The Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in profound changes in the way people throughout the world meet and work. Are these changes permanent, or merely temporary blips? And as masses of people have resorted to online work, how has the UX-UI community responded? More precisely, how should UX designers respond?
In the first half of this article there is a personal story which may reflect the experience of many others during the pandemic. In the second half there are observations and suggestions from Dr. András Rung, CEO of UX-UI Design Agency, Ergomania. There are challenges ahead, he says.
A typical story?
“You’re on mute!” Three words that will typify 2020 for many people, as we began to grapple with the use of meeting apps for business purposes, rather than simply for wishing friends a happy birthday. Suddenly online meetings to do business changed radically. Not everyone was able to work in this way of course. Truck drivers still had to drive trucks, and manufacturers still had to make products. But the year saw enormous leaps forward in online work, where colleagues who might have sat at adjacent desks for years, now did their teaming from bedrooms.
At first many people tried to stick to the norms of office life, but over time makeup was abandoned and beards grew longer. While at the beginning of the pandemic, people tried to exclude family life, it became common for children to stray into shot, or for curious cats to stare into the webcam. “Sorry I have to go answer the door,” was the second most frequent phrase, after “You’re on mute.”
My own experience of the changes induced by Covid-19 started in early February 2020. For the last four years I’ve flown wingman for a colleague, doing communication workshops for a large corporate, in two countries. Each workshop required four separate sets of travel by budget airline, plus four hotel stays.
And then in early February, the head of training alerted us to this alarming new virus which might cause the company to send its worldwide workforce to operate from home. Could we adapt to that and deliver our communication courses online?
Our first response was, ‘No way!’ The interactivity of the sessions requires a highly-tuned reading of the room. ‘Understood,’ said the head of training, before politely replying that sessions would continue virtually, and if we were unable to deliver, then with regret another supplier would have to be found.
My partner and I re-designed our courses, figuring out what would have to be junked or re-invented. We re-designed the slide packs, re-edited videos and re-sequenced the way sessions would unfold. And we started testing this all out on madly frustrating Microsoft Teams calls, where the software never did quite what we needed it to do. Nevertheless, after intensive R&D, we were able to go live with our first online session, and… it wasn’t a disaster. Our attendees were also learning about this new way of working, and in subsequent sessions we all got slicker, quicker. Since then we have done a year’s worth of courses, getting better all the time, and receiving great feedback.
Would I go back to the old ways? Well, I can do without the guilts of having a gigantic carbon footprint from flying, or the need to stay in hotels. I do still miss being able to see and hear all the people all the time in a real room. But in many other ways, circumstances have sharpened and improved our offering. It also seems – strangely – that we are all more real through being small images on a flat screen. Attendees appear with bedhair and sometimes kids wander into shot (and have even taken part in some of the sessions!) but this all provides a sense of humanity that I find warming.
And here’s the kicker: One year into the experiment of sending the workforce home, this particular company reports that all its targets and KPIs have been met, or exceeded. People are delivering better and more consistent work from their bedrooms, than when they were commuting every day to their stylish steel and glass offices. Of all our workshop attendees during the last year, only one said he was feeling ‘stir crazy’ and missing the office. Everyone else was happy enough for their work to continue indefinitely from home. And while many teams did continue to operate across the same town, some individuals took the opportunity to relocate. If you’re only ever going to work virtually, why not move back to the family home in Thailand, or follow your partner to America? So my conclusion, and that of many people we’ve tutored during the first year of Coronavirus, is that the changes which were forced on us can and should become permanent: there’s no way back to how things used to be.
I’ve described my personal experience at some length because I believe it touches on similar responses to the pandemic from many other people, underlying the sense of permanent change. But if this is true, then what are the designers of all the systems we use to ‘keep the wheels on’ in business going to do to help us meet that change?
