48-Hour Insights: Finding Balance, A Year Into “The COVID Era”
We asked 100 participants what behaviors, routines, and practices they are adopting to keep themselves feeling together. And about what services, and products they believed were helping—and hindering—their sense of balance.
As the pandemic first unfolded, we conducted a quick, but involved, study (The COVID Diaries) to get a sense of the seismic shifts unfolding in people's day-to-day lives.
A year later, with our sense of “normal” thrown far off its axis, we wondered: What does “balance” look like now? As traditional routines and boundaries have shifted or dissolved—between home and work, between us and our communities—how have people stayed grounded? And what might this mean for researchers, and for companies, looking to better serve and understand our users?
As part of our partnership with UXRConf Anywhere 2021, dscout conducted three quick-turn studies on broad topics of interest to insights professionals. This report focuses on that elusive feeling of homeostasis, representativeness, and equality in one's self and life.
Each study leveraged dscout Express, whereby a focused set of questions is answered by a large, diverse population. To get full access to the data from this study for yourself, as well as the data to the other two projects on value in research and trust in brands, head here.
Method and sample
Data was collected over 24 hours from participants via dscout. Over 100 (N = 114) folks responded to 10 questions examining the definitions of, actions supporting, and companies helping (and hindering) the perception of balance. We wanted to offer some baseline definition of balance, while not being too prescriptive in its components—just enough for all participants to have a sense of our interests, while leaving cognitive space for their own creativity. As such, the following definition was offered before participants began:
We're curious about "balance" in this study.
By this we mean feeling like things in your life are proportional, equal, or level. When things are "balanced," we tend to feel "just right."
Please use this general definition when answering the following questions.
Questions included open-ended, scale, photo, and video prompts. The sample was broadly diverse across traditional demographic variables such as age, gender identity, ethnic identity, household composition, and income. Please see the Appendix below for sample breakdown.
Changes in "balance"
Asked to rate their sense of balance from 0 (none) to 10 (complete), participants most-often (28%) selected 7 out of 10. The bulk of responses (62%) were between 6 and 8 on the 10-point scale. No one selected 0, but five participants chose 10, indicating complete balance. Overall, ratings of balance were skewed toward more, rather than less, balance.
When asked to select an area of life that they felt was most out of balance, a majority (nearly 30%) selected "work," following by "travel" and "family, each with 14% of responses. That work and travel were first and second, respectively, points to the primacy of that disruption: working from home (or losing one's job) and the removal of daily habits such as commuting (or dropping of children at school) contributed to the greatest sense of imbalance.
As was unearthed in the open-ended responses, places and spaces of balance were often reactions to the work imbalance. Namely, either finding time to work effectively or creating cognitive and physical space to remove oneself from the habits and behaviors of work.
Participants were asked to describe how their notion or idea of balance had changed in the past year. At a high altitude, data suggest the verb of "balance" instead of the noun, with words such as "time," "work," and "family" reported most often. This trend would continue in other aspects of the study, especially as habits, routines, and expectations changed and then remained in this new state.
Despite these consistencies, participants' open-ended responses showcased the variety of definitions, reflecting COVID's differing impact; some lost loved ones, others jobs, still others used the pandemic to re-focus one's priorities to achieve balance. The disruption was evident across most responses, it's severity shifted the salience of balance in participants' experiences.
The one considerable change to my "balance" is the general lack of direct socialization. I had been used to gatherings of friends for dining, parties, football watch sessions, going to restaurants, picnics, etc. and all that is on hold now. Helping balance that out is more time spent virtually, such as emailing, phone chats.
In 2020, my understanding of balance did not take into account the virtue of adaptability. In other words, I mostly just considered things that were already in place or known to me—such as my regular habits and responsibilities—and did not consider the potential for things to change drastically. The sudden and massive changes that occurred in the past year made me realize that my old idea of "balance" was easily disrupted by unexpected things.
When COVID hit, I was suddenly an essential worker, business was crazy, and I was dealing with concerns about getting myself or my family sick. I had no energy to worry about what I was eating or working out because I was so exhausted and worried all the time. I’m still trying to find a balance of health and wellness.
My idea of balance changed because of my financial situation due to the current pandemic. My hours at work have been greatly affected and this has really hurt my family and we have had to make a lot of changes. This has upset the balance of things for not only myself but my entire family.
Being confined to home with fewer overall distractions made me realize how imbalanced I was professionally. It also made me realize that that lack of balance in my career was directly causing an imbalance in my personal life. I was, at best unfulfilled, at worst depressed/anxious due my career and the stressors related to it.
