When I helped write “5 User Experience Trends to Watch in 2020” last year, there was no way I could have predicted how much the world would turn on its head and the global shift in the importance of communicating online. But, as we all know, communicating online has been critical to keeping us all professionally and personally connected last year. For me, I’m thankful that Zoom has allowed me to continue to teach the next bright crop of design students at the University of Tennessee. My goal is to help empower each of them to be successful, whether they choose user experience (UX) or many of the other fields within design and marketing, and I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to learn with them.

After this past year, a lot has changed in this field and we just might have more data than ever on how people effectively communicate online. And as I began to gear up for this semester, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to compile a checklist of my 2021 UX recommendations — and I hear people love lists.

1. Users Expect More, Give It To Them

According to IBM’s US Retail Index, the pandemic has accelerated the shift from physical stores to e-commerce by 5 years. I was advocating for strong, mobile-first, e-commerce experiences before the pandemic but now this is – or needs to be – a crucial staple of many businesses. Because of the increasing need to connect with users online, retailers are stepping up their game. Need a pair of contacts online? All you need is a webcam and to answer a few questions. Need a glass of Sauvignon Blanc for those nights stuck inside? You can have that delivered to your door with the touch of a finger.

The bottom line is, basic e-commerce experiences are not enough. You need to stand out and offer a unique value your competitors can’t match.

2. First (and Last) Impressions Are Key

Users will remember the peak moment – browsing your site, engaging with your brand, etc. – and the end moment – placing their order, receiving a good, etc. – of your experience most vividly. Make sure these key moments are positive ones so that your users don’t leave with a bad final impression. Here’s a to-do: make sure you place extra care in designing “Thank You” pages and confirmation emails.

3. Users Will Reward Your Transparency

Did you see Robinhood, the user-friendly entry-point investing app, spectacularly fail when it limited trading of certain stocks in early 2021? How’d that go for them? Not so hot. Users demand companies stick to their word, regardless of circumstances. You get one chance to make the right brand impression and if you waste it, chances are you might find yourself canceled. It’s hard to regain that trust no matter how many explanation emails or “I’m Sorry” commercials you make.

Note: I am a mostly happy Robinhood user, and decided to watch the “stonk market” action from the sidelines.

4. Collecting First-Party Data (Hot Tip: Ask Nicely)

In 2020, Google announced that over the next two years it will finally phase out the dreaded third-party tracking cookies. The impact? It will become more difficult for advertisers to use users’ browsing history to serve ads of products they’ve been looking at recently. Queue the need for advertisers to better understand and ask for first-party data from customers. When a user comes to your website, allow them to control their data by opting into first-party cookies (those needed for functionality) and blocking others. Consider adding a “Tell Us About Yourself” functionality as a second step when signing up for an email or completing a contact form. Be honest and tell them you are asking for this information to better customize their experience. Use this first-party data to then connect with them through value-driven content in email and social media.

5. Don’t Call It A QR Comeback

Beloved by marketers in the early 2010s, QR Codes quickly fell by the wayside due to the lack of a compelling reason to use them. However, the pandemic presented a real use case for them in an increasingly hands-free and contactless world. Used in mass media, large pushes were being made to register to vote in the fall of 2020 through QR Codes on television. On the smaller-scale, restaurants around the country reopened with outdoor dining and used QR Codes on the table as a digital menu. And in terms of consumer goods, I used QR Codes to sync my Google Mesh Router devices to the app when setting them up. If there’s a compelling way you can make your user’s lives better through QR codes, just do it.

6. Iterate. Optimize. Repeat.

Technology should improve people’s lives in a meaningful way, but it can’t do that if the people who designed it don’t understand their users. The only way to understand if your website is working is by gathering feedback (surveys, usability testing, etc.) and making improvements based on the data.

7. Don’t Be Afraid To Experiment

Too often, teams launch one perfectly crafted landing page and then sit back and begin to measure traffic sent through social media, paid search and rich media advertising. Instead of just launching one version of the landing page, actively experiment. Google Optimize makes it easy to A/B headlines and images. Track which one performs better and optimize through data.

8. It’s Been A Tough Year, Uplift Your Users

It’s been a hard year for all of us. The last thing you want is snarky copy or dark UX practices off putting your users. Instead, opt for a tone of voice that is uplifting and positive. If appropriate, it’s always a good idea to make your users smile with a well-placed joke or pun. In general, always try to make them feel better about their interaction with your company or product.

9. Connect The Dots By Triangulating With Data

Have an issue, you’re not sure what to do to fix it? Triangulate with data. If users aren’t converting down your funnel, use analytics to identify the dropoff. Combine this with a short usability study that asks for qualitative feedback about where they struggled. With multiple tools, it’s easier to diagnose and fix issues along key user flows that are essential to your business.

10. Be Data-Driven, Not Data-Dense

I still have fond memories of practicing post moves as I played basketball in my driveway. And 20 years later, you know what’s not considered an efficient offense? The big man post-up game. If only I’d had data, I could have spent more time shooting 3’s. Managing your website is the same way, if you’re not looking at data regularly then you can’t be sure if all that fancy footwork in the post is actually leading to wins. The best way to remove assumptions is to test your site early and often. Monitor for what works and once you figure out what does work, ride it to a championship.

Hopefully, 2021 doesn’t throw us as much of a curveball as last year and we can soon see a return to a semblance of normalcy. The digital rush 2020 brought us isn’t going away anytime soon as the digital world around us grows increasingly larger. Be data-driven and empathetic to your users' needs, you might just stay ahead of the curve.