How to endure being a UX Designer or Researcher during rough times
How to make sure user research and testing don’t fall by the wayside
When you work as a UX Designer long enough, you live through several boom and bust cycles.
Sometimes, your entire organization and the team are behind UX: you have access to all the software you need, they listen to all of your recommendations, and more.
But with the news of Figma being acquired by Adobe and Usertesting and UserZoom combining, it's clear that some of you (and the field as a whole) might be experiencing lean times.
Whether it's your software being taken away, no budgets for user testing, or other things, you might be suffering a little (or a lot) with your daily design or research process.
Here's why this might be the case.
UX Design and Research are Future-facing, which isn't always the top priority.
One of the core concepts of UX Design (and UX Research) is that it is future-facing.
We look at poorly designed websites (or websites that don't exist yet) and use our skills to create a great user experience in the future. As a result, we often lead the charge in developing new products, features, and more.
But that doesn't mean much when businesses struggle to keep the lights on or support existing products. In these times, UX Design and UX Research can struggle.
Some of you, like me, might have experienced the worst-case scenario of being laid off. Even if you weren’t, you’re probably among the first departments affected in one way or another.
The good news is businesses know they can not survive without moving forward. If they don't develop new features and projects or take steps to engage the user more, the business will eventually fail. This is why UX Designers (and Researchers) are kept around.
However, businesses might scale back the level of investment, resources, and even projects they want to fund towards those future-facing goals. User research and testing tend to suffer the most, with it usually coming in one of three ways:
Less/no budget for user testing and research
Canceled software subscriptions of 'additional' tools
Limited projects/resources to work on
None of these things are great (with the 3rd reason usually resulting in layoffs), but there are things that you can still do even if there are lean times ahead.
Take a deep breath and assess your situation
There tend only to be two root causes for lean design cycles: people changing or downturns in business.
In the first situation, the root cause is a change in management or an advocate leaving. UX in low-maturity organizations is often driven by turning critical members into UX Advocates or even champions. This allows someone to advocate on your behalf and get UX the needed resources.
So it can sting if your UX advocate leaves and is replaced by someone who doesn't believe in or understand UX. I've found myself in headache-inducing situations because of this, like a new leader wanting a union representative at all user testing with employees to avoid self-incrimination.
The second root cause, thankfully, is a little better. Your team might appreciate you and the work, but they don't have the money to spend on your favorite tools or user testing.
In either case, assessing which of these root causes is driving the cycle will help you understand what you can do next.
When facing resistance from people, figure out what you can from data
In the first scenario, depending on the situation, there may be nothing you can say to the person. That was the case for me: the department heads, not me, were the ones who were going to talk with this leader.
However, there is something else you can do in the meantime: figure out the exact gaps in knowledge you have. I'm a big fan of triangulation as a user research method simply because I've faced multiple situations where I had limited access to users.
Triangulation is taking multiple sources of user research to understand the larger picture and increase the credibility of user research. These data sources may include:
Interviewing people who talk with users, like customer support
Official survey data or other company-wide polling
Best practices from UX resources (Nielsen/Norman Group, etc.)
These things can't tell you everything you want from interviewing users, but they can help fill in the blanks. This is crucial for one key reason: they help limit the scope of what user interviews need to uncover.
If it turns out that your management (eventually) approves, but you're given 15 minutes to talk instead of 60, do you know the essential things you'd ask? What are the main questions you don't have answers to from other resources?
That's what you should prepare in the meantime while keeping an open ear about the entire process. If this was just a temporary bump in the road, then you've gained valuable experience in conducting user research. But if this entire process was like pulling teeth with management, maybe it's time to put out some feelers for a new job.
When facing budget cuts, remember user research works with Post-Its
It sucks to lose your shiny new design (or research) tools, but you need to ask one key question: is software essential in the process?
What will likely happen is that they'll provide precisely one subscription tool to any UX person: whatever they happen to use to create high-fidelity mockups (like Figma, Sketch, Axure, etc.). Everything else will get canceled and put on the back burner.
In times like these, you must remember that user research can be done with Post-Its and Excel spreadsheets. Guerilla user research (or DIY user testing) is also possible, especially if you're working on public-facing projects. But to prepare for this transition, there are a few key things you need to do.
Figure out what user research to export (or move)
Most fancy software can export data into an Excel spreadsheet. So you'll need to think about what things live in your current subscription-based software that you'll want to bring back into spreadsheets.
However, depending on your tools, you might not need to do that. Sometimes you can still use the software, just on the free plan. For example, it might be that you move most of your design documentation (temporarily) into the drafts folder of your Figma/Figjam account.
In either case, organizing and ensuring you have all the relevant design and research documents before your subscriptions expire is essential. After that, you need to consider what your current process will look like.
Learn how to adapt your current research process for lean times
Assuming that the constraints are with the budget, there are several books I would recommend you read so you have a good idea of how you can still conduct user research and testing with little to no money:
DIY user testing by Steve Krug
UX strategy by Jamie Levy
Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden
Just Enough Research by Erica Hall
What matters most is that you never forget what's at the center of UX.
At its core, UX research and design can be done on a shoestring budget
The point of UX is to get a user's perspective to design something that users need and want.
We may have fancy tools, software subscriptions, and other things that make it easier, but it can be done on a suit shoestring budget. Also, sometimes getting creative under constraints makes people appreciate UX more.
Sometimes, you can find the cleverest solutions to understand your users and what they need. I'll never forget one of the most clever ways a mentor recommended to me to gather patient feedback: "Buy a coffee, sit in the cafeteria, and politely ask people who don't look too distressed for some time."
So if you've suddenly found yourself in a challenging and lean time, be sure to take a moment to realize that UX work can still be done. It's just time to flex those creative muscles in more than just design.
Kai Wong is a Senior UX Designer, Design Writer, and author of the Data and Design newsletter. His new book, Data-informed UX Design, explains small changes you can make regarding data to improve your UX Design process.