My previous notion of balance meant my work and personal life, including family and friends, was in sync. Now the idea of balance includes my personal health and mental health as well, because 2020 taught me in many ways just how important mental and physical health is.
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Spaces and places of balance
Beyond definitions of balance, participants were asked to show the environments and areas where they sought out and maintained balance. This took the form of a photo and video question combination, asking for a snap of the location and then a video describing that place's role in making balance possible. Participants captured and shared a variety of environments: rooms within their homes, outdoor escapes, even businesses and cars.
Digging into the video responses revealed a tight set of themes suggesting the how of balance, beyond the specific locations themselves. Six balance categories emerged from the data, with not all related to pure relaxation (although that was the largest category):
The largest category, Relaxation, showcased participants' needs to unplug, unwind, and unfurl into various couches, chairs, and beds, often stressing the importance of not working. Very often, these moments included family, partners, and pets; actions included games, movies, or music listening. Anything to help foster togetherness and physical rest. These spaces were very often within a participant's home.
..just kind of you know vegging out in front of the couch with dinner or snacks is really good for my mental and emotional well-being and not having to to worry about other things..
It's a really comfortable room. You know we watch television and we spend time with our child watching her grow. She was born in the middle of this coronavirus pandemic.
Where I go to is actually a bridge a few blocks away from my home. I like to go there because it's really peaceful and has a beautiful view...it's a nice place to walk get some fresh air and just breathe. I feel like it's a place that really helps me relax."
Mindful-focused balance spaces emphasized contemplation, meditation, and other activities related to focus. Participants mentioned feeling "centered," "inward," and "at peace" in these spaces. Relaxing and lounging are not the primary goal (although they may be the secondary goal), instead aligning one's cognitions to better face the world's tasks was the motivation.
...you'll see there's no TV up here which is good as a major distraction. There's no electronics anywhere. And I feel like this room is this a room to kind of reflect, talk about our everyday lives, talk about our goals. And to me that's really important too because every other room we see is put to use whether it's a kitchen or multimedia room. But I feel like this role is solely dedicated to balance.
I'm here in my little corner of my bedroom next to my bookshelf and this is where I go to regain a sense of balance in my life. I visit this place at least two to three times daily and I use this space to quiet my mind. I may meditate here. I pick from different genres of books to just get focused and a different perspective.
I'm always here. I always kind of just spend some time in this area sometimes on the balcony if possible and I am just reminded of the fact that there's so much that's out of my control and I can only control how I respond to things. So it's a very green area. I just feel healthy and better and just calm and fresh and just right in this spot right here.
Balance wasn't exclusively about inaction, as a segment of participants mentioned balance in relation to focused activity, often on work or family upkeep tasks. Bills, email, and job searching were all examples of behavior within this them. For these participants, balance is about staying motivated and engaged with work, both professional and private; this achievement offered some sense of normalcy to folks yearning for former routines of life.
..the fact that I actually have a door that I can close and headphones to put on and actually focus on the things that I need to do really helps give me a sense of balance I'm able to actually focus on the things that I need to do rather than feeling like I'm just running from one thing to the next constantly.
I chose my kitchen table as my area of balance because this is where I do most of my work. Whether that be from my job or my creative outlet. Responsibilities like you know just homeownership all that kind of stuff. Everything is done here so this is really where I guess I find a lot of balance both in terms of my responsibilities and my relaxation.
I just have this sense of balance when I'm in this room because I know I'm getting organized I'm paying bills getting work done and I'm able to watch TV and just sort of get lost in the unreality of a television show or a movie while I am multitasking and doing all these other things. So that is really the one place in my life where I feel a sense of balance and control...
More specific than the productivity theme, participants here mentioned getting "back to" or "keeping up with" a hobby. Cooking, knitting, crafting, or even a side business, the variety spoke to the lengths folks are going to seek and maintain balance today. Some hobbies were new, others long-standing, either way, it was important to these folks to get lost in the craft.
My kitchen has brought me a lot of balance and peace during 2020 and really with all the stuff that's been going on me being home more often because I've learned to really take pride in the things that I cook. Cooking for me was always just kind of throwing things together all the time you know like things that the family liked to eat and stuff like that. But now I'm a lot more mindful of what I cook what I'm putting into my body and my family's body.
So this lovely bookcase filled with novels and manga and some regular books. I would say it helped me create balance because I found myself last year even before the pandemic hit. But even more so afterwards I was stressed out. I needed a hobby to kind of release into and I found reading being you know what I've been needing to create a balance in myself. I call it my me time. So reading and I've been doing a lot of it obviously reading has really helped create balance in my life. So I read, have my me time, and then I'm good for the rest of the day.
