The role of UX research now and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic

What lessons does the UX industry need to learn beyond the pandemic?

There has never been a challenge like COVID-19. Not just for businesses, but for every individual. Some organizations have had revenues decimated, traffic come to a halt, markets practically vanish, supply chains cut off, conversion rates fluctuate like never before, and of course mass furloughing.

I’m in the unusual position of seeing directly (and indirectly) how hundreds of businesses’ digital departments across different industries have reacted to COVID-19, through my role as a UX research partner at UserZoom.

Therefore I thought it would be useful to share some of the trends, mistakes, challenges and opportunities I’ve experienced over the last few months, and highlight what lessons we need to learn beyond the pandemic.

Ugly research practices are rearing their heads

My mother works in a hospital and she says the thing that is scaring everyone the most is they just don’t know enough about COVID-19.

There are a lot of assumptions in terms of what works and what doesn’t… How it will affect people, how its impact will change over time, how effective our solutions are to combat it, the lag in time in measuring impact… but what everyone agrees will actually help is investing in research to find a solution (vaccine), gaining understanding of peoples’ actions (tracing), and lots and lots of testing….

For those in user research, this should all sound very familiar.

Unfortunately, much like some government responses, businesses and individuals are failing to understand the importance of these actions.

The most common response I am seeing is reverting back to very late stage tactical research. You know, the type of research at the end of development that often leads to lots of suggestions but are often too late to ever be implemented? The very same approach you try so hard to remove from your organisation.

The classic old phrases such as, “Everyone is so busy right now”, or “We are just trying to fulfil BAU activities” or even, “We need to just get this out there” are being heard loudly across many organisations.

The biggest problem here is that people are working on the assumption that the world is the same as it was before, but ask yourself, do you feel your life is the same?

An article in the Harvard Business review talks about the companies that came “roaring out of the recession” during the last financial crisis, and those that made the biggest gains were the ones who made significantly greater investments than their rivals in research and development.

It doesn’t mean they weren’t pragmatic too, but they recognised that there were important changes in how their customers would react, and therefore continued to discover and innovate in order to come out the other side.

This should be applied to today’s situation. Researchers should not be sitting back, keeping their heads down waiting for this to blow over, but should be looking to show their value – and the value of research – in making more informed decisions during the crisis.

In addition (and this is difficult to say, knowing how the crisis is affecting a great deal of people) there are also huge opportunities for many digital businesses to react and to change their business practices for the better.

And if you do nothing, or do something badly, then your organisation will lose out to your more user-centric competitors.

Get ahead of changing consumer behavior, beyond 2020

Turn to face the strange…

The following are areas of change that have been seen across all industries in one way of another. UXers (as well as everyone else) should be thinking about what applies to their businesses and how they are reacting to them.

1) Your core products may not be your core products anymore

COVID-19 has meant that the usual activities your users are doing are no longer what you’ve been focusing on for the duration of your company’s pre-pandemic existence, and this has resulted in a huge shift in focus while knowledge sinkholes are emerging.

One of the worst hit by this is the travel industry.

For a long time, the focus has been on optimising the booking process with particular attention to upgrades and extras. However, uncertainty in where and when people can travel has meant that their planning and decision-making is taking a lot longer, with ambiguity around where people are even allowed to travel.

It may be that travel is opened up but only to select locations, but what if they are lesser known? Or what if the user feels less comfortable travelling to these locations? How do users feel about travel at all going forward and how will that affect how they act?

Similarly, many retail sites are seeing massive changes in the type of products people are buying. For these digital products and journeys that we haven’t traditional focused on, it’s important to ask the question, “how much do we really know about our user experience?”

In the gaming industry, Esports (i.e. betting on ‘professional’ FIFA video game players – yes, this is a thing) has emerged and is new to both the user and the industry. The decision to bet is often as much about using your heart as it is with your head, so it’s vital that you understand how users could emotionally connect differently to other more established markets.

2) Your user has changed

Those old personas who you were designing for are likely very different to those that make up your traffic since the COVID-19 crisis began.

Retail businesses are seeing shifts from a majority of returning customers to a majority of new customers and subsequent shifts in demographics. Many retailers talk about how a lot of older users are now using their product. Or the more relatable, traditionally digitally-shy grandparents doing a quiz over Zoom with their grandchildren.

One of the main things for researchers to think about is, what do we know about these new users? How does this change how we should be thinking about solving their problems and needs? Returning vs. new, digitally inexperienced vs. experienced, old vs young, informed vs non informed… whatever it may be, knowing these new users is key to the product strategy in the immediate future and beyond.

