Crises lead to behavioral change, both short-term and long(er) term. Today’s temporary response to disruption can become tomorrow’s new norms or even habits. Those behavioral changes can cast a spotlight on technological solutions that help people cope with change. And we already know of many occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example:

  • E-learning has come to the forefront as educational institutions close and reboot their curriculums in a virtual format.
  • Businesses are rapidly figuring out how to make contact-free last-mile delivery work (contact-free as people practice social distancing).

An article analyst Vinnie Mirchandani, “The Positive Impact of COVID-19,” describes more.

What comes next? Inevitably, some technological innovations will emerge from this turbulent time – innovations that will benefit both people and businesses. After all, necessity is the mother of invention. As technology innovators figure out better solutions to address longer-term behavior change, though, it is important that they do so by being mindful of human wants and needs. Practices such as human-centered design and design thinking can help.

Behavioral and Technological Change

Around the world, people continue to make pretty dramatic lifestyle changes – the result of fear, a desire to maintain one’s health and safety, and to mitigate the spread of a deadly virus. Many of these changes are supported and enforced by both the scientific community (like the World Health Organization and the CDC) and federal/local authorities. For example:

  • Social distancing (arguably going to be the word of 2020), including:
    • Sheltering in place completely
    • Keeping six feet of separation from each other
    • Canceled (large) events: weddings, conferences, birthday parties, etc.
  • Collaborating remotely with friends and coworkers from home
  • Managing health needs remotely
  • Use of delivery/no-contact/pick-up services with varying degrees of frequency

To be sure, some of the above behaviors have been around for some time. But during this pandemic, people are embracing these uses with increased frequency, which results in longer-term change – behaviors. In turn, as people adapt and create new lifestyles, they also need to change how they use technology – which technologies they use and the frequency with which they use them. Some are adopting digital collaboration tools for the first time. Others, who are more fluent with digital are moving from occasional use to 24/7 reliance on digital. Examples include:

  • Video conferencing (for business and for personal use)
  • Online collaboration tools
  • Online and voice-activated ordering for pick-up/delivery
  • Use of services such as Teledoc for medical consultation remotely
  • Multi-person video broadcasts for everything from virtual happy hours to weddings
  • Digital social platforms like Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram
  • Virtual reality events that allow for masses to congregate digitally
  • E-learning programs/platforms
  • Gaming applications, some of which incorporate video conferencing while playing
  • Gaming platforms: PlayStation, Xbox, etc

In recent weeks, who has not yet seen screenshots of people meeting on Zoom, Facetime, or Google Hangouts on their social feeds as a visual expression of how people are getting work done and staying in touch?

Humanity is undergoing many behavioral changes, some of which have yet to be seen. It’s hard to say to what extent people will revert back to the “normal” we knew prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. New habits are being formed and new ways of working/collaborating are being adopted – not to mention, families and friends are re-defining what it means to care and connect with one another.

If you’re feeling like the world went and hit the reset button, you’re in line with how many are feeling. The time for re-invention of self, network, family, hobbies, lifestyle, is now.

Be Mindful

This rapid adoption of digital in a world of social distancing could easily usher in more innovations in technologies such as:

  • Voice-based experiences that use artificial intelligence to help people complete tasks and manage their lives.
  • Virtual reality to break up the tedium of social isolation.

In fact, we could see some dramatic breakthroughs in the adoption of virtual reality and voice. Virtual reality makes online meetings and collaboration richer and more immersive well beyond a bunch of talking heads on Zoom. And using smart voice assistants to manage our lives – to do everything from ordering products to getting information – looks to be a less risky behavior from a health standpoint than an interface that requires touching a screen or clicking on a keyboard.  

But as businesses figure out how to develop new ways of using technology to improve the way we live, it’s important they understand the emotional undercurrent that is driving behavioral change. People are adapting, yes, but they are doing so with anxiety and uncertainty.

We know that companies are capable of being sensitive to the emotional undercurrents and economic impact. Look at how businesses are demonstrating mindfulness in both big ways (Netflix establishing a $100 million fund for people in the entertainment industry hurt by the pandemic) and smaller ways (Adobe offering free at-home Creative Cloud service for students and educators hurt by the outbreak). It’s beautiful to see people and businesses supporting each other in ways that are mutually empathetic.

This giving back extends to small-to-medium-sized businesses (SMBs), too. Look around you in your own community. SMBs are finding ways to help those in need, whether they’re donating food and supplies to homeless shelters or supporting healthcare workers on the front lines. And unfortunately, the very same SMBs may not even make it through the economic downturn. Only time will tell amidst the bailout/loan plans initiated by the government. And while that feels like a loss, we should still appreciate that the businesses that have deeper pockets are feeling the social responsibility to help and are doing so.

It’s not just that businesses are being generous that matters – it’s that they are sensing the emotional needs of society around them. People need reasons to hope. To feel positive amid waves of bad news. As the world’s innovators figure out solutions for a coronavirus and post-coronavirus world, they’ll need to remember those undercurrents that feel so raw today.


Human-Centered Design

It’s unfortunate but true: a crisis makes us all more aware of both systemic problems that need to be fixed and human wants and needs that need to be addressed. Why? First, major disruptions shine a brighter light on malpractices, process breakdowns, supply chain shortcomings, and other underlying problems that either contributed to the crisis or exacerbated it. And during a crisis, people speak more loudly, more clearly, and more firmly about their own needs. These two converging phenomena make it possible for businesses to see, listen, and feel the tension and ripples that are being caused and to innovate to shore up structural problems — and in a way that considers the wants and needs of people. The ideologies of purpose-driven design and human-centered design can act collectively as a binding force. 

To put a finer point on this, the key is to develop new products or services by using approaches such as human-centric design to be empathetic. In 2019, My colleague Amish Desai wrote that “virtual reality needs human-centered design, not killer apps.” As he wrote:

Human-centered design means putting ourselves in the shoes of users and employing a process for designing applications that address user wants and needs. Human-centered design means involving people in the design so that the business understands the subtle nuances that can make all the difference in the VR experience, such as how much physical space a person needs to move around a room when they use a VR app for a physically demanding experience such as exercise.

These words ring true even more now as innovators figure out ways for VR to enrich lives that might be defined long-term by social distancing. Or will voice technology be the adaptation that eases consumers back into social atmospheres/engagement?

In addition, product design/development tools such as design sprints are engineered to put people at the center of product development, which helps businesses be mindful. With a design sprint, a product development team identifies customer needs and prototypes new product ideas that aspire to meet those needs. The team tests ideas against customer feedback and narrows them down to a prototype for a minimum lovable product (MLP), or the initial version of the product that can generate the most customer love with the least amount of time and expense. This is critical given how quickly the response needs to be in tough economic times and the output will allow for strong directional accuracy of the solution’s people fit.

Design sprints matter because of their ability to make a business more empathetic to the emotional undercurrents of the people these products are being designed for.

As we enter a new world of re-acclimating to what was normal (and likely timidly/incrementally), there will undoubtedly also be new social norms; people and businesses will need to adapt TOGETHER. Mindfulness is going to be crucial as technology innovators strive to help both and a keener eye will be placed on brands that rise to the occasion and help in a time of consumer need.

Mark Persaud

Mark Persaud

Practice Lead, Immersive Reality