For participants within this theme, scenery change (even from one room to another) is vital. More often, folks mentioned needing quiet (a la the mindfulness theme), but stressed needing a new environment, one that was defined more by what it was not than was it was. Balconies, cars, even a bathroom were all mentioned in the escape theme, all with the goal of resetting.
This environment definitely helps support my sense of balance because I try to come out here every day and just relax read play on my phone especially because I'm working from home just getting outside and enjoying fresh air and a mental detox. I was not used to being at home all day and it's just good for my mental and physical health to get fresh air and get a change of scenery and get literally out of my four walls in my bedroom.
I'm usually in my car when I need to drive around and think about stuff. My creative juices are flowing I'm using my car. I'm listening to music, trying to help me have a better day. It definitely helps me stay focused and stay grounded. I always tell people that my car is my office on wheels because I'm constantly in my car doing something that I need to do.
Physical activity (10%)
Lastly, a subset of participants grounded balance in movement, either walking outside or in a specific workout-related practice, be that yoga or weight training. Space was typically limited, so activity for some occurred in a corner of a room, a retro-fitted garage, while others took to their yards to expel some pent-up energy.
I bought this Pop-Shot not too long ago it was to basically give me an opportunity to to release some steam. You know I can't go play basketball because of the cove. There are a lot of courts that are closed gyms that are closed. It gives me a little bit of recreation right here at home. I don't have to go anywhere because it's right downstairs in my basement.
These are little adjustable weights. I have started working out in my living room because I used to go to the gym, but that's not allowed with COVID. So now I just load up my TV right here with a YouTube video from my favorite fitness influencer and I do my workouts—put my dog away—and it's just my like me time. I try to do it everyday now and I feel like doing that has really helped me find balance.
These open-ended themes were again observed in the ranking of top three behaviors folks reporting trying in the past year to achieve balance. This pick list was derived from previous research conducted on COVID responses, published elsewhere on People Nerds. Specifically, participants selected meditation, physical activity, and mindfulness/positivity as the top three:
That two of the top three response focused on cognitive and mental health (with the third focused on physical health) reveals the saliency of mental health for these folks. Sheltering in place often meant doing so alone, and social distancing—though physical in form—may have contributed to a psychological distancing. Political strive, social unrest, and the general friction in community-building and sense of belonging are bore out in these data.
Brands and experiences of balance
Experience insights professionals largely sensed this imbalanced ethos and attempted to conduct more inclusive, partnership-based research as a response. Qualitative and mixed-methods work such as this can help inject empathy into business decisions and better support folks where they are, and in the ways they might need it most. These participants became reliant on some experiences for getting through the day, found others to support connection, and shed others they felt were not helping in their search for ease. Some of these insights are summarized in our COVID Diaries work on the "brands of COVID." For this examination, we wanted to merely scratch the surface of folks interpretations of "helpful" and "hindering" brands and products.
Supportive product experiences
No company or brand lead among this sample, however the ends, goals, and motivations listed were more consistent. Connection, togetherness, checking-in, and "feeling" were oft-listed reasons these participants used YouTube, Xbox Live, Facetime, and a host of meditation and relaxation apps. Below are word clouds produced from the data, first a chart filtered by nouns to displays company or brand trends, the second filtered by verbs to unearth motivations:
"Stifling" product experiences
In addition to those that helped smooth the path to balance, participants offered examples of products and experiences that thwarted or stood in the way of a sense of balance. Overall, a trend of social media, especially with potentially divisive, unclear, or combative messaging was a leading experience mentioned. For many of the reasons shown in video and photo responses, these product experiences stifled for their addictive, "can't look away or put it down" quality. Many participants' verbs hung around an idea of misusing or wasting time.
A full 46% of apps, products, and services listed as "stifling" balance could be categorized as "social media," from major players like Twitter and Facebook to Instagram and Reddit. "Doom scrolling," self to other comparisons, and heightened awareness of negative affect all circulated online and thwarted folks' perceptions of balance.
The next largest category was only at 10% and was work-related communications. This category included synchronous and asynchronous tools like email, Slack, and Teams, as well as video conferencing like Skype and Zoom. Work was never far from one's mind with the ubiquity (and ease) of using these products.
The remaining categories were all smaller and included dating apps, news media, financial services, video games, and e-commerce. None were as prevalent as the top two, however.
Appendix: Sample demographics
Below are some demographic breakdowns of the 114 folks who completed this study:
Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.
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