Is there pent-up demand for UX research?
Forecasting the 2024 job market using historical data and original research
Hi, I’m Lawton Pybus. The ¼” Hole is a newsletter devoted to understanding the discipline of user research. Twice a month, I share resources to help you uplift your craft.
After a year of economic turmoil in the tech sector, some User Experience (UX) Researchers are wondering if it’s time to consider a career change.
While these are concerning circumstances, layoffs and hiring freezes are coarse tools applied across companies, and may not take into account the longer-term need for our contributions. In the economy more broadly, people tend to delay major purchases during recessions, which in turn leads to a surge in spending during the subsequent economic recovery—a phenomenon known as "pent-up demand." Is it possible that companies are in a similar position, holding back for the moment on a costly albeit necessary investment in user research?
This article looks at historical data sources and at a recent survey of professionals to describe the evolving market for UX research over recent years and examine the different scenarios that teams are facing this year. For those on an extended job search, those contemplating alternative careers, and team leaders shaping their vision for the year, these data-driven insights are intended to help.
From excess demand to hiring freezes and layoffs
Although it can seem to some like a distant memory, the desire for UX research was at fever pitch just a few short years ago.
Whether and how we would continue to meet the increasing need was a constant topic of discussion. For example, UserZoom’s annual State of UX report in 2022 found that there were many more consumers of research than producers, concluding that “demand outpaces supply.” People debated a number of proposed solutions, including democratizing or automating research, standardizing our credentials, and creating new subspecialties.
But in 2022, the end of stringent pandemic policies and low interest rates made companies emphasize cost-cutting over digital transformation, leading to layoffs and hiring freezes that may have had a heavier impact on UX teams than expected. This is also reflected rather dramatically in the steady drop in open UX Researcher roles during 2022, which then remained low throughout 2023. As of this month, there were only 335 open roles, compared to all-time highs of 2,990 in February 2022.
As this economic cycle reached full momentum in early 2023, User Interviews ran its annual State of User Research survey, finding that “half of researchers were directly or indirectly affected by layoffs in the last 12 months.”
Yet even during this painful period, there were hopeful signs that our work as researchers has stayed relevant. Among their 930 respondents, nearly half (43%) agreed or strongly agreed that leadership valued research, and a majority (65%) agreed or strongly agreed that their peers valued research.
Respondents’ perceptions of leadership buy-in were understandably lower if they had experienced layoffs or hiring freezes. But interestingly, their perceptions of peer buy-in were less affected by these factors. Indeed, when asked about the future of user research, all of the roles that consume user research had stronger optimism than the producers themselves.
In terms of layoff impact and open role inventory, there are objective indicators that demand for our work has decreased over time. But less obvious measures like history and industry perceptions suggest that a need still exists. How might this translate into hiring reality in 2024?
About half of teams need help or plan to hire soon
In early January 2024, I shared a brief 7-question survey on social media channels, which was then reshared by participants. The goal was to understand two questions:
Do respondents perceive a need for additional support on their teams to handle the workload?
Do respondents believe their teams are hiring now or in the foreseeable future (i.e., during the first half of 2024)?
Over two weeks, 73 self-identified UX Researchers responded.
A bit over half (56%) of respondents believed their teams would hire sometime before July 2024. In open-ended comments from respondents whose teams aren’t currently hiring, a few mentioned that they had recently hired. For example: “The team just hired for two new UX roles which is why we won’t be hiring for the foreseeable future.” And nearly half (48%) of respondents felt their teams needed additional resources to meet the demand for research that they currently have.
But respondents’ answers can be further classified into four groups that describe the current state of their teams:
Stabilizing (don’t need help and aren’t hiring): These teams are equipped for their current workload, which can be a healthy sign that the team is right-sized. As one participant said: “It’s a neutral holding pattern, no layoffs expected but we are at capacity bandwidth-wise.” However, it may be symptomatic of a larger problem if work went away when others (e.g. non-specialists or vendors) took it on, or if the team is bloated with little to do.
Stretching (need help but aren’t hiring): These teams have more work to do than people to do it, but can’t grow right now. It’s normal for teams to experience this from time to time, but it can be stressful and even demoralizing if it becomes a chronic condition. One participant described such a situation: “We desperately need researchers, but our department budget for hiring always seems to go to design roles.” When hiring freezes are lifted, leaders can remedy this situation by opening new roles.
Rebuilding (don’t need help and are hiring): When asked about their team’s need for support, these respondents were ambivalent, with an average of 3.6 on a 7-point scale. So why are their teams looking to hire? Several open-ended comments clarified that these roles have been opened to backfill vacated positions. As backfills are often paused during hiring freezes, it’s encouraging that these teams are returning to previous levels.
