How Covid-19 Changed UX Design

The past few years were challenging for many industries—and tech is no exception. While the tech industry has always been quick to evolve, Covid-19 has required professionals across the industry to adapt even more rapidly—and of course, this doesn’t stop as we turn our calendars to 2024.

Whether you’re already working in the world of UX, studying and preparing to land that first UX role, or considering a career in UX—you’re likely wondering (or experiencing first-hand) what it’s like to work in UX in a “post-Covid” world.*

And we have good news: While the pandemic has and will continue to require the field of UX as a whole to adapt, what it all comes down to is UXers amplifying the thing that they already do best—getting the pulse of their users’ needs and goals and finding design solutions to match. Then there’s the reality that the pandemic has had an effect on what we design, who we design for, how we go about that work, and even where we work.

This leaves many UXers (aspiring, new, or seasoned) with a lot of unknowns and a lot of important questions that are well worth asking: How will the pandemic affect what jobs are available? How will it cause how and where we work to evolve? How will it change who we work for, what products we design, and how we design those products?

We’ve done the research, taken these questions to our experts, and distilled our findings into this guide. It’ll give you a sense of where the compass needle is pointing for aspiring, new, or seasoned UX designers, researchers, and writers as you rise to the occasion to meet the design needs of the times.

*We are aware and sensitive to the fact that Covid-19 is not a past reality for most parts of the world. When we say “post-Covid,” we mean the industry as it stands after the initial outbreak in 2019-2020 and as it’s developed since then.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. How is the pandemic changing where UXers work?
  2. What are the job prospects in UX post-Covid?
  3. How might Covid-19 change what and how UXers design?
  4. How will the pandemic affect the skillset UXers need to be successful?

Before we dive in, special thanks to the experts who weighed in—including Camren Browne, UX designer, mentor, writer, and career specialist; Mike McCulloch, Head of Career Services at CareerFoundry; and Vale Querini, UX Designer, consultant, and mentor. Their input was integral to our research.

UX designer on a video call from home

1. How did the pandemic change where UXers work?

One of the most obvious changes was the rise in remote work. What used to be less common and more monitored (applying for remote time or negotiating it with a manager or team) has become the new normal for many companies. According to an August 2020 report from Glassdoor, there was a significant uptick (around 60%) in remote job offerings after August 2019. And McKinsey’s 2021 Future of Work After Covid-19 report found around “four to five times more remote work than before the pandemic.”

Companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter led the way, announcing that they’d work remotely through 2021 at least—some indefinitely. In the case of Microsoft, remote work is there to stay. If you’d like to set yourself up to become a remote UX designer, we’ve created a useful guide.

With record numbers of companies going remote or offering more fully remote, partially remote, or remote-friendly jobs, where UXers work is changing. But this has also effected how they work and what skills they need (more on this in sections three and four)—perhaps even what kinds of products they design and the job market for UXers.

2. How did Covid affect job prospects in UX?

The demand for digital products and experiences (and thus the people who design them) actually grew.

This isn’t at all surprising if you look at how you, your friends, and your family adapted to the times—and how so many of our habits have changed this year. From online shopping and streaming entertainment to food delivery and gaming—tech is a great place to be right now. According to the same (August 2020) Glassdoor report, following the pandemic, tech saw an overall increase in job postings—more than any other industry:

“Tech job openings increased 13.4 percent month-over-month. This large increase is driven primarily by shifting consumer demand for e-commerce and other online services.”

And McKinsey reported that e-commerce has grown 2-5 times faster than it did pre-pandemic. So there are many more digital products on the market, which means an uptick in the demand for UX professionals who can advocate for users’ needs as those products are developed and refined.

In sum, it stands to reason that as the demand for digital products increased, so did the demand for the people who design them—today, several sectors are ripe and ready for your expertise in empathizing with users and designing products and experiences that are more considerate, effective, and efficient than ever.

A teacher sitting at her coffee table, planning lessons and drinking tea

3. How did Covid-19 change what and how UXers design?

As we mentioned in the previous section, the increased demand and growing job market in consumer services overlaps with tech in some interesting ways. 

There was already a lot of overlap between many sectors and digital product design—look at food delivery apps like GrubHub, Postmates, and Uber Eats; travel apps like Airbnb, Hopper, and AllTrails; and education apps like Duolingo and Quizlet. These products exist in the overlap, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s also strong overlap between digital product design and finance, entertainment (streaming, gaming, etc.), social/professional networking, healthcare, and many other sectors.

Many of these sectors found ways to adapt. Take Airbnb as an example. Lockdowns around the world made travel impossible for most of us, bringing more attention to more localized tourism and “stay-cations.” One look at Airbnb’s website would have given you an idea of how they pivoted to meet users’ needs. They offered online experiences (“A new way to travel from home”) and even the microcopy that appears on their homepage resonated with many users: “Go near. Settle in somewhere new […].” It all spoke to life post-Covid, our desire to continue discovering new things, and the restlessness that came from too many days at home.

Screengrab of the Airbnb landing page, with imagery and microcopy focused on localized travel

While it’s true that many in these sectors already found ways to adapt, many lost jobs as a result of the pandemic—a reality we do not take lightly—it is also true that these are areas of industry that are full of opportunity to explore user needs and discover truly innovative design solutions.

By way of example, let’s have a look at the intersection of education and digital product design.

With the start of the standard school year in many parts of the world, teachers everywhere are adapting their teaching to the new normal—whether they’re trying to communicate well while they and their students are masked all day, or they’re looking for ways to teach effectively through a screen.

