Design in the Age of Corona
Planning a road trip has never been simple:
- Where will we sleep?
- How many bathroom breaks will we need?
- When will we need to stop for gas?
In a pandemic, what used to be mundane little questions like these have transformed in all sorts of unexpected ways:
- Where will we sleep if all the hotels are closed?
- How can we take a bathroom break without putting ourselves at risk?
- How do I fill up my tank without touching the nozzle?
Wrestling with questions like these on a recent trip, I was struck by the way COVID-19 inflected my experience of everyday design. I used to think touchless faucets were annoying. But, as I pondered how to shut a faucet without touching it, what was once a nuisance now seemed like a revelation. Heck, even the gnarliest old hand dryer became a monumental improvement over the manually-operated paper towel dispenser.
The way we interact with things is changing; it has to if we want to protect ourselves and others. How will design adapt and respond to these large-scale behavioral shifts?
No doubt, COVID-19 will have lasting consequences, but not all of them will be negative. We’re starting to see fascinating design responses to this epic health challenge.
Healthcare. Designers are considering major changes to hospitals, with surge-capacity and flexibility at the top of their list. Other fast-tracked innovations: pop-up clinics, food delivery systems, and quick-deploy intensive care units.
Construction. Builders are reassessing the materials they use. Certain materials such as copper and brass have anti-microbial properties and could see increased use in structural design. They may also move toward germ-resistant paints and coatings.
Play. With their doors shut, digital experiences are becoming the norm for many businesses and attractions who rely on foot traffic. Art museums, for example, are devising creative solutions to bring works of art to our living rooms, with virtual tours and live-streamed events. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, which have both been around for years in various (if somewhat unimpressive) forms, are also getting more attention as a means of bridging the human experience with the digital experience.
Home. Tools like Slack and Zoom have become our primary mode of communication and connection. As a result, our notions of “home” and “work” are shifting before our eyes as living rooms and spare bedrooms become our workplaces, schools, and even yoga studios. If you’ve ever rearranged a small corner of your house to get the perfect background, then you’ve seen how to video chat is changing the way we design our spaces.
Retail. This industry has traditionally relied on physical presence and personal connection, which is why online shopping has been so disruptive. Now that customers have learned to make do with ordering online and picking up curbside, retailers will need to get even more creative about getting people back in their doors in the future. A personal-interactive hybrid experience may do the trick.
A Silver Lining
As much as these changes make our heads spin, the reality is that we’ve long been on the path to a more digital lifestyle. The current crisis has only accelerated that trend.
The good news for designers is that these digital platforms will need to be re-envisioned to suit the Age of Corona. We can longer take the basics for granted: screens you can touch, spaces you can pack, the money you can exchange by hand. Instead, we’ll need to think creatively about how to adapt to the radical shifts we’re seeing in user behavior.
UX designers are uniquely positioned to face this transition head-on. Why? Because we’re in the habit of asking the simple questions that often go overlooked:
- What’s next?
- How is this used?
- Is there a better way?
Of course, our toolbox is going to look different than it did before. We’re going to have to add a few new pieces to our repertoire: touchless interfacing, voice-activated technology, artificial intelligence. And we’re going to face a few new challenges: social distancing, occupant density, shifting expectations about personal connection and interaction.
Whatever lies ahead, though, UX designers are ready to face this bonkers and strange new era.
After the Dust Settles
Over the next several months and years, we’ll surely look at the pandemic with a more critical eye, asking important questions and raising valid criticism against all sorts of actors.
In the midst of all that looking back, though, we’ll also have an unprecedented opportunity to look forward — to make things better, smarter, and safer.
So, the next time you find yourself ambling through a public restroom, wondering how you’re going to get in and out without touching anything, remind yourself of this; in the Age of Corona, good design just might reveal itself in the most unexpected ways.
After all, waiving your hands under an old, asthmatic hand dryer is better than being the 497th guy to grab at that little knob on the paper towel dispenser.