Expanding (need help and are hiring): These teams are looking to grow this year. This may be because they are supporting additional workgroups, or they may plan to add specializations like Quantitative UX Research or Research Operations to the team. Even here, there may be some caution, as one participant said: “We grew our team fairly significantly year on year, pausing recruiting intermittently at times depending on the wider market outlook.”
None of the percentages reported here should be considered a precise estimate. At this sample size, the margin of error, even at 90% confidence, overlaps such that none of the differences are significant.
But the melancholy tenor of discussions dominating social media paints a picture of a field where a majority of teams are unable to hire and unable to handle their workload. At least from these data, we don’t have good evidence that this is the case. Instead, there’s a mix of teams adapting to meet demand in different ways.
A few words of caution: this survey measures participants’ perceptions, which may not square with reality. For instance, junior researchers may not be qualified to comment on the need for support or the likelihood that the team will hire soon. Nevertheless, 74% of respondents did self-identify as leaders or senior individual contributors.
In the interest of keeping a voluntary survey brief, I didn’t ask questions that could show how the story changes by geographical region. And we don’t have data from another time period to compare against or understand what a “normal” mix might look like.
These data suggest that far from being a minority, roughly half of respondents felt their teams have more work than they can adequately handle with current resources. And roughly half of UX research teams are looking to grow or fill vacated positions sometime in 2024.
Summary and implications for professionals
Has the demand for UX research dried up, or have companies decided to delay investing in research for better times?
The answer is nuanced. In recent years, demand for UX research has soared to all-time highs, then dramatically dropped during tech’s economic downturn in 2022 and 2023. Layoffs and hiring freezes have created intense competition over significantly fewer roles.
Nevertheless, there are signs our work as UX Researchers remains important and may be rebounding:
A large 2023 survey conducted by User Interviews showed many UX professionals perceive that leadership and especially peers still value research.
An original January survey suggests that approximately half of respondents believe their teams will hire in the first half of 2024, indicating a need for additional resources.
The same recent survey found a roughly even distribution of teams stabilizing, stretching, rebuilding, or expanding to meet current levels of need, rather than an outsized group of overburdened teams unable to grow.
A word of advice to the many who are disheartened from an extended job search: hang in there, especially if you believe yourself to be a competitive applicant. After a long trough period, we may reasonably expect the UX Researcher job market to improve this year as the stock market hits all-time highs.
I’ve also spoken with leaders who have expressed concerns about the available opportunity before their teams. Based on these data, I’d suggest looking for ways to make latent needs manifest as your peers across working groups plan for the quarter and year. Evaluate where your team sits among the four groups identified and set a course for moving into the place you want it to be.
Even amidst an ongoing and painful correction, the sun may be dawning on a bright new era for user research.
Create a breakthrough with a brainstorm
We sometimes divide UX into a more “creative” specialty (design) and a more “analytical” specialty (research). It’s a false dichotomy: both roles require a mix of the two skills.
UX Researchers must often consider creative ways to interrogate a research question, solve a logistical problem, or express an idea or finding. It’s easy to become “stuck” or to fall back on familiar approaches. Getting feedback from a peer or superior can be helpful, but many researchers find themselves alone or on strapped smaller teams.
One underutilized tool we can borrow from our design colleagues is brainstorming. Here’s an approach, adapted from James Altucher, that I’ve found useful:
Start with a prompt to ideate upon. For example, a slide heading to describe a finding in a memorable way.
Write down the numbers 1–10, then generate 10 ideas.
If you’re struggling to come up with 10, your new assignment is to come up with 20. Why? Altucher explains: “You are putting too much pressure on yourself. … You have to shut your brain off to come up with bad ideas. The way to shut the brain off is by forcing it to come up with bad ideas.”
Only after you have your list should you start to evaluate and implement the ideas. Some of the “bad ideas” might look better on second glance, or could be easily reworked into a good one.
The whole process takes me about 5 to 10 minutes. Altucher suggests building up an “idea muscle” by practicing this at least once daily. The prompts you choose may be personal or creative if you don’t have an immediate professional problem to solve.
Even the least naturally creative person will find that it gets easier with time and practice. And you may find it revolutionizes your life and work.
Tell me what you think
If you enjoyed this issue, consider subscribing or sharing it with a friend. If you’d like to see more of my work, explore the archives and consider pledging to support my work with a paid subscription in the future.
Thanks for reading The ¼″ Hole! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Until next time, thank you for reading.
PS: Share your thoughts, complaints, and suggestions about this newsletter by hitting reply or leaving a comment. I read and try to respond to every message.