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Anxiety and Antidote

From apparel retail to grocery, big box to bank branches, life centers and malls to theme parks and restaurants, our consumer and public interactions are very different today than they were just two short months ago (although each of two months seems to have had at least 60 days in them, possibly 600).

The immediate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated social isolation regulations are clear even if the future is murky. Consumer anxiety stemming from both health and financial concerns is wreaking havoc on the economy. As consumer behavior and social norms have been upended, the retail, entertainment, and restaurant sectors are taking the brunt of the disruption.

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In the longer term, it seems likely these areas will remain significantly impacted for years to come. To address the scope of the current difficulties—identifying what has changed and what will soon have to change—we’ve taken a multidisciplinary approach to identify how different businesses and environments will need to react, pivot, and adapt to create incremental consumer comfort and begin to build an economy resilient to the challenges ahead.

Our approach brings together leaders from design, retail, digital, and analytics to deliver a ground-up perspective about ways we can open our environments to our customers, and why collaboration across industry disciplines is critical to moving forward.

Visual Standards for Behavioral Changes

We are all familiar with architect Louis Sullivan’s phrase “form (ever) follows function.” Function has always been informed by behavior. During this pandemic, then, it may be more appropriate to say, “form (ever more so) follows behavior.”

Being spontaneous in the way we live, work, and play is no longer an option as we attempt to return to normalcy while avoiding infection. Planning ahead and education before engagement is critical to make people feel safe in leaving their homes and heading back out into the world.

[Download the 2020 Digital Signage Best Practices Guide]

As they reach their destinations, people will expect comfort and safety reassurances—which can come from architecture, placemaking, interior design, and operations across all types of establishments. The concern among visitors will revolve around these questions:

  • Do I need to wear a mask?
  • Are there sanitation requirements in place?
  • How many people are being allowed in the facility or store?
  • Who is handling the product? Are they handling it safely? Are they healthy?
  • What is it safe to interact with? A pay station? A digital display?

Designing for a post COVID-19 experience will require a balance between delivering enough information so the consumer can make an informed decision about the environment’s relative safety and relying on technology to ensure that safety in real time. 

Sanitation Awareness

At existing public and private facilities, transaction points and points of purchase will need to be redesigned so that consumers are informed about safety measures in place and rules they must follow. Facilities are already starting to reconfigure the circulation to limit engagement, including creating separate entry and exit doors, one-way aisles, 6-foot distance markers, and limiting occupancy. Facilities may need to integrate sanitation stations at entrances, exits, and transaction points so people have a level of comfort with the human engagement that may take place within the facility.

Perception is critical—it influences behavior. Over the past several weeks, we have been exposed to numerous facts about how viruses are transmitted and how long they can live on a variety of surfaces. With that understanding, we can’t dismiss the reaction people will likely have when they come into contact with a touch display, but the reality is that some level of personal interaction is and will continue to be a necessity. The awareness of sanitation will not be limited to behaviors of movement in a space but also the way you interact with technology to facilitate transactions. Self-checkouts, ATMs, and interactive displays will not be avoidable, and each environment must maintain a level of cleanliness for those devices.

Signs and Regulatory Graphics

Easily recognizable COVID-19 regulation signs and iconography will need to be designed to facilitate the customer journey and help them visualize required social distancing measures and sanitation practices. Traditional maximum occupancy signs will need to be rethought to provide more meaningful, contextualized occupant load information, reflect social distancing guidelines, and give shoppers real, actionable information so they can modify their behavior accordingly.

A Frictionless Experience

Technology plays a critical role in influencing the design of an experience and the physical environment. Designers are now tasked with a unique set of challenges to explore solutions that create a frictionless customer experience to ensure a healthy and safe environment.

Touchless Technology and COVID-19

Scan and go technology will become the norm in a post-COVID-19 world (Image credit: Getty Images)

Scan and Go: For years, multiple industries have experimented with scan-and-go technologies that enable customers to use their mobile devices to scan items for purchase or expedite entry into a building. Unfortunately, few have put this practice into place, but we expect to see more of this soon.

Data Visualization: Digital occupancy signage will display the number of people currently in the environment or store. Signage that outlines employee health measures will put people at ease and give them confidence to enter an establishment. Digital signage outlining wait times to enter a particular environment or, at the very least, noting current occupancy limits will be necessary.

Voice User Interfaces (VUIs): Not only do VUIs introduce a change in the way consumers interact with a touch display, they will help ease anxiety. Voice-based experiences differ entirely from typical graphics-based UIs as the underlying assumption is that the user knows the correct commands to ask and that the system can decipher. This technology can be leveraged to create powerful new ways to consume.

Giving Up Privacy to Secure a Sense of Safety

The consumer privacy debate has been raging for more than a decade, and still there are few to no accepted industry guidelines to follow. The most prominent conversations so far have involved the use of cameras, particularly regarding their use for personal recognition versus human detection (“I see a human” versus “I see a particular human”). The runner-up topic is mobile tracking and the rather murky practice of tying GPS locations, patterns, and cross-app information to form a more cohesive view of people and their behaviors, both with and without personally-identifiable information (PII) attached to the data.

IoT sensors now exist that can gather even more in-depth information, all of which sparked efforts like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) to kick in with regulatory mandates. Now, thanks to the realities of COVID-19, the game has changed. One key question stands out: “What measures do people want in place to ensure their safety, and at what cost to their privacy?”

