When the pandemic hit Hungary in the Autumn of 2019, both companies and employees had to adapt quickly. Like with most jobs, for us - UX Researchers - this meant moving our daily communication online, including research, creative processes, and communication. It also meant relearning how to establish trust and credibility with clients and rethinking daily tasks to suit the limitations and opportunities of working remotely. We must accept that there is no longer a pre-COVID “normal” to go back to and embrace what's coming next.
In August, I interviewed four UX researchers from Hungary. My aim was to focus specifically on how UX research as a profession changed in Hungary during the pandemic. The names of the participants were changed to protect their anonymity. For the purpose of this article, I name them Lily, Chloe, David, and Julie.
- Lily, a 45-year-old researcher with 20 years of experience at a multinational telecommunications company in Budapest. Her team was previously fully in-person, and customers ranged from the digitally mature to the less tech-savvy who have been difficult to reach with remote research methods.
- Chloe, a 28-year-old UX researcher at the largest Hungarian bank. She is part of a team of 7 working on an in-house agency model. Because of their international work, they have some experience with online research, but before the pandemic, they too were mostly face-to-face.
- David, a researcher working for a small independent agency in Budapest. Because of their international client base, he has experience with remote research methods. Some of their members worked remotely before COVID.
- Julie, a 24-year-old entrepreneur, and researcher. She is the founder of a London and Budapest-based behavioral consulting startup that specializes in behavioral and user research for digital products and physical services. They started building the company just before COVID collapsed and had to adjust to finding clients and working remotely.
I spoke with each participant for 40 to 60 minutes. Two of the conversations were via Google Meet and two were in person. My questions were related to the following topics:
- How has the need for research changed in the past year?
- How has the pandemic affected your working conditions?
- What changes have you had to make to the way you work in response to the pandemic?
- What changes have you made in response to the pandemic that you anticipate will be permanent?
As a researcher myself, when colleagues shared their experiences on how their relevance changed in the past year, I felt incredibly proud to be part of UXRs evolution.
“The need for research has grown and scaled. User insights are becoming the core of organizations’ strategy.”
As the value of research becomes more evident to company management, UXRs are charged with more responsibility. In the past year, customer demands changed at an unforeseen pace. With it, the need to innovate became critical for businesses that wanted to stay afloat during the pandemic. Suddenly, company leaders felt the pressure to adapt to these changing needs and wants like never before. According to researchers like Chloe, digital customer experience and service design were in the limelight.
“I was hired to take part in building an in-house UX competence center. Back then, we were fighting for a seat at the table. Today, the company has built its own in-house UX agency. Not only that. I feel that we have become sort of a best practice to other teams at the company on how to work well cross-functions with IT, sales, and project managers. We’re certainly representing a more compassionate company culture.”
Comparing apples to apples is no longer enough. By making user needs and problems tangible, research results are becoming central to defining company strategy and longer-term vision.
As the maturation of the interviewed researchers’ specific industries has sped up, UXR rose to match it. While there is still much to do before we can feel like our seat at the table is secured, the UXR industry has certainly seized the opportunity and made its lasting statement on the importance of knowing one’s customer well.
“Our research has become more inclusive. With remote methods, we are now able to talk to customers who live in rural Hungary. It’s also become easier to reach an older customer base.”
Based on what two interview participants working for large companies told me, remote research was hardly considered before the pandemic:
“Field research was popular and on occasion, if time allowed, we did fieldwork in areas outside of Budapest. This was not often and in turn, most research focused on big-city folk and remained oblivious to user needs outside of the city. While I enjoyed in-person testing immensely, in many ways, the rise of remote methodologies helped close the distance between clients and their users.”
As Lily said:
“At the beginning, I was worried that by moving entirely online, we won’t be able to research the less tech-savvy customer base. Luckily, I was wrong. As older customers were forced to become more digital, it has become much easier to pull participants from rural areas”
Such a positive outlook didn’t happen overnight. Participants recalled that it took about a month to find the right tools for remote research. It took a few more months for participants to adjust to the new testing methods.
“I don’t miss the days where we stayed after workshops to make sense and digitize the stuff on those gigantic flip-charts.”
