UX Design & COVID-19: How to reimagine UX for a post-pandemic world?
UX design, a term used to describe the process of creating meaningful and relevant experiences for the user, is going through dramatic paradigm shifts now that the very definition of ‘meaningful’ and ‘relevant’ have transformed overnight.
The time to redefine UX is now!
Within a matter of weeks, the entire landscape of human civilization, as we know it, has undergone staggering changes – from an outdoorsy, theatre-park-mall grazing, traffic-inducing, and “wanderlusting” species, we have now become panic-buying, crowd-aversed, and hygiene-sensitive collective, reluctantly imprisoned within the 4-walls of our homes.
How does one design for a population caught in the quagmire of such an unforeseen future? How to redefine ‘meaning’, ‘relevance’, and ‘normalcy’ in the context of COVID-19 onslaught?
And, finally, what are the key challenges a UX designer must overcome to design products of the future?
To answer these questions – we must start by addressing the ‘user’ part of the user experience and in what inscrutable ways has the rudimentary of human needs & wants shaken as a result of the pandemic.
Changes in human behavior post Covid-19
With everything that is making us collectively take up a bizarre socio-evolutionary pathway, the critical aspects that a UX designer needs to consider can be condensed into these:
Change is more welcome now
Sharing space on the planet with a highly infectious fomite virus has sent us all washing and sanitizing our hands, over and over again. We have become excruciatingly sensitive of things that we touch; a rather anomalous addition to the usual course of basic human behavior and interaction.
Keeping in mind this and other major changes that have transpired in a brief matter of months such as extended remote working – it can be safely assumed that human beings are much more accepting of changes as compared to pre-COVID-19 era. And once things return to normalcy, whenever they do, the same set of behavior – motivated by fear, uncertainty, and prudence is going to govern human behavior.
Tech is the messiah
From remote working to collaboration tools, from classroom learning to buying groceries, from communication to extended downtime entertainment – we are turning more reliant towards technology. Even though our generation has been an avid consumer of technology at each walk of life, what we are witnessing is a much larger penetration of technology in even more fundamental tenets.
Hunger for real human connect
Not the shallow ones that happen virtually over texts and video calls; actual human interactions. During the lockdown period, as video-conferencing tools usage has gone off the roof, the ones which have truly flourished have very low-barrier and easy cross-platform entry.
If you carefully observe Zoom, House Party, and Netflix Party – all of these create a more realistic and organic approach to human-to-human interaction. By reimagining existing products or platforms through the lens of increased real “human touch”, you as a UX designer can create a whole line-up for innovative products.
Data privacy concerns amidst COVID-19
We all know desperate times require desperate measures. And attempts to leverage smartphone and Bluetooth technology for contact-tracing people in the context of COVID-19 exposure fall somewhere in the grey zone in between.
As most experts point out that this would inadvertently mean someone somewhere is collecting important data about users – where they are, where they go, and even the most confidential health information. And this has raised enough doubts and queries to be not deemed fit to handle the task at hand ethically.
Which means it’s time to knock on the doors of other effective UX principles such as gamification. Apps that reward people on maintaining social distancing, frequently sanitizing hands and surroundings, and staying locked in.
User Research amidst (and after) COVID-19 pandemic
The sunny old days of conducting face-to-face user research – the best way of collecting both verbal and nonverbal cues and having a lush-rich set of insights to build your design on – all are gone. Add to that the fact that there is an intense need of safer, trustworthy, and extensive set of digital platforms that ideally should address several (if not all) of a newfangled set of user pain points, you have got yourself a Gordian knot (in simple words, a tough nut to crack).
How to create products driven by true empathy for the needs of the end users? How to accommodate for the real human element in erstwhile user research interviews, in the current context of virtual and/or augmented reality?
To answer that question, let’s dig a little deeper into what user research and empathy really entails. In the simplest terms, it means establishing a connection with the user in order to understand and perceive their needs, in their context and environment.
As design leaders and UX designers, you must learn to look beyond the limitations of physical restrictions. As more and more companies, products, and services are masting their flags on the digital landscape, the need to stay true to the principles of human-centered design is increasing at the same time.
Start treating UX as a more deliberate and collaborative effort synthesized between every team and person involved in the product development. If you are a customer-facing organization, you must create platforms that tap customer insights with heightened transparency and speed in order to deliver value to your end users.
If you are a healthcare organization, this is the time to level-up your interface design and furnish critical and time-sensitive services at the earliest for expedited cases. User Research post- COVID 19 must become an all-encompassing fundamental skill, hardwired in your brain.
Before starting any user research you might wanna now think of the following questions:
- What is the tech available to the participants? Mobile or telephone? Or something else?
- How to make your research as inclusive as possible – are you looking into just one aspect of population? Are you including all ages, races, religion, genders, abilities etc. in your research?
- What critical information do you want to tap in? Be super clear in this matter.
- Can you share your screen? If not, what are the alternatives?
- At any cost don’t forget to include the ways their lives have changed during and after the pandemic. Regardless of what you are designing, how your design takes into account this very factor is going to be the game-changer.
How to find the right user research tool to connect with your participants?
- Easiest step first, ask the user – what do they have access to and what are they comfortable with?
- Check in with your organization what sort of accessibility can they provide you?
- Whatever tool you choose, keep in mind the data privacy segment of it.
