UX Design Trends to Follow in 2021

It’s that time of year…when the tech world is talking about trends to follow in the year to come.

Unsurprisingly, many of the trends we’re seeing are connected to the many challenges that have come with 2020—and the ways in which the industry has adapted (and continues to adapt) to meet what seems like a more-rapid-than-usual evolution of user needs.

So let’s have a look at some of the top trends in UX that we’re interested to see play out in 2021. We’ll even give you some actionable tips along the way, so you can take some simple steps toward preparing yourself—and your design work—for the new year.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. The stage 2020 has set
  2. The new normal is remote: What does this mean for UX?
  3. Heightened attention on behavior research
  4. Increased effort towards personalization
  5. Stronger focus on service design and customer trust
  6. Growing expectations for accessibility and inclusion
  7. A final word

1. The stage 2020 has set

It’s no secret that 2020 has been a challenging year, to say the least; it’s required just about everyone in the tech industry to adapt—and more rapidly than ever.

For one thing, the past year has seen the vast majority of tech professionals immersed in a new, remote-work reality. This has an impact on how we work, where we work, what jobs are available, and more.

But the year has also highlighted problems that were, perhaps, easier for designers to overlook before: racial inequality, disparities in healthcare and infrastructure, and even sectors in need of more dynamic tech innovation (such as education and travel/leisure). For a deeper dive into the events of 2020 and their effect on the field of UX design, check out our guide on what to expect in UX “after” Covid-19 (that is to say, in a world that has experienced this pandemic and continues to address it).

More consumers are buying in alignment with their values than before, giving preference to companies that

  • Source their materials and labor ethically
  • Strive to cultivate a truly diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace for their employees
  • Make an effort to design their products and services inclusively—and even take a clear stance on social and cultural issues

In fact, reflecting this shifting state of the industry, UX Collective adapted their State of UX report for 2021 to acknowledge the challenges of this year. They’ve made a thoughtful shift from focusing purely on trends to looking at “lessons” from 2020 that we can carry into the new year. Most of these lessons have practical implications on what and how we design, as well as how we work—taking a firm, compassionate, anti-racist, and inclusive stance that plainly declares, “Design is political.”

In some ways it seems like a more polarized design world; in other ways, it seems like a more honest design world—one that takes users’ needs, goals, values, and emotions into account even more than it did before.

Now that we’ve looked (albeit briefly) at the stage 2020 has set, we can look at some of the trends that will play out on that stage in 2021—and some simple, practical ways to track and stay atop those trends.

A UX designer sitting at a desk, participating in a video call

2. The new normal is remote: What does this mean for UX?

Bottom line: Remote work is up 300% from pre-Covid levels, according to a recent report from Forrester. While this has an obvious impact on what types of jobs are available, who those jobs are available to, and where we spend our working hours, you don’t have to look very hard to see how it impacts how we work or what/how we design.

Beyond figuring out how to set up home office and how to manage a different type of work-life balance, remote work impacts how collaboration and communication take place. These are integral to the UX design process!

So what has remote work changed for UXers? How will it continue to encourage (or require) designers and teams to evolve? 

Remote work has (and will continue to) require designers and design teams to:

  • Explore new modes of collaboration and communication
  • Cultivate even more finely-tuned soft skills and core competencies
  • Find new and inventive ways to keep in touch with what other teams are working on
  • Improve their professional networking on digital platforms
  • Familiarize themselves with new tools for user research, remote design thinking workshops, and other key UX processes and deliverables

Beyond all of this, according to the same Forrester report, there will very likely be a continued shift on the part of companies (specifically management and HR) to paying more attention and dedicating more resources to EX—employee experience:

“Chief among their new interests will be using these tools to boost employee wellness. This will help manage the new compliance issues associated with working remotely […] and build the EX environment companies need as a bridge to post-pandemic work life.”

It will be interesting to watch how work conditions, wellness “perks,” and similar developments will change the experiences of designers and whether that impacts the outcomes of their work.

Actionable takeaways

  • Experiment with some new tools (or features in tools you already use). Make sure you and your team are getting the most out of tools like Slack, Asana, Retrium, Kudobox, Miro, InVision, Google Suite, and more.
  • Get some honest and objective feedback on what soft skills you can cultivate. These are usually the competencies that take more time to fine-tune, so there’s always room for improvement and growth. Identify your growing edge and then find books, blogs, podcasts, or courses that can help you progress.
  • Learn more about how to up your digital networking game.
  • Remote work tends to spotlight your growing edges or weaknesses a little more intensely. Keep your UX skillset in shape with these seven habits.

Two UX professionals sitting at a desk, reviewing research findings

3. Heightened attention on behavior research

Back in January 2020, Forbes and Forrester forecasted that 2020 would be “the year of digital products,” predicting strides in companies’ digital maturity:

As the digital maturity in companies evolves, there is a gradual shift in the way people think. They move from thinking “how can we use digital to sell more products?” to thinking “how can we use technology to reimagine the way we help deliver customer value?”

While this forecast focused mainly on the evolution of companies, in retrospect, it was even more accurate than the authors could have known at the time. The realities of 2020 have set in, and more users are spending more time and accomplishing more things with digital products.

Think of all the digital products you use over the course of a week, whether for work or in your personal life. Many of us are using communication tools far more often than we were before—spending holidays with family remotely, attending a “Zoom wedding” or two, ordering meals or groceries for delivery, streaming entertainment (from Netflix, to Disney+, to comedy or even Broadway shows), and more.

And here’s what this means for UXers:

More users spending more time with the products and experiences you design means that good UX (and bad UX) have the opportunity to make an even greater impact. 

