Survey: how will we do user research in the post-covid era?

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The COVID pandemic has changed our lives – we started behaving differently in public spaces, thinking twice about visiting older relatives, relying on technology even more for social contact… Some of these new behaviors disappeared as we began to feel a bit safer; others are here to stay.

March 2020 brought changes also for our industry – the outbreak of the pandemic changed the way in which ux practitioners do research. In-person techniques were put aside and researchers started to run their studies remotely.

Here in Teacup Lab we can say we’re the lucky ones – in spite of having relied heavily on in-person research until COVID, we also had quite a lot of experience with remote research. Adapting to the new situation was easier than expected. 

After two years, COVID is not over but the overall situation has improved a lot in Europe and, in particular, in Spain, where we are based. We have started again to run in-person studies in our lab in Madrid but we have noticed an important change – there are way fewer than before. And requests for remote research keep coming.

As many other fellow practitioners, we began to ask ourselves whether if this is just temporary or if what we’re experiencing is the new norm? Is it that people don’t feel safe enough to go back to a lab yet? Or is there something else?

This is why we decided to reach out to you, the UX research community, and measure how COVID impacted the way in which you do research.
And, even more importantly, discover what are your plans for the future.

Our sample

Our short online survey has been shared to our contacts and through social networks and online communities and groups.
We were able to collect the answers from 134 participants between the 2nd and 12th of June 2022.

Due to the methods used for recruiting, the geographic distribution of the participants is skewed towards Europe and Spain in particular.

Although we opened the survey to all who were able to provide insights on day to day research practices, 85,8% of the respondents perform user research themselves and 9,7% lead a team dedicated to research, so we can count on strong first-hand feedback.

Participants come mostly from corporations (58%), while agencies are represented by 14,9% of the participants. Freelancers are another 14.2% of the respondents.

Organizations are especially mature in terms of research: 62,2% perform more than 10 User research projects in a year, while 52,6% of the freelancers between 3 and 5 only.

The current status of UX research

We already knew from multiple sources that in-person research was far less common during the COVID outbreak, but now we can also quantify the current situation.

current_Status_of_ux_Research

Before COVID, 35,82% of the sample performed research exclusively or mostly in-person. Now, only 1,49% of them continue with the same routine.

On the contrary, those doing research only or mostly remotely went from 18,65% to 74,88% during the past 2 years.

In person research did not disappear completely though. Even before the pandemics, about a third of the surveyed researchers indicated they applied both in-person and remote technique to their daily practice. Now, the percentage is a bit lower (24,63%) demonstrating that researchers don’t want to renounce closer contact with participants.

The small data sample and the fact that Spain and US are overrepresented do not allow to draw reliable conclusions on specific countries or areas, but it is still worth having a quick look at the data, segmented by location, to see whether any trends emerge.

For example, we can observe that, before COVID, mixed methods used to be more common in North America than in Europe and this can help understand why North American participants moved to remote-only more than Europeans.
We have grouped together the rest of the location, but due to the small n and the heterogeneous mix of countries, we decided not to draw any conclusion about them.

UX research before COVID
UX-research-now

The future of research: remote is here to stay.

The results clearly indicate that we are heading to a 2023 where mixed techniques will be applied but remote ones will still be far more common than in-person.

plans for ux research

Similar to what we observed earlier, it seems that researchers from North America are slightly more into remote research than European ones.

Plans for 2023

So, why are researchers choosing mixed and remote techniques for 2023 and won’t come back to in-person research?

👉 Safety is indeed one of the reasons but, according to the answers of our participants, it does not seem to be the most important one.
Only 6% spontaneously mentioned it as a decision factor for their next year’s research plans. Instead, other reasons have emerged strongly and it seems that researchers worldwide have become aware of the benefits of remote research thanks to the pandemics.
👉 Broader and easier recruitment is the most cited reason for doing remote research (20,9%).
Being able to reach a distributed audience with little effort, less costs and better accommodate the participant’s availability is widely recognized as one of the biggest advantages of going remote.

"Because we have found that it has many advantages, such as being able to recruit at a national level, better time availability by the participants (and therefore better schedule for fielding), etc..."

"In person works best for our clients, but remote with users has been proved to work really well and allow us to access easily to people from small villages or towns in spain. That gives us richer results. Also with remote we have less problems of the user not showing up for the interview"

“It's convenient, users and I don't have a location as an obstacle. And for many types of research video-call suits perfectly.”

👉 Many of those who moved to remote techniques also had the chance to see first hand that they are generally easier to perform, more efficient (9%), and cheaper (11,2%). 
For 6% of participants, the reason can be summarized in two simple words “It works”.

"Because it works. Remote interviews and usability testing allow us to meet a more geographically diverse kind of participants. And testing and interviewing people remotely allow them to be in their own environment. Nobody needs to move around, and this decreases the costs and reduces the times."

👉 Working conditions have also changed since 2020.
Many researchers work from home now and teams have become more distributed than ever. This is the reason for doing almost exclusively remote research for 7,5% of the sample.
 
👉Last but not least, remote research is perceived as more sustainable.
6% indicated that now researchers don’t have to travel as they did before.

"It allows a quieter and more harmonious life, saves unnecessary fuel. It is more convenient and just as effective. People have become accustomed to video calls".

👉 In person research is not going to disappear but will be used for specific tasks or situations.
Almost 40% of the sample still indicates that they will keep incorporating it to their research plans either because the goal of the research or the product tested needs the physical presence of the participants or because they are convinced that in-person provides better and more complete data than remote.

"Our research is focused on social services and the generation of support for the elderly such as day centres, residences, telecare ..... They are eminently face-to-face services... "

"There are some methods (contextual/observational/ethno) that have been partly abandoned and/or have not reached full potential due to pandemic"

👉 Finally, agencies and research firms are also depending on their customer’s plans and preferences.
So the choice on whether to go remote or in-person is not only theirs.

“We depend on our clients decision. They tell us what they want; therefore I believe research projects will be in-person if more complex or more ethnographic, and remote for faster results and cheaper budgets. Clients this year have been asking me to bid on both, so they can compare prices. My clients are mainly from the US/UK and projects are held in Latam, which can be quite expensive.”

“Based on our clients requests, some time we'll need to meet respondents in person and in context”

Conclusions

As researchers, we know well that intentions are not always followed by facts. However, although it is still possible that our research routine will go back to the good old formats, we believe that the participants’ feedback clearly points towards a different scenario.

The reasons for going remote do not seem to be based on the changing circumstances of the pandemics. Instead, they are well-founded and suggest that many researches understood that remote techniques can work well in a large number of scenarios after being able to try them during the past 2 years. At the same time, they are also aware of their limitations and of how data rich in-person research can be.

Time to dismiss our testing facilities? Probably not.
In-person research is not going to disappear. In many cases, like when we do ethnography or test a physical product, there is simply no valid alternative to it.

However, it seems very likely that, when a remote option is also available, researcher will opt for this cheaper and more agile technique.
This could open a new set of possibilities for our profession. Cheaper research means that more companies will be likely to embrace it and the lack of physical boundaries would also allow for more international studies and, potentially, more diverse and better samples. 

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