András Rung is CEO of leading UX-UI design agency Ergomania, and by mid-2020 was already strategizing for change when he hosted a webinar looking to the future. His thoughts are far-reaching and instructive:
UX-UI now, and into the future
At a time when it could be argued that we are all attempting a conservative approach of ‘keeping things going the way they used to be’, András advocates for a much bolder approach in terms of UX-UI design. This is the basis of how everyone interfaces with all the systems we use, now more than ever. UX design has to be more innovative, according to András, akin to the approach of ‘the good old days’ of 20 years ago when the UX industry was being forged. In the webinar he makes a convincing case for the need for continuing innovation, rather than relying on solutions which worked 5 years ago. “Design systems will enable the rapid construction of new interfaces to meet the growing demand for new solutions, and while value will grow, we will need fewer designers mindlessly putting together hundreds of screens.” So, a look back to pioneering days, but with the clarity of not merely doing the ‘same old, same old.’
Mindless creation of hundreds of screens? Is that really what the UX industry has come to? With an estimated 2 million UXers currently working worldwide, it’s a far cry from the early days in Budapest, where Ergomania is headquartered. As András recalls, “In Hungary there were maybe only 5 UX Designers when I first got into it.” Now however it’s truly a global industry, with the increasing standardization of processes helping to achieve overarching digital solutions, so that UX in Hungary, Austria, Belgium or the UK is becoming ever more similar. So how does that square with András Rung’s desire to recover some of the spirit and innovative thinking of two decades ago?
“Since we will need more and more digital solutions to serve people in an at-least-okay-way we will need to increase the production of quality interfaces,” he says.
OK, that’s a given.
“International teams should collaborate more effectively, and these days every professional UX team has a framework that consists of similar steps. We all use common tools, although some of the tools have been replaced due to the current situation, and some of the well-known steps need to be revised as well.”
“Particularly those that previously carried face-to-face interaction. Workshops are still essential for discovering and defining phases of UX projects, where we might use the big whiteboard that united clients, product people and UX professionals. However now this can be replaced by sharper, online tools such as Miro or Whimsical, both of which are not just substitutions for the old ways, but have benefits in providing smooth workshop experiences and quicker and easier co-creation.” András warns however that such tools need more preparation time to use effectively.
Testing and remote connection
Testing, one of the bedrocks of the Ergomania approach, has also moved to the online space. Pre-Covid the main concern was that to test online, users had to download some unknown software and needed to learn how to share their screens. Now everyone can do this ‘in our sleep’ with Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Hangouts and so on. It’s become second nature, as illustrated in the first half of this article. People have got quite good at it, quite fast.
Remote research has multiple benefits, and since users cannot travel it’s easier to find a spot in their calendar for a one hour meeting, with even lunchtimes working well for testing. So it seems that busy people can be more accessible to conduct research with.
There’s also the advantage that users are often more relaxed because they are in their own environment, and can use their own computer and setup. There’s even the opportunity to conduct a little ethnographic research as it’s often possible to see into the home office surroundings and gather further information, (although admittedly this is subjective). On the other hand, how to reward users has become rather more complicated, since typical gifts such as a bottle of wine can’t be handed over at the end of a session.
Remote testing also means that people are more willing to touch screens and keyboards – because they are in their own environment, rather than touching the screens of an unknown mobile phone or someone else’s keyboard.
The empathetic profession?
András Rung says that while part of the essence of UX-UI design is empathy with the needs of users, it’s surprising how little empathic attention is being paid to the elderly in the current situation. Very few companies provide tailored and adaptive interfaces for senior citizens – with one rare current solution introduced by OTP Bank in Hungary. This provides restricted Internet Banking for elderly people, who can log in, check their balance and transaction history, but cannot initiate any transactions. This last feature is to encourage the sense of safety, through not being able to make any catastrophic mistakes.
