's human work. It's important work and it becomes even more important as the stakes get higher.

We're thankful to everyone who has been generous with their time to interview with us and for those connections we've had that left us elated, energized, and inspired.

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