[Proof and Privacy at New York Digital Signage Week]

Early indicators point toward new modes of safety screening that will likely pave the way to the new norms. Amazon is installing thermal cameras at warehouses to scan for fevers in their employees faster. Walmart, Home Depot, Kroger, Bi-Lo, and Walgreens are following with similar efforts, and experts from the Harvard School of Public Health and other research institutions believe that social distancing may remain in place until 2022. Plexiglass barriers protecting cashiers at cash registers, signs reminding customers about social distancing, and one-way aisles to reduce crowded lanes are becoming prevalent, supporting the hope that even a modest precaution can be a huge benefit in the absence of diagnostic tests, the capacity for large-scale contact tracing or an eventual vaccine.

The fact of the matter is that perception is reality right now … and the reality involves few substantive facts and new information on a constant trickle. Most everyone understands the need to err toward caution, but we have to remember that this is a human issue first, a business issue second. None of us has experienced anything like this, so to address it, we must come at it from an empathetic, human design perspective. This starts with exploring the narrative likely running through the minds of most customers and employees:

  • I want to know that this space is safe.
  • I want to know that the coworkers I’m with (or working around) are safe.
  • I want to know that the products I encounter have been handled safely.
  • I want to know that people I’m near will behave responsibly and respectfully.
  • I want to know that you deserve my business. (You did the right thing when times were tough.)

We are asking people to define what they are willing to accept to solve a challenge that affects us all. The give and take to make it work will be tenuous, and trust is paramount. Companies will be looking to manage risk and mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 virus on their business, and legal and HR will play a key role. Customer Experience (CX) must, however, be in the driver’s seat.

As we navigate the implementation of protective measures that may feel invasive to some—though enacted for the greater good—we must apply these processes with transparency, servitude, and a circle of trust.

Transparency: Communicate in human terms. Be clear that we’re feeling our way through these new realities together, open the door to two-way conversations, and respond with care, conviction, and action.

Servitude (In Service of YOU): Don’t act like the king of the hill—be very clear that you are doing what you’re doing because you care. Pivot when you need to, and be public about why and what you learned.

The Circle of Trust: Be totally forthright about what you’re doing, why and how the data or images that may be involved will be used. Do not share with third-parties unless it’s contractual, clearly disclosed, and mutually agreed upon.

As in most interactions, you have to give to get. No one expected the biggest barrier to consumer traffic to become health safety concerns, but we will power through it via the same path we were already on: putting people at the center and innovating to make their experiences better.

Keeping a Promise

During this global pandemic, it’s essential for all brands to interact with their customers, even if their physical environments and stores are temporarily closed. Now is not the time to keep quiet, or speculate about what kind of experience your customers will have post COVID-19 when they visit your space. Focus on problems of the now and the soon, and wait to address whatever may come along once this crisis has abated.

This year is filled with uncertainty and a grueling struggle to adapt to new behaviors. People need positivity now more than ever.

According to the COVID-19 Brand Sentiment Navigator Report, about six in 10 consumers state that COVID-19 has impacted their view of brands significantly. In the survey, nearly 6,000 people were asked about the best possible action brands have taken, leading to positive sentiments.

  • 58%: Brands keeping their customers safe
  • 55%: Brands taking measures to ensure safety and well-being of their employees
  • 44%: Brands showing empathy
  • 38%: Brands recognizing the new normal
  • 35%: Brands providing extensive benefits
  • 32%: Brands maintaining clear and reassuring communication

A brand is not a promise—it is a promise kept. Every business, retailer, and CPG product is out there telling the world who they are, why they exist, who they serve, and, frankly, setting expectations for the people they aim to help. The expectations vary, of course—you certainly don’t expect a dollar store to deliver a Neiman Marcus experience. Regardless, every company sets their brand’s True North. How you choose to pave your customer’s path back to business with you as this pandemic fades should fall in line accordingly.

Thought Process

The erosion of confidence we face today will lead to trust becoming a more important motivator than ever. It will necessitate a “Trust Multiplier Action” that will help you rebuild trust quickly and achieve credibility. During this time, you should be asking yourself the following questions:

  • How will your thought process and approach to designing an experience change?
  • How will this change affect the way we communicate, design, build, and create experiences that people love and need the most?

[Will the COVID-19 Pandemic Increase the Demand for Touchless AV Solutions?]

Answers will depend on how people behave in a post-pandemic world. People will adapt to the new procedures and come up with creative innovations to thrive. Every single second of the consumer experience will matter for retail shops, museums and other physical environments as they open up for business once again.

During these challenging times and after, brands and environments that focus on taking proactive steps to comfort their customers and protect their safety and financial confidence will be the ones to earn substantial reputational benefits.

Serving Your Customer, Protecting Your Brand

The evolving COVID-19 situation creates new challenges that are without precedent. The question at issue seems to be shifting from “Do I open?” to “How soon can I open?” to “How do I open?” for companies across the spectrum.

But make no mistake, the decisions made about openings are fundamental to brands. There is equity to be realized in serving your customer at this time, and serving them well, which requires significant effort, rigidity, and flexibility at once—as well as careful communication and patience.

By taking experience design, personal privacy, and consumer trust to heart, brands can be remembered for keeping their promise to customers when faced with these unparalleled challenges.

The issues COVID-19 creates will be met by realizing that our disciplines no longer represent teams of rivals fighting for corporate budgets. Rather, we are partners, all in this together, and rising to meet a challenge that will define a generation. 

As the founder and CEO of OpenEye Global, an experience design agency, Bryan Meszaros' purpose is to help organizations successfully implement digital brand activations within physical environments. Meszaros is  an adjunct professor role at Seton Hall University for Experiential Design, the  past president and current member of the Board of Directors for SEGD, and was the keynote speaker at the 2019 AV/IT Summit.