By Dida Atassi, Design Director at Accenture Interactive Middle East

Dida Atassi, Design Director Accenture Interactive | Middle East

I’m sitting at my desk as my two young kids are vying for my attention. I have at least a few hours of work ahead of me and at this point, I’m wondering if this third cup of coffee is strong enough to get me through the rest of the day.

That is my new reality, as I’m sure it is for many others.  By now, we’ve all experienced the effects of the global pandemic in some way, and already some major themes have emerged that impact how we are designing products and services: remote work, fear-driven shifts in consumer behavior, and above all, the reprioritization of the things that are important in life.

It will always be necessary to design simple, user-centered products to be successful. But what we need to better understand now is how the audience we are designing for has dramatically changed. Consumers’ new behaviors and preferences have permanently altered the design landscape, even as we start to see signs of pandemic recovery. These changes call for a reprioritization of design principles. 

If I were to reprioritize, I would put empathy at the top of the list. Fjord Trends 2021, a definitive annual report on trends that will impact business, technology, and design, defines empathy as “an intimate and inward-leaning understanding of the person you are designing for, that shapes the detail of how you design an interaction or interface” and says that “empathy is fundamental to good design.” 

Empathy has always been a central principle of design, but now designers need to take a closer look at what it means to be empathetic in the post-pandemic era.  Widespread job and financial losses, defined as major life events that impact a person’s well-being, have given rise to anxiety and worry that fuel people’s daily decision-making.  Domestic violence cases and extreme poverty numbers are increasing, and there’s a generation of children whose schooling and education have been severely impacted. We have ultimately lost something fundamental to human nature: the ability to socialize and interact with each other in person.  Consequently, new personas have emerged that designers need to fully understand to succeed. 

Take, for example, people who were locked down and isolated for long periods of time during the pandemic. As they emerge from isolation, the craving for interaction and connection will be common feelings that linger for years to come. When we think of designing with empathy for these people, perhaps the design solution should prioritize help and support functions, such as live or virtual chat options, allowing users the opportunity to feel instantly connected with the brand and comfortable and safe in their interactions. The design solution might also prioritize personalization efforts, starting with friendly, human, and engaging content and evolving to new technologies to support personalization such as predictive analysis, machine learning, and augmented reality. The pre-pandemic trend was to fully digitize everything from e-Commerce to e-Care tasks, allowing customers to complete end-to-end transactions without any human involvement.  I believe this is still relevant, but today we must consider how to do that while still showing the human face in our design solutions to ultimately connect with users. 

Another persona that has been impacted by the pandemic is families. A report by UN Women in November 2020 stated that both women and men had increased the amount of time they spent on domestic work. Families reported being overburdened by working from home, homeschooling children, and keeping up with the household. The adoption of digital apps with one-click access to groceries, shopping, paying bills, medical care and more provided the consumer with convenient solutions to mundane tasks that helped relieve daily burdens. Accenture’s report on The Evolution of Customer Experience says that over 80% of consumers who have increased digitally-enabled service usage during COVID-19 expect to sustain increased levels moving forward. While the pandemic resulted in digital services entirely substituting the in-person human connection, post-pandemic, this relationship will require recalibration. 

To be truly empathetic in design, we must consider making digital products and services accessible by everyone on every touchpoint, including the less technically savvy. We also need to ensure that digital is unintrusive – as our lives slowly return to normal, digital products and services should be designed to provide convenience and enhance and support our daily lives and social interactions. And lastly, designers will need to find new ways of engaging users. Even though online shopping has dramatically increased during the pandemic, designers need to be conscious of marketing products and services post-pandemic. If we bombard the users with e-commerce campaigns, we risk alienating an audience that is increasingly worried about financials.  Instead, we must design solutions that communicate empathy and build trust while simultaneously engaging the user, such as rewards and loyalty programs.

While empathy is the first step of any design thinking process, I believe it should be part of every step. And in today’s world, the product services and initiatives that we design should first and foremost reflect that thinking. It is in every business’ interest to get something fast out to customers. But if designers take the time to deliver something based on a deep understanding of their customers, their needs, and their behaviors based on prevailing conditions at the time, the outcome will be successful. Let’s take on this great opportunity to reimagine our relationship with customers. We can design monumental experiences that are entirely tailored to today’s audience.