- Instead of making it a one-man or two-man show, make the entire design team a part of it so that there is a better collection of insights and everyone is involved in understanding
UX Design for pandemic means designing for voice
As we further proceed into the era where touch or touching surfaces is becoming as abhorred as littering or spitting, we have to unlearn whatever we have been comfortable with so far in terms of designing interfaces and hoist ourselves to the world where voice dominates a “touchless realm”. As UX designers, instead of thinking hands and fingers, you must start thinking about vocal and auditory signals. And don’t forget visual signals too.
Think about how you enter your office building or your own apartment. How do you enter or leave any building? Forget elevators, think about the humble staircase. Every door, railing, elevator shaft – is accessed through touch. You either touch buttons or take support of railing. Every piece of design – tech or architecture or anything else has mostly taken touch to be a safe guarantee, a sensory response taken for granted.
But now, with a completely changed reality (with a hint of subtle dystopia), designers don’t have that freedom anymore. And with this loss of freedom, there is an added responsibility of making your end users feel safe, both inside home and outside as well.
Let’s pull out the big 8 which are the ultimate touch hotspots – ATMS, malls, hospitals, airports, workspaces, public transport (railways, subways, etc). At each of these zones, a more inclusive and ubiquitous system must be present to accommodate for voice tech to become prevalent. Especially in a country like India, where both the population density and the number of vernacular languages are the highest in the world – designing for voice encompasses its own set of challenges and opportunities.
While we can say that we do have voice-tech already present in the day-to-day life in the form of Alexa, Cortana, or Siri, these need to be reimagined further to completely substitute touch-based technology. This implies, as a UX designer you must start thinking about designing interfaces for a world where almost every inanimate object in the public sphere, at least, can be accessed by voice or any other touchless technology. A world where you can have tete-e-tete with elevators, ATMS, water coolers, and even coffee machines.
The next big thing in technology and design is not flying cars (as most 80s sci-fi movies would have you believe), but a contact-free interface and experience design that captures the untapped potential of voice, vision, and other auxiliary technology.
How will these unfold in the covid-19 pandemic context?
- Increased number of facial recognition kiosks for booking tickets in public transport that have the data of Covid-19 positive/exposed people.
- Make every payment interface cashless. Digital payments with zero contact is the way to survive.
- Make drones a larger and more prevalent reality for contact-less deliveries.
- Proximity cards that don’t require to be physically swiped in machines for detection.
- Smartphone apps that can turn every phone into a proximity card.
Be it the Great Depression or post World War-hit world, every disaster leaves lasting pain points on people across the globe and, with this, the heightened scope of innovation to make lives better again. Which brings us to addressing the most significant pain point of the covid-19 era – the social distancing.
UX design for social distancing
For years, innovators, designers, scientists, engineers have slogged endlessly in shrinking the world, making people come closer, turning the world into one small connected village, so on and so forth. But with the novel coronavirus attack, every attempt to shrink to bring people closer has taken a backseat. Now, every innovator’s purpose is to un-shrink the world to make way for the new normalcy – social distancing.
Enforcing a habit that is scientifically too unnatural for a species such as the human beings, is a complex challenge that falls on the shoulders of designers. And the answer to this lies in the same treasure chest that has given countless designers and innovators countless critical insights on product and service design – behavioral design.
Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast & Slow and renowned psychologist, states that human beings think in two different ways – the automatic, involuntary way (based on learned behavior) and the slow, conscious, and reasoned way (based on careful observation and selection of options). In most cases, the first way of thinking is more dominant because, yes, you guessed it right, it reduces the cognitive load. Unfortunately, this exposes us (pun unintended) to a vast array of cognitive biases, many of which be a serious roadblock to containing the rapid spread of novel coronavirus.
So how to take people from the spooky zone of pattern 1 to the evolved zone of pattern 2, with the help of design? These are few pointers that might help:
- Take a look into the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change that explains how and when human beings do bring voluntary changes in their behavior. From contemplation to preparation, to action all the way to maintenance – keen understanding of this entire model can guide UX designers to build products that follow the exact same chronology of steps.
- Use intrinsic negative triggers (or reinforcement). This comes from BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model that says that for any new behavior to be formed it must be accompanied by three vital elements – motivation, ability, and prompt (or the trigger). In the current context it means designing products and interfaces that induce negative triggers whenever the rules of social distancing are broken.
- Another way to look at it would be to link the cue to social distancing to things that really don’t require a lot of motivation (stuff that lies easily within our abilities, reduces cognitive load, and in line with accepted social norms).
- Add a dash of positive reinforcement as well. Gamification and designs that reward users for strict adherence to social distancing will always work in the favor of your design and the big picture goal.
To sum it all up
As for UX design and designers, COVID-19 presents itself as the ultimate design use case where each UX designer has an opportunity to practically implement the steps of design thinking in vanquishing the larger enemy. To do so one must first realize how has this Pandora box of pandemic changed and redefined what user behavior really is and how has UX changed as a result of the same. There is
- Widespread fear of touch, so contactless design is your ultimate goal.
- People have increased reliance on technology and are more accepting of changes.
- The hunger for real human connection is high, and so is the need for data privacy.
- User research is only as restricted as your motivation do create human-centered designs
- There are ways to make in-depth user research possible despite physical limitations.
- Designing for Covid-19 means designing for voice & vision.
- And yes, UX can help further the new tradition of social distancing.
- Dig deep into the tenets of behavioral psychology to find out how.
As the pandemic continues to expose the stark and gaping holes within our infrastructure and biological disaster preparedness, UX designers can in fact don the superhero cape and get knee-deep into the pressing challenges the planet is facing. COVID-19 has changed the world. And also UX design. Understand, accept, and gear-up for the future.