Designing for the New Reality: Getting Rid of Pre-COVID Assumptions

Who would have expected that a global pandemic would have been the stimulus to radically increase the usage of digital spaces we employ every day for socialization, entertainment, work, and especially healthcare.

According to a McKinsey report, just 11 percent of consumers were using telehealth in 2019. By May of this year, however, nearly 50% of in-person visits had been converted to digital visits. Clinicians saw 50 to 175 times the number of patients via telehealth than they did pre-COVID-19.

Screenshot of COVID symptom checker app

Besides healthcare, a lot of socialization is happening online now. Elderly people start exploring video calls during COVID lockdown to connect with their relatives. This is a pleasant first-time experience for many of them. Some elderly people consider using other technologies besides online video call apps because they would like to live a better life at the time of the pandemic.

The Harris Poll conducted between late March and early May found that over 46% of US adults were using social media more since the outbreak began.

51% of total respondents — 60% of those ages 18 to 34,

64% of those ages 35 to 49,

And 34% of those ages 65 and up.

Seniors use smartphones and websites for socializing, paying bills, ordering groceries online, and even for entertainment by using apps such as TikTok. However, mastering new technology is often complicated as most products have only considered designing with specific age groups in mind.

What I see today horrifies me. The world is designed against the elderly — Don Norman

The impact of design is especially seen today because seniors start to use apps for meeting their families or doctor visits. Just half a year ago, we did not expect this to happen that soon.

As we thrive through the pandemic, we need to keep our minds open instead of becoming stuck in our pre-COVID perceptions when designing any new product.

Embracing the new reality

War is the locomotive of history — Leon Trotsky

The quote above from 1922 argued the social developments that would typically evolve over generations, could in fact take place in as short a time as a few months when conflict is raging. The COVID-19 pandemic is kind of equal in nature. It is causing radical reformations to nearly every field of human existence in an unusually short space of time.

Most products have been designed with the target groups in mind, but now the same products are used by different age groups and people with different digital experiences.

Many professionals working in the tech industry talk about “changing the world” and “making people’s lives better.” But unfortunately, bad design is ruling out whole sections of the population from the benefits of technology.

When UX doesn’t consider ALL users, shouldn’t it be known as “SOME User Experience” or… SUX? — Billy Gregory, Senior Accessibility Engineer

Many digital products fail to take changing needs into account. Inaccessible design choices irritate users of all ages, for instance, the small type causes problems even among teenage users. The design choices that irritate younger users create substantial barriers to access for older ones. And as much as I love elderly people, they will have anxiety with technology. But If it works, they will be ecstatic.

The number of active, healthy oldsters is large–and increasing. We are not a niche market, but businesses should take note: We are good customers often with more free time and discretionary income than younger people — Don Norman

In the last 20 years, companies were leading the way with new products and services, and technologies that were introduced to consumers for the first time, but suddenly consumers and economies have changed much faster than businesses. With the pandemic, not only digital products are adopted by different age groups but also the usage behavior has changed.

“Now we are in this unique place where basically companies have to catch up.” — Michael Biltz, managing director at Accenture

Crises may affect our daily life, but COVID-19 has altered our future and caused new user behaviors and expectations.

Radical shifts in how we live raise a crucial question for designers: How do you adapt rapidly when usage behavior, target audience, and expectations are changing so much and so fast? In the human-centered design process, the idea is to build things that aren’t just advanced but also readily adaptable.

Due to the pandemic, people have found many ways to come together and connect. Some turn to digital conferencing apps like Zoom. Others escape to media like Instagram, Netflix, and YouTube.

Reimaging the digital experience

You have probably seen this project created by Luli Kibuti. It transports us to a technological romanticism by transforming some known brands of the digital universe into a retrophysical experience.

While this project went viral over the internet because of the retro look of these famous apps, I have been thinking in fact, these products are not less complicated than their equivalent products used in the 1980s. In fact, they are even more complicated.

Today’s devices lack discoverability: There is no way to discover what operations are possible just by looking at the screen. Do you swipe left or right, up or down, with one finger, two, or even as many as five? Do you swipe or tap, and if you tap is it a single tap or double? Is that text on the screen really text or is it a critically important button disguised as text? So often, the user has to try touching everything on the screen just to find out what are actually touchable objects. — Don Norman

When things that used to be kept separate crash into each other, it becomes much more difficult to predict what will happen next.

It is not surprising that unpredictability creates a need for organizations to be much more aware of and responsive to changes in their own environment and in the world around them. When products are made for only a specific target group or generation, that means they don’t even allow the opportunity for the product to be adopted by other target groups. This is not just bad for the users but also for business growth.

What kind of design philosophy requires millions of its users to have to pretend they are disabled in order to be able to use the product? Apple could have designed its phone so that the majority of people could read and use the phone without having to label themselves as needy, disabled, and requiring assistance. — Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini

Updating our assumptions

The rapid embrace of technology during the pandemic shattered many long-held assumptions about the adoption of digital products by different generations.

Older man using an iPad to take a photo

For example, in the world of healthcare, the dominant perception was that aging adults either couldn’t or wouldn’t use digital technologies to access care. But they proved it wrong. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 0.1 percent of Medicare primary care visits were provided through telehealth in February 2020. By April, 43.5 percent of visits were virtual.

Thanks to the pandemic, it’s time to rethink two assumptions that we had about elderly users:

  1. Older people will not adopt technology in their lifetimes.
  2. The products for older generations have to be just functional.

For the 1st assumption, we know from telehealth and the usage behavior of elderly people during the pandemic, that seniors, whom we swore would never adopt telehealth, have embraced the technology and its benefits.

And as the results of the 2nd assumption, we have unfortunately designed most digital and even physical products that do not offer aesthetics.

When products are developed for the elderly, they tend to be ugly and an unwanted signal of fragility. As a result, people who need walkers or canes often resist. Once upon a time, a cane was stylish: Today it is seen as a medical device. Why can’t we have walkers and canes for everyday use, to help us in everyday life, to carry our packages, provide a way to sit when we are tired, or viewing some event, and yes, to maintain our balance? Make them items of pride, stylish enough that everyone will want one. — Don Norman

By updating our assumptions and taking inclusive design more seriously than before, we start creating products that benefit all audiences without any discrimination. And we all have to know that there is no reason to think inclusive design has to come at the cost of aesthetics!

Designs that make it easier for elderly people often are of equal value for younger people. In fact, for everyone. Help the elderly, and the results will help many more, including yourself, someday. — Don Norman

Inclusive design = Redesigning for everyone

The speedy adoption of technology by different generations at the time of pandemic shows that we have to redesign our products quickly if we are not doing that already. As an industry, we have an obligation to our users to make this speedy pace of change the new normal.

By embracing inclusive design we have to understand that thoughtful design is not only for the disabled or the elderly people. In fact, it is called “inclusive design” for a reason: we are supposed to design for everyone.

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