Pre-Covid, many elderly people were happy enough to use their legacy bank to provide legacy functions, and went to their physical bank branch for deposits, withdrawals and other basic services. In the last year this has changed dramatically, but of course senior citizens still need banking services. This means that many older people have been going through an often difficult digital transformation process, with very little consideration from their banks, or utility companies and healthcare providers. Furthermore, those suppliers are not receiving the proactive support from UX design companies which could enable easier solutions for the elderly.
So, András makes a plea to UX-UI designers and agencies: Consider senior citizens, and don’t cut them off from normal life. Rather, find ways of making their interface with systems easier and more seamless. For example, older people have longer attention spans and are able to concentrate more on written instructions than younger members of society, so that ability can be leveraged to provide in-depth written information.
In contrast, younger people are adept at juggling multiple screens, but this doesn’t sit well with older users, so don’t divide their attention visually. In other words, keep it simple.
This often means higher contrast screens with larger text, but remember too that some people (and not just the elderly) have motor and coordination problems, so interacting with and clicking on small objects can be an issue. And whatever new features are introduced specifically to help ‘newbie’ elderly users, don’t throw everything at them all at once. Gradual introduction of features is a far better idea than wholesale changes.
These are not merely aspirational or ‘Politically Correct’ nods to older users, but a clear acknowledgement of a societal need which has been amplified and accelerated by the pandemic. Nearly 20% of Europeans are over 65, with an average further life expectancy of around 10 years, and nearly 10% will be ‘economically active’. Around 45% of the elderly also use the internet at least once a week. Given that the overall population of Europe is 740 million-ish, any way you slice or dice the figures, you’re looking at a significant audience which is currently very much underserved by UX designers, and their clients.
The demise of touch
For years we have lived with the convenience of touch screens, as well as our reliance on clicking keyboards and keypads. For example, many people use access gate keypads to park their car, or enter their apartment. We are also all familiar with payment systems which require a keyed-in confirmation PIN.
Now this reliance on touch is being challenged by the need to keep surfaces as sterile as possible, and it’s a challenge which must be led and met by the UX community. There are already number plate recognition systems in use to open gates to parking garages. These should also be used to debit payments for the parking, for example.
There are already elevators and Home Assistants which accept voice commands. The technology exists, but it must be widely extended to provide as many contactless experiences as possible for users. This alone would be a great gift from the UX industry to the world, in the time of Covid-19. And let’s make this clear: even if widespread vaccination becomes highly successful, we must still be proofed against future outbreaks. Touchless interfaces with countless apps and programs can greatly help this, and therefore voice will become increasingly important, especially in the healthcare space.
One of the biggest changes predicted by András is that governments will begin to recognize the importance of UX, which is already happening in a few countries such as the UK. The ‘horrible interfaces’ of the state entities of many countries will have to disappear step by step because with the current very low quality, ‘It’s impossible to run a state online.’ If governments are truly committed to communicating clearly with citizens, and moving a vast amount of that interaction online, then massive changes must occur in the UX-UI design of systems for State use. Just think of the myriad points at which the State reaches its populace – from tax, to car registration, to health, education, the law and citizen’s rights. With very few exceptions websites serving these needs do so very badly, and in a completely inappropriate way to meet the challenges of the pandemic, and after.
Macro and micro
It’s not only on the macro scale that change will come in UX design however. According to András Rung, applications will also need to become more variable and adaptable to offer different solutions. People will want to be able to personalize their apps, which must increasingly enable variations. As a result, niche apps will emerge to serve particular communities.
Process digitalization and process re-engineering will become the name of the game, as well as the need for flexibility on the part of organizations, and their UX designers. Don’t think ‘one size fits all’, think of a wider and much more varied demographic than in the past.
Behind all of these trends and user needs will be the increasing use of AI to underpin all offerings. To survive and thrive in the pandemic and beyond, UX-UI Agencies must be really up to speed with this.
To achieve these many and varied goals requires the boldness of approach that András Rung proposes. That means creating a blank page for every new project, and eliminating earlier assumptions, especially about how Covid-19 has impacted users. Don’t assume – ask the questions, do the research. Only then will the reality for users become clear, and the vision of UX designers won’t be clouded.