Even though there are already some great digital solutions out there (learning apps, Google Classroom, Canvas, Moodle, etc.), there’s a learning curve for many institutions and educators—many emerging needs, and a digital gap to be filled. Schools and other educational institutions are recognizing the need to invest (more) in quality learning management systems and other classroom technology, and there’s an even larger market now for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), augmented and virtual reality, and gamification.

These are some intriguing areas for exploration. What kinds of solutions could some skilled UXers discover by digging deeper into the needs and goals of students, teachers, and administrators alike?

UX designers social distancing in an office, and wearing masks

4. How will the pandemic affect the skillset UXers need to be successful?

As we’ve discussed, there are some sectors that will be intriguing to watch from the perspective of tech and, more specifically, UX design. Depending on how these unfold, or how you decide you want to prepare for work in these sectors should you find an opportunity, this could mean learning some new skills. That will be a matter of where your curiosity takes you!

There two other trends that have emerged that will impact the day-to-day work in UX—as well as the skills employers will expect new and aspiring UXers to demonstrate. One is a shift towards more socially conscious buying, and the other is (as you might expect) the shift toward remote work. Let’s have a closer look at these.

More conscientious users create a greater need to design inclusively, accessibly, and with a focus on users’ values.

Beyond creating that “homebody economy” and changing overall user habits, the pandemic—and subsequent events, such as the Black Lives Matter protests—also generated a heightened awareness of social, racial, and economic stratification and, with that, a desire to spend in more socially conscious ways.

According to another McKinsey report, Covid-19 has created a more mindful consumer mentality across the board—people are more selective about what they spend money on and who they give their money to. There’s a shift toward more socially responsible spending. People are prioritizing companies and products that they trust to be in line with their values, and that treat their customers and employees well.

For the world of UX design, this means paying even greater attention to customer values (that may or may not seem related to the product itself) and designing products that are even more inclusive and accessible than ever—in their purpose, features, visual assets, and language. Forward-thinking tech professionals should consider learning more about inclusive design and how this creates more values-forward products and experiences.

More remote work changes the nature of collaboration and communication, and reveals new skills to master.

Another clear impact is the shift toward remote work. This has far-reaching effects, so we’ll break it down into five key areas.

1. For many, remote work means more juggling of the boundaries between work and personal life.

This could easily become an entire set of articles and guides in itself. But if you’d like resources for learning this balancing act, we appreciated these tips from Forbes on how to maintain a work life balance while working from home. There are also some great apps that promote mental well-being, and we’ve got some great tips for how to stop procrastinating and how to stay focused despite the many distractions that can come up during the day.

2. Remote work also has a significant impact on how collaboration takes place.

So you’re not in the same room as the users you’re interviewing, the stakeholders you’re meeting with, or the team members to share ideas—this doesn’t mean that collaboration has to stop. There are some amazing tools on the market that make remote collaboration easy and effective. Tools like Miro, Slack, and Figma can make all the difference. Here are some of our favorite tools for remote collaboration:

  • Slack
  • WhereBy
  • Voxer
  • Asana
  • Retrium
  • Kudobox
  • Dashlane
  • Miro
  • InVision
  • Google Suite

3. Remote work creates a stronger need for awareness of what others in the company are working on at any given time.

What might be trickier to navigate—perhaps especially for freelancers or consultants, professionals somewhat “outside” the company’s day-to-day—is collaboration in the context of the broader company structure, with an understanding of what other teams are working on at any given time.

Before the pandemic, it was much easier to encounter a colleague at the water cooler or another common area—you could start up a conversation, and along the way, find out about an exciting new project they’re working on that happens to coincide with something your team has been thinking about or could help with.

These are conversations that generate collaboration and prevent doubling work efforts—and they’re much more rare in a remote environment. Some companies address the gap with regular “stand ups”—quick meetings or Slack updates to keep everyone in sync. Other companies create a virtual meeting room for coffee breaks and chit chat. It’s a growing edge, for sure—and it’ll be interesting to see what other creative solutions companies come up with!

4. Remote work (and social distancing) changes how professional networking happens.

In terms of career development, more time away from colleagues and fellow UXers means less time for traditional networking. Generally speaking, there’s less time in the same room as your manager or others responsible for hiring and promotion—and fewer in-person networking events taking place. While a lot of our UX networking tips still apply, it might be time to change tack. This makes it even more important than ever to communicate well with your colleagues, find new ways to be more visible in the company (often a factor in promotions), and master your online networking skills.

5. More remote work means a stronger emphasis on soft skills and core competencies.

While it’s not by any means unusual for employers to value these aspects of your professional profile, remote (or remote-friendly) positions are likely to prioritize these skills.

Employers will want you to demonstrate your ability to communicate, manage your own time, take initiative, and really just do your job and do it well. It certainly won’t hurt if you’re fluent in a few common remote tools, and we expect that the more remote the position, the more the company will value UX professionals with strong, demonstrable project management skills.

In other words, there’s plenty of room to continue growing your skillset by focusing on many non-design related skills and competencies.

In summary

As many challenges as the pandemic has presented to the UX design community, and as uncertain as the times may be, UX is a great place to be.

The outlook is remarkably good for job opportunities, and this year has also presented a unique opportunity to reflect on how your work might A) intersect with some new sectors in the industry, and B) bring some truly beneficial innovation in response to emerging user needs.

The challenges will be in adapting and evolving your skillset to a remote-forward work environment and finding new and inventive ways to communicate, collaborate, and continue connecting with and advocating for your users.

And all that really comes down to doing what you already do best: listening and observing, then iterating to find the most effective ways forward.

For a little inspiration, check out this recording of a special alumni panel where four bootcamp graduates talk about their experience of changing to a career in tech during the pandemic. To learn more about UX in a remote work environment, here are three other articles you’ll find useful:

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