Human-centered design in times of crisis.

Human-centered design in times of crisis.

Like everyone in the country, the past several weeks have brought an incredible amount of change to our lives and the way we do business. As a User Experience Designer, it’s been interesting to watch from a human-computer interaction perspective the quick pivot we’ve all been asked to make both personally and professionally, as we now embrace technology out of pure necessity rather than convenience.

As a mother I’ve been asked to suddenly homeschool two young children while simultaneously adjusting to doing my job at a digital agency remotely, and helping my husband navigate the upheaval that has come with pivoting our brick and mortar music business to a virtual one. Meanwhile my children’s teachers, many of whom possess enumerable strengths commanding a classroom, are being asked to conduct their profession in a completely new way where different strategies, technologies, and student needs combine to make the process both complex and daunting.

Boy on trampolineThe author’s son, taking a creative approach to homeschooling

For our clients, things are also in flux. They too are dealing with personal changes in their lives while figuring out how to keep their businesses running, making constant choices about which parts of their operations to let go and which can survive or even thrive in this new world. Interestingly amid all of this turmoil and change, the same user experience principles we have always relied upon have become even more salient. It’s worth a moment of reflection to review why these methods work, and how to use them when they are needed most.

_1 People First

Whenever we present our methodology to clients it starts with the idea of “People First.” This simple mantra has helped our agency transform businesses from considering problems from their organization’s perspective (e.g. how do we increase sales by 10%?) or technology perspectives (how can we apply AI to our services?) to a human perspective – who is using our product and how can we improve their lives right now?

In the midst of a crisis this type of human-centered mindset is even more essential. Much of our management team was in charge of during 9/11, working through the initial shock of the event, figuring out how to provide critical news on the fly, and redefining what this meant for online news and information delivery thereafter. Initially this meant a continuous redesign of the home page of the largest news site on the web as events unfolded, while constantly looking at traffic and envisioning the next wave of user needs. Later, as the flow of news resumed more normal patterns, learnings from this event were folded into improved design and processes for covering all major stories. News coverage from there on out had the learnings from 9/11 baked into its DNA.

Who is using our product and how can we improve their lives right now?

Much like 9/11 the imprint of COVID-19 will be with us forever. During a crisis it can be hard not to get distracted by immediate demands and take time to step back and focus on your customers’ needs. But, in times like these it’s more important than ever to understand their world in the context of your product offering

_2 Take Time for Discovery

We typically begin every project with a discovery phase, where we gather information that can help tell the story about our audience and their motivations. We are always surprised by what emerges through this process, and how, despite decades of experience, we invariably uncover information that is counterintuitive, or simply wouldn’t have guessed.

The Story is the New Home Page

An analysis of site analytics revealed that almost all users went directly to story pages from search or external links and most never saw the home page, so UChicago decided to make the story do double duty by designing a home page that could be placed at bottom of all story pages.

Take for example a history site we redesigned. We knew educators were a primary audience and reimagined how they could navigate through topics and sub-topics. As we spoke to users, however, it became clear their primary concern was finding content that mapped to specific performance standards for which they were responsible to teach against rather than by topic area. Thus, we set up a search box specific to these education standards and were able to successfully serve an unmet need in a new and intuitive way.

Taking time to look at how these patterns are evolving during COVID-19 can make your business more relevant now and for the long term. Fortunately getting such feedback can be achieved relatively quickly.

_3 Assemble Your Toolbox

There are many methods you can quickly employ to get real-time user feedback. When checking in with users make sure you are practicing empathy and really listening to their needs. How can your product or service help them in a way that makes them want to keep using it? The mental health toll of the COVID-19 crisis and the difficult reality that this is going to be a long journey ahead should not be minimized. What are new ways of doing business that no longer anticipate a “return to normal”, but instead focus on adapting to the new normal?

The below methods for quick-turn user feedback are conveniently some of the simplest, and almost all of them have little to no lead time.

_User surveys – Many web sites already have a tool for this, and for those that don’t there is a low barrier to entry. A question you might include is “What were you looking for when you came to the site today and were you able to find it?” Make sure to give at least one open-ended response for users to tell you things you may not anticipate. These surveys are especially useful to run right now as people are more inclined to fill them out.

_One-on-one interviews – A qualitative technique, interviews can provide insight in ways that surveys cannot. You can probe deeper when something unexpected comes up and get a better assessment of the overall context in which your offering is being used. These interviews can be conducted easily by phone or video conferencing.

_Remote user testing – Even if your site has not changed significantly due to COVID-19 your users’ lives certainly have. Perhaps you make a podcast your users listened to during their commute, but they no longer have a commute. If you have a remote user testing tool already in place, use it to see how your current site is meeting user needs, and build in written responses to learn about existing gaps.

_Analytics assessment – Monitor your traffic and learn what content is most used at different times of the day. Look for shifts in traffic and user interest and ensure users are seeing any important updates you have posted. Pull analytics reports from the past year and pay special attention to patterns that have emerged since shelter in place orders were enacted or loosened. What has changed? Can you map these changes to any specific events? What does this tell you about your users?

Making UX Responsive to Crises:

  • People First

    Focus on the human experience rather than business goals or technical features.

  • Take Time for Discovery

    During a crisis your users have changed. Take the time to discover how.

  • Assemble Your Toolbox

    Pick the methods that are easiest and provide the most value, then hit the ground running.

  • Think Ahead to “Post Crisis”

    How can the experience changes you made help your business in the long term?

_Competitive review – Taking time to see how your competitors are adapting to these changes can provide valuable insight into steps you may want to take, especially if they are seeing success. Sign up for your top competitors’ newsletters and look at their home pages and see how they have evolved, and what new or adapted services they are offering.

_User personas – You may already have personas from the pre-COVID-19 world. Take a new look at them after employing some of the exercises above. How have they changed? Are there any new ones to add, or old ones to take away? Go through the exercise of updating your personas being sure to include their motivations for coming to your site. Use this exercise to help shape your next steps and share them with your team to develop a collective sense of empathy.

_4 Think Ahead to “Post Crisis”

Much like 9/11, it’s clear that regardless of when or how COVID-19 ends, it will have irrevocably impacted our lives and the ways we do business. Much like 9/11 impacted news coverage for the longer term, changes we make now will continue even in a post-COVID world.

In the case of our music business, my husband and I employ 10 music teachers who have all adapted to virtual music lessons. In polling our students, they are not only enjoying this method of instruction, but some are asking to continue this in the future as they now see advantages that were not clear before. The ability for parents to cook dinner rather than wait in our store, not needing to cancel when a family member is ill, or simply one less car trip are all user experience improvements regardless of what stage of a pandemic we are in.

Like many retailers Crate & Barrel is now offering curbside pickup. This type of new service will likely prove worthy of continuing post-COVID.Like many retailers Crate & Barrel is now offering curbside pickup. This type of new service will likely prove worthy of continuing post-COVID.

What advantages could the changes you make now also make to your post COVID-19 world? Are there ways you can grow closer to your user community through this hardship?

Thinking through these questions now can help you not only pivot and survive COVID-19, but also be more crisis-proof in years to come.