The expert panel
Back in June 2020, the presentation András Rung gave was followed by a round table discussion which largely confirmed his suggestions, and my own anecdotal observations. The panel consisted of: Kathleen van den Keybus, Founder, UX Strategist, Uflow; Edward Croft Baker, Managing Partner, The UX Agency; Thomas Fogarasy, Managing Partner, Exalt Interactive; and Hannes Robier, Chain World Usability Congress, CEO, Youspi.
The panellists were as one when it came to remarking how much more convenient it was to have less travel involved in working at client sites. This also could result in better costing for clients. Thomas also observed that, “Working from home helps me be in the flow, and meetings with clients are shorter.”
The panel acknowledged that working online is good, but made the estimate of only about 80% effective, with Kathleen pointing out that the nuances of face-to-face meeting could be lost. She also cautioned that in some testing situations, ‘silence doesn’t mean agreement’ and that ‘offline there is emotion, online not so much.’ Nevertheless it was agreed that processes online for testing and research are getting smoother, and faster. Online also promotes a more focussed approach, with less general chat, and often fewer disagreements with the client, if they are ‘sitting in’ for a session. Hannes pointed out that currently online testing is only done with long term clients, where there is already trust and an established way of operating.
There was a general frustration with being, ‘In a silicon valley bubble about technology – where we expect people to be tech savvy and they can’t even get on a zoom call.’ As a result, it can take twenty minutes with some respondents just sorting out simple technology hassles. It had come as a surprise to everyone how un-savvy many apparently up-to-speed users actually were. Of course as time has gone on, it’s very likely that this has improved a lot, with far less occurrences of ‘You’re on mute!’
Thomas raised the example of how he had seen several examples – because of the Covid-19 situation – of a lot of MVPs (Minimum Viable Product) coming out on an almost daily basis. This was where really small players were launching some kind of delivery service or application, ‘made in two weeks’ to respond quickly to a very important problem. Later in the year this was also reflected in the worldwide vaccine rollout, where the usual cautions and long testing times were to some extent cast aside, in favor of getting rapid mass treatment going. As was pointed out in relation to UX-UI, “This build fast regret later approach – to build an MVP and just validate it – is a very different approach to our big clients. Here the development process might take a year, and be tightly controlled, with NDAs for example.”
Could big client companies learn from this fast response approach? The panel felt that perhaps large organizations react too slowly, and that UX design may have to change to get the necessary traction for sweeping changes. András’ example of the ‘horrible websites’ of governments suggests that long development times are not what is needed right now, particularly in the areas of health administration.
The panel’s overview was that the changes which are happening (and were happening in June 2020) may have been inevitable anyway, and that client companies have to start being ‘braver’. The same applies to UX-UI Agencies and the need to really embrace new ways of working, and doing so more efficiently, and at greater pace. As the panel agreed, “What’s happening would have happened without Covid-19, it’s just happening quicker.”
Through the pandemic, and beyond
As a user of systems which have sometimes been stretched to breaking point during the pandemic (and which in turn have stretched me to breaking point), I welcome a fresh look into UX design to take us all through Covid-19, and beyond. By halfway through 2020, Ergomania and the discussion panel participants were already proactively looking at the situation caused by Coronavirus, and radically re-assessing how to change the way UX is done. This is essential work, although it’s perhaps a little surprising that so few agencies and actors in the UX-UI sphere are willing to contemplate such change. The principles that András Rung espouses are however not merely reactive – the rollout of new ideas, new ways of doing things, and deploying new technologies is bringing a significant step forward in UX design, particularly in Ergomania’s specialist area of Fintech and banking.
We will come through the pandemic, but afterwards it won’t be ‘business as usual’. The world has changed forever, and businesses and organizations need to engage with that, ensuring that one of their primary means of connecting with customers and stakeholders – their online presence – is fit for purpose.