Let’s be honest: making sense of ideas jotted down on tiny Post-Its or folding giant flip charts so that the ideas still make sense after the workshop so we can digitize them later is not why UXRs love their jobs. Since the pandemic, remote co-working tools are booming. With the help of platforms like Miro, Zoom’s breakout room, and many more, the problem of staying after hours to document these creative sessions is a thing of the past.
David jokingly asked “ Will we continue to be in the same room, sit in front of our individual computers, and work together in Miro? If you think about it, it makes sense…”
What started as a joke, inspired a gripping discussion about the healthy balance of remote and in-person future ways of creating.
Julie shared her recent experience presenting at the finals of a prestigious Hungarian UX course. Normally a nervous presenter, she felt no pressure as she presented to an online audience of over 80 people. She loved that part. However, she missed the prestige, professionalism, and even excitement of presenting in front of a live audience.
“Imagine winning something and shaking hands to receive the award. How special that makes you – or at least me – feel. It’s just not the same online. I cannot immerse myself in the experience so fully. It simply doesn’t feel the same.”
“Your attention becomes fragmented by being in a different environment than your teammates.”
Although the benefits of new online tools are obvious, from collaborating with clients to reading between the lines during interviews, being in person for research has unmistakable advantages.
Anyone who claims they have never been distracted or worked on other tasks in an online session is either a superhuman or a liar. This does not just apply to you, my fellow researchers. Clients, research participants, anyone who has a stake in the success of a project falls victim to this. Despite your best efforts, it’s harder to build relationships and gain trust when you are in a different place. According to Chloe, this also affects the nature of research:
“It takes longer to establish a familiar and intimate environment through the camera, in comparison to talking with someone face-to-face. With remote research methods still on the rise, conversations with participants have become more factual. Metacommunication cannot be realized through the screen, thus I cannot conclude users’ attitude or body language.”
“In some ways, the “remote work” movement has bridged the distance between clients and users. In other ways, it takes away the beauty of creative collaboration.”
Until they were forced to rethink, both Hungarian employers and employees were quite conservative about remote work. The general opinion of managers and workers was that face-to-face presence was the key to quality work. As a result, companies limited themselves to local talent and UX to researching locally available data sources. Even Chloe, a young talent who has been working as a researcher for a little over 5 years, admitted this:
“The shove towards home office caused me to change my mindset toward home-office. I thought that work happens at the office. but quickly realized the benefits. In addition to enjoying doing deep analysis in peace, newly found autonomy and independence. And I can spend more time with my dog, making sure he is ok. Sounds silly, but it was a big pressure before: trying to balance work with personal obligations.”
“The environment has become poor in stimuli. Work has become about cold, naked facts.
The increased efficiency comes at a price. The strain of jumping in and out of meetings and not needing time to get from one place to another is certainly enjoyable in some ways, but there’s no time to relax between topics. David described the downside of working remotely as follows:
“On my vacation recently, it felt like I’m experiencing the 4D world for the first time. The smells and sounds which were a normal part of life, of people – everything felt new.”
With nothing to interrupt your workday, like coffee with colleagues or lunch together in the cafeteria, it’s easy to forget to take a break and stretch your legs. Remote work certainly has its benefits, but consciously practicing self-awareness and mindfulness is key to a healthy work-life balance to maintain productivity in the long run.
“I’m curious to experience how the world will unlock the delicate question of maintaining the balance between social interactions whilst maintaining the benefits of working online.”
Embracing the “new” normal brought about by the crisis of the past period has done more good than harm. Remote working has led to a plethora of online tools that simplify previously arduous workflow and enable far-reaching user research. In many ways, this has also led to families being able to spend more time together.
The pandemic has gradually expanded the world of research. Collaboration with talent around the world adds new dimensions to UXR, remote collaboration with clients allows for a wider variety of exciting projects, and access to otherwise hard-to-reach users has become a breeze.
Still, it’s exciting to see how the aforementioned benefits of remote work will balance with the critical aspect of in-person user experience research. Some questions to consider are: How will we separate online work and home office? How will office spaces change to accommodate in-person and remote collaboration?
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