It’s more important than ever for UX professionals to gain an accurate understanding of:

  • What kinds of people are actually using the product
  • How they’re using the product
  • Why they’re using the product
  • How they feel during and after the experience

Sounds like part of the regular job of a UXer, right? Perhaps. But it’ll be a great idea to review your design process and watch for any assumptions you or your team are making about your users and their behavior. Dig just a little bit deeper, look for just a little more nuance, find just a little more information about users who are not in the majority of your user base, explore what happens in the less popular use cases.

Going even further, UXers (and companies as a whole) would do well to get in touch with their customers’ values. Here’s why.

McKinsey reports that 2020 has seen the (continued) development of more mindful consumer habits across industries. Users are, in general, more selective about what they buy and which companies they give their money to. Social responsibility is central here, and priority is often given to companies and products that consumers trust to be in line with their values, and that treat their customers and employees well.

Increasing efforts with your user research (even by a small percentage) could go a long way here, allowing you to:

  • Understand the nuances of user behavior
  • Get a better understanding of what your users’ values are
  • Discover opportunities to craft the product around user behavior
  • Find ways to build values-forward products

Actionable takeaways

A person carrying a bike, looking at their phone and smiling

4. Increased effort towards personalization

A more remote everyday world often seems to mean a less personal one. But that doesn’t mean users will tolerate a lack of personalization when there are better options out there—and let’s not forget the simple delight we experience when a product is more specifically, and accurately, tailored to our personal needs.

Personalization is a powerful thing. It’s already more pervasive than most users realize—it’s reflected in what appears in your Netflix feed, what ads you encounter on Facebook or Instagram, and what search results you’re given on Google, just to name a few.

Personalization is all about allowing users to determine how you address them, what appears in their feeds, what emails and offers they receive, and more. It’s something we’ve seen more of in 2020, and we expect it to continue into the new year as UX designers discover more ways to create experiences that are unique to individual users.

This has implications for user research, UX writing, and UI design—as well as the data behind all of it, and the business strategy guiding it! The challenges will be in:

  • Personalizing experiences in ways that are scalable (or in finding ways to scale how you already personalize)
  • Determining whether the degree of impact and product loyalty this personalization could have is worth the time and effort that will go into making it happen

Actionable takeaways

Interior of a coffee shop, with customers sitting at a communal table and working on laptops

5. Stronger focus on service design and customer trust

Part of what’s driving the trends toward more and deeper user research and personalization is a more intent desire on the part of consumers to engage with products and companies that they trust. UX designers have an integral part to play in this!

Forrester’s CX prediction for 2021 states that:

“Pandemic conditions will continue to fluctuate on a local level, affecting consumer sentiment and requiring fast and accurate responses from brands. Even once the pandemic is over, consumer concerns about health, safety, and contagion will remain. […] A whole-journey approach is critical. If one part of the journey fails the consumer safety test, trust is lost.”

Think of this like a really amazing coffee shop: The people who run it probably know a lot about service design and customer trust. The quality of the product (caffeinated beverages) is one important factor, but it’s certainly not the only one! It’s also about the ambiance and the interactions customers enjoy through the exchange.

You can have an amazing product, but if your service design doesn’t match that quality, and your customer’s don’t trust the product or the brand, the product isn’t likely to thrive.

This means both a continued vigilance in attending to pain points and friction in the user journey within the product itself, but also more or continuing collaboration with other teams in the company who oversee aspects of the customer journey that occur before and after users engage directly with the product.

Returning to what we mentioned earlier, this could also mean developing a relationship with your users that’s imbued with a sense of shared values.

Actionable takeaways

A child wearing a hearing aid, working across a table from an educator

6. Growing expectations for accessibility and inclusion

In the past, it’s been common for designers, companies, and even many customers to see accessibility and inclusion as a box to tick somewhere in the design or development process—and often not an integral box to tick at that.

That’s changing. What’s been seen as a temporary trend or an optional add-on step in the design process is becoming an expected and even required strand of a product’s DNA. 

At least 15 points in UX Collective’s State of UX in 2021 relate directly to diversity and inclusion in work culture and design practices (these usually go hand in hand). And when you consider the events of 2020, it isn’t at all surprising that the demand for diversity and inclusion professionals is on the rise, as companies realize they need to increase their investment and efforts in this area.

This shift relates heavily to the idea of creating values-forward products that more conscientious consumers are willing (and even eager) to engage with. Forward-thinking companies will be on the lookout for designers and other pros who know the ins and outs of accessibility guidelines, inclusive user research, and inclusive design.

Think of it like eggs in a cake batter. When accessibility and inclusion are baked into the product development process, rather than cracked open and plopped on top of an otherwise “finished” product, the whole thing holds together better and is far more appealing and useful to a wider audience.

Actionable takeaway

7. A final word

Yes, 2020 has been a challenge—to say the least. But in so many ways, we’ve witnessed the design world rise to the occasion and create solutions for its working professionals and the users they design for. We expect this will only continue in 2021 as UXers:

  • Adapt and thrive in a largely remote environment—both in where and how they work, as well as what they design and who they design for
  • Pay even greater attention to users’ behaviors and values
  • Find new and scalable ways to personalize experiences for users
  • Integrate their attention to product with an awareness of the cull customer journey and designing services that are as excellent as the product itself
  • Bake accessibility and inclusion into their learning, work, conversations, and design processes

These are uncertain times, but we’re proud to be a part of the large community of UX professionals who rise to the occasion. And in the spirit of camaraderie as we leave 2020 behind and step into the new year: You’ve got this—you do. But we’re also in this together!

If you’d like to read more about remote work and ways to prepare for the new year, check out these articles:

What You Should Do Now

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