7 Surprising Trends Disrupting UX Research in 2021

Éamon Cullen
The Full-Stack Researcher
9 min readFeb 15, 2021
This is not just another trends list that’s going to tell you about the move to remote research in 2021.

UX research itself is a massive trend — searches have grown 7300% in the last 10 years — but most blog posts fail to scratch beyond the surface when it comes to the ways that research itself is evolving. As the UX field continues to grow exponentially, the industry is segmenting into emerging specialisms and new areas of interest. In this post, we’re going to explore 7 of these ‘not so obvious’ trends catalysing change in the industry of UX research in 2021.

1. Mixed Methods Research

Mixed methods is a type of user research that blends qualitative and quantitative data together within a single research project. This helps researchers to answer ‘big why’ questions as well as what, who, where and how. The output of mixed methods research is a more comprehensive and credible perspective of user behaviour. Product leaders are no longer interested in hearing researchers say that’s not my speciality. They need people with a qualitative and quantitative toolkit who are able to tackle any research problem.

Although many UX researchers already incorporate mixed methods into their research, the demand for mixed methods means that it’s now emerging as its own field of expertise, making it the biggest UX research trend in 2021. To give you an idea of the scale of change that is coming, right now there are more jobs available for mixed methods research than there are people with mixed methods in their titles on LinkedIn. All of these companies have openings listed for Mixed Methods User Researchers: Facebook, Instagram, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, Square, Cash App, Crunchbase, Upwork, Duolingo, Verizon, Etsy, Calendly, Tableau, eBay, Ford, Asana, Salesforce and more…

For a deep dive on mixed methods research, read What is Mixed Methods Research?

2. New UX Roles

In 2017, there were 1 million jobs in UX. By 2050, that number is expected to reach 100 million. This exponential growth is driving the emergence of new specialisms and titles.

Research Operations

UX research is a demanding role that often requires collaboration with several departments while juggling multiple research projects at any one time. Between recruiting of participants and screening to incentivisation and scheduling, it quickly becomes clear that research professionals sacrifice 30%+ of their time to research operations alone.

In 2021, many companies are recognising the work needed for effective research operations and are creating independent ResearchOps positions to assist researchers with these tasks. Once a team reaches ~8 researchers, it becomes increasingly necessary to build a research operations function. Considering the surge in popularity of UX research in 2020, many companies are well on their way to meeting this threshold in 2021.

Ambitious junior UX researchers will often jump at the chance to occupy these positions as it provides them with first-hand experience of Full-Stack Research where they can learn the tricks of the trade. The ResearchOps role takes the lead building processes that can scale so that research becomes seamless across the whole organisation. As this role is still in its infancy, I’m excited to see what it will evolve to become in future years.

Full-Stack Researcher

By 2025, expect Full-Stack Researcher to be on every trends list in UX (and remember that you heard it here first).

As the name suggests, Full-Stack Researchers are experienced practitioners across every stage of the research process. They master mixed methods projects without a sweat, seamlessly combining qualitative and quantitative research together into single studies to produce highly reliable findings. They use this mixed dataset to evangelise the voice of the user across every department of the company, from sales and marketing to product and engineering.

An experienced Full-Stack Researcher may spend the morning conducting interviews with app users to understand their motivations and unmet needs. In the afternoon, they design a new survey based on the insights collected during the interviews and their analysis of in-app user behaviour data to see if their findings remain statistically relevant at scale.

But Full-Stack Researchers go one step further and become the ultimate collaborator cross-functionally. With ResearchOps giving them 30% of their time back, they can focus on promoting upskilling the company on user research and engagement best practice. They shift research into a continuous function that isn’t confined to pre-determined project timelines. They proactively work to discover unmet user needs, input on company strategy and adopt an internal consultancy role to become the go-to person for advice and guidance.

3. Integrated Surveys

Surveys are increasingly being embedded in websites and apps rather than distributed via email. According to UserLeap, the average response rate for email surveys is between 3% and 5%. Micro-surveys on the other hand (the ones you see embedded within products or websites) see a 20% — 30% response rate. This isn’t surprising, integrated surveys are a whole lot less hassle for research participants. People expect email surveys to take longer and offer incentives like vouchers, discounts or straight up cash. The rules aren’t the same for micro-surveys.

Integrated surveys also support continuous research. This means that instead of research projects taking place over a few days or weeks, studies are designed to monitor behaviour, perceptions and opinions over a longer period of time. This longitudinal data is great for measuring the correlation between user experience and new product updates — for example, whether new features have increased user satisfaction.

But that’s not all. Rather than relying on users to recall past experiences, integrated surveys can ask questions while respondents are actually using the product — increasing the quality and reliability of the data.