Many organisations haven’t explored this at all and haven’t thought about the effects it may be having on user experience. Use your analytics, product teams, front-line customer teams, and explore all this data. Look at things like call drivers for indications of how your new users may be struggling. Don’t work on the assumptions of your audience being the same as before COVID-19.

Hopefully your organisation isn’t just monitoring this to look at how their numbers are reflecting against their predictions but asking the question, “How do we retain and grow these new users?”

3) This is a forced change for many of your users

It’s important to remember that many of the changes that people are having to make have been forced upon them, but that doesn’t mean that they may not discover something better and enjoy it.

The most prevalent example is those customers going from brick and mortar to online. The banking industry has been trying to migrate its users digitally for a long time, but is often held back by the large number of older customers who prefer visiting a branch – either because it’s habit or because they’re adverse to a digital solution. Between 14th March to 14th of April, six million users downloaded their bank’s app for the first time. That’s huge, and so is the opportunity.

These new users will have different needs, understanding and wants from a digital solution than your current online customers. Or they may act in different ways when things don’t make sense or go right.

Having worked in finance I know that the older generation are more likely to have active savings products and therefore their use of an online banking solution may have more of a focus on the savings side of it.

The same can be said for many other industries such as grocery shopping, electrical and white goods, furniture, betting shops, etc. All these are trying to see how they can migrate traditional, in-person users to a digital space and provide a better experience. Research is key to helping understand this and keep your customers interacting digitally while helping migrate more over in the future. Retaining these users post COVID-19 could represent huge increases in revenue.

4) How does the journey of moving back to normality look for your users?

There is also opportunity on the horizon for a number of industries as things gradually open up globally.

The gaming industry has lost practically all of its sportsbook traffic over the last few months but with the relaxed lockdown some sport is opening up – such as German Football. To do the best job of increasing conversion and optimising the experience, there is a need to understand how users feel about betting on this new market. Do users in other countries need to be educated on German football to understand top performing players or teams?

As mentioned earlier, there’s lots of emotional connection between users and sports betting options, so how can you help facilitate getting the same level of enjoyment as if they were betting on same level of enjoyment as if they were betting on a Steel city derby game? (or Man Utd vs. Liverpool for all you glory hunters).

For online food shopping, will people still want to shop for regular items online and use the in-store experience a bit less regularly? Will click and collect become something that people expect? Will regular subscription services for staple items make more sense going forward?

Whatever the industry, understanding the challenges ahead and how your users are likely to react to them can help you build the best experience to meet those needs.

UXers Assemble!!!

Hopefully, after reading the above it’s now clear that researchers now more than ever are able to make an impact in contributing to the survival and success of a business.

Here are some actions you can take right now to make a difference:

1) Ensure your research capabilities and speed are articulated well

Plenty of what is happening is incredibly time-sensitive. Getting insights back as quick as possible are going to be key in keeping stakeholders onside and understanding that research has a part to play.

Make them aware that you can turn around remote moderated sessions in a few days, or you can run a survey and have the results back within 24 hours, or that you can put two or three early concepts in front of users to get feedback. Don’t let the ‘research slows things down’ myth arise.

2) Highlight the importance and impact research can have

A lot of what is happening now is (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime and getting some of this right could be crucial to success. The emergence of new markets, customers shifting to different products, new demographics, may never happen again and with all the external pressures it is vital that organizations grab this opportunity with both hands.

Remind your stakeholders that two or three rounds of A/B testing a concept is going to be more time consuming than doing proper usability testing and much less effective. New users can be much less forgiving if a product doesn’t meet their needs. Add to this the time and the cost of rework post-product development and the case for research is very compelling.

3) Don’t wait for your stakeholders to include you

Be proactive and ask stakeholders to help workshop what this change means.

It may be worth war-rooming some of the key products with a wider selection of stakeholders. Bring together UX, product, analytics, optimization, and marketing teams and talk about the roadmap. Discuss what you currently know, what assumptions you have, what you need to find out, and agree together on key research touchpoints.

This will help galvanize putting users at the forefront and remind everyone of the role research will have.

I like to do these as BYOD (Bring Your Own Data) parties, which allows everyone to lay down what they know and the data that supports it. These sessions put collaboration and research at the heart of things, though they may need to be done on Zoom or Teams for now.

4) The now and the possible future state

I mentioned earlier that people are being a little more tactical. That’s okay. It always needs to be done. Do what is most important to succeed at this very moment and answer all those immediate questions that people have.

Things like content testing for messaging, optimization on those more important products, helping understand those changes in recent analytics… these are all key right now to succeed.

The other research track should be around what the future state looks like. This is where the game-changing value sits. Helping guide the organization through the unknown using insight is vital to come out of this stronger than ever. There is so much more that we don’t know since COVID-19 and user research has a huge part to play in this.