4. Social Research

User researchers are forever worried about bias in their research. And they should be. If neglected, bias can become a fatal influence on research. This fear of bias has driven us to sterilise our research methods, separate users and delegate responsibility to researchers to maintain objectivity. Looking back, it’s clear that research was never meant to be so isolating. Our history as a profession is rooted in interaction, community and collaboration. Some of own favourite moments have been in focus groups where participants build on each other’s experiences towards a shared insight.

This decade will see a return to social research, with community-orientated tools unlocking hidden insights through collaboration. Rather than researchers restricting the scope of engagement, participants will increasingly set the agenda. What we will quickly discover is that bias is a risk across all research, regardless of how much control the researcher maintains. However, it is often the case that forfeiting even a minor amount of control to participants in social research is rewarded with unique insights. This shouldn’t come as a surprise — users working together are better placed to articulate intuitive perspectives about their collective lived experience.

Social research has been a pretty overwhelming task in the past, with days or even weeks needed to analyse unstructured forums and community discussions. New research tools like OpinionX are making it easier than ever to give people the ability to generate new insights and ideas together without creating analysis burden or participant fatigue. Not only is social research a more realistic representation of user experience, but it’s also more fun for everyone involved.

Interested in conducting your own social research today? Create a free survey using OpinionX and understand your users biggest problems and pain points.

5. Co-Creation 2.0

Co-creation has been a buzzword for quite some time. It involves the collaborative development of products with customers and is considered by many as one of the best ways to foster innovation.

But traditional co-creation is not scalable. It typically involves taking a handful of customers and workshopping ideas alongside them by engaging with their concerns, solutions and perceptions. But this type of co-creation misses out on the best ideas because it fails to include enough participants. Price’s Law says that a tiny minority of people will create 50% of the value within a community. The smaller your sample, the less likely you are to find truly creative ideas emerging.

Online research platforms are beginning to unlock co-creation at scale, enabling researchers to move past transactional research methods and harness the power of their community’s collective intelligence.

6. Owned-Panels & Community

Recruitment can be one of the most expensive aspects of research. Offering incentives for participants in every project can quickly turn into a pretty big budget request. To combat this, many companies are getting closer to their users and building intimate communities. They engage their users in dialogue, offering tremendous value on an ongoing basis and genuinely share their members’ interests. Users quickly become more willing to help with research when they feel a genuine sense of community.

OneFootball is one of my favourite examples of a company mastering the research community. They have created one of the most popular media platforms for today’s generation of football fans. It is the only app with a fully personalised home stream for non-stop news of your favourite club and the only company to offer live football matches in-app on a pay-per-view basis. Marco, the Senior User Researcher at OneFootball, told us that their users are super keen to provide feedback because of the continual engagement and affiliation that they feel with the company. As a result, the company doesn’t need to incentivise research participants.

7. Discovery Research

Long viewed as a luxury, discovery research has now become a top priority. Challenging times create new opportunities. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the most dramatic change in human behaviour globally since World War 2. Not only has COVID has shaken up the landscape and made room for new companies to thrive, it has also introduced a new threat for those who struggle to adapt to change.

Behind COVID-19 is the ongoing march towards a ‘New Power’ mindset. Consumers are redefining themselves as citizens, capable of making change on the private markets just as much as they can on public systems. Brands are increasingly scrutinised by the media and public on every decision they make. Long-standing institutions like the stock market are been rocked overnight by dark horses. The wave of decentralisation continues to ripple out from the growth of cryptocurrencies. Not to mention that the speed that new innovations are released and adopted is truly eye-watering. Consider how fast TikTok became a global content player or how fast Clubhouse is currently gaining attention.

Staying on top of it all, spotting the trends and riding the wave of change as it comes requires a proactive mindset. Discovery research helps companies keep their finger on the pulse and design everything from product features to marketing communications with the values of their users at top of mind. The adoption of product-led growth is putting end users at the core of company strategy. Organisations that understand their users’ needs will be the ones who successfully navigate these changing currents. Uncertain times bring with it an immense risk and opportunity.

In 2021, discovery research is no longer treated as a ‘nice to have’. We interviewed over 100 product and UX teams in 2020 and found that scaling companies spend 70% of research resources on discovery. Companies that claim they don’t have the time for generative research are stuck in survival mode and are destined to become obsolete.

Remaining Relevant

UX research is one of the fastest-changing functions in tech. Staying on top of best practice and emerging trends is the best way to catch a trip on this rising tide. Subscribe to the Full-Stack Researcher newsletter to get a roundup every fortnight of the latest content from across the web on the future of user research.

About the Author

Éamon Cullen leads Business Development at OpinionX, the world’s first social survey platform. OpinionX lets survey participants vote on each other’s answers to surface the opinions that matter most to everyone, helping product and UX teams to discover their users’ biggest unmet needs, pains and motivations.