Is Your User Experience Saving the World?

June 22, 2020

Recent months have brought an extraordinary number of simultaneous crises—from the global pandemic of COVID-19 to high unemployment and economic uncertainty to systemic social injustices. Any one of these events alone would be destabilizing. Taken together, they place individuals and societies under unprecedented strain.

More than ever, empathy matters. More than ever, user experiences matter. Even as some states and countries lift restrictions relating to COVID-19, for the foreseeable future, we’ll have significant limitations on our personal interactions and experience potential challenges in meeting our foundational needs. As many essential activities have, by necessity, gone online or transitioned to virtual formats, UX designers now have a unique role to play in the changes occurring in the everyday lives of millions of people. With that power comes responsibility.

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Users’ responses to our designs are cognitive, behavioral, and emotional. As UX professionals, it is our responsibility to be aware of the negative impacts that poorly designed interactions can have on people. In the current circumstances, when individuals may already be facing difficulty coping with their day-to-day life, these impacts are amplified. Thus, there is new urgency to our work.

Innovative design can certainly offer many potential solutions to these challenges. Nevertheless, core UX principles remain as important as ever. In fact, during a time of such great unpredictability and upheaval, they arguably matter more. UX professionals face a unique opportunity to change people’s lives for the better in truly impactful ways.

Let’s look at some examples that show why designing with emotional intelligence is critical. While some negative outcomes may be just mild inconveniences, others present obstacles that create significant difficulties for people. Conversely, a good user experience can quite literally help make someone’s life better.

Reducing Uncertainty

When technological limitations are coupled with poor user experiences, this creates a perfect mix of conditions that can confuse, frustrate, or even harm users. Earlier this spring, the 60-year-old programming language COBOL made the news when it was linked to delays in processing unemployment claims in New Jersey. While many issues ultimately contributed to the problem—from aging hardware to inadequate staffing—the end result for users was doubt regarding whether they could rely on the state’s processing of funds and get their basic needs met.

Such obstructions are particularly distressing when the user has no alternatives and only very constrained workarounds are available. I recently had the experience of needing to file several time-sensitive legal documents. Because of COVID-19, the county courts in my area were closed. While e-filing was possible, the court system Web site is optimized for just a single browser—Internet Explorer—which Microsoft retired years ago.

It took three attempts, over a period of months, before the site accepted my filing. Aside from the technical friction points, significant usability issues also played a role in what was a tiring, frustrating, and expensive experience. The court Web site fails to meet WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), posing significant problems for users with disabilities. Instructions on how to correctly complete the e-filing process are lacking or unclear. When the site rejects documents, it provides no information to users on how to resolve the issue or successfully resubmit. While I ultimately succeeded, the process required extreme effort on my part, including hiring an attorney. Both the American Bar Association and the United Nations consider access to justice an essential human right. When individuals face near-impossible barriers to submitting documents as part of accessing justice, that right is denied.

Both of these edge-case examples are from government Web sites, but private sector and ecommerce sites are often culpable as well. Our current crises create an extraordinary opportunity to examine not only technology touchpoints, but all aspects of the user journey. Service design becomes paramount.

Near-term improvement is possible even if the full application of design thinking isn’t yet feasible. Well-established usability heuristics point the way: make it clear to users what is happening, help them understand what they need to do, and if errors occur, make recovering from them simple and easy. If your organization is already applying service design, consider exploring socially conscious service design and more broadly considering how your product or service impacts users.

Lessening People’s Anxiety

Approximately 19% of American adults have an anxiety disorder. The additional stressors of current events can compound that condition—particularly for Asians, Hispanics, and African Americans. Even in normal circumstances, humans have limited attention spans, and our survival instincts are prone to amygdala hijacks during periods of anger and distress.

As empathetic UX professionals, we are cognizant of these factors—and can do things to help. For example, to provide a better service experience:

  • Keep information accurate, timely, and digestible. Here’s a relatively innocuous example: How many of you have selected a product on an ecommerce Web site only to discover that the item is no longer available? Or have had your order canceled due to a lack of inventory? Both are irritating experiences that could lessen the likelihood of your interacting with that ecommerce company in the future. But this principle applies to higher-stakes issues beyond ecommerce as well. In the public-health space, Johns Hopkins University provides near real-time COVID-19 data, as well as freely accessible information about the virus. The Washington Post, and The New York Times have removed their pay-walls from essential coronavirus coverage. As a UX professional working in a commercial space, consider how profitability weighs against service for the greater good, then design with ethics in mind.
  • Provide a way to get help quickly, if necessary. This principle relates closely to that of reducing uncertainty. There’s never a good time to present the user with a brick wall. Now, during the COVID-19 crisis, any brick walls that we encounter can appear insurmountable—especially when an online option is the only option. An example from Carvana is an unintelligible error message that gives no information on how the user can remediate the error. A better experience would have provided instructions on how to correct the error, along with a way to contact customer service.
  • Offer clear, convenient self-service options, as appropriate. The company Notarize provides 24/7, on-demand notary service via a video call. This service greatly lessens the difficulties of finding and speaking with a notary in person and expedites service without requiring users to leave their home. Is there any way you can remove some friction around what you’re asking customers to do? Are there parts of the customer journey that you could make easier?

Adding Joy Wherever Possible

The idea of creating “surprise and delight” in design still holds true. While this may be more challenging now, it’s not impossible. The Caskers Web site provides two examples: The first is a short notification that alerts users about order fulfillment. The second provides a discount code that aligns with messaging from public-health officials: STAYHOME. Regardless of whether you imbibe, the way Caskers has coupled a consumer incentive—saving money—with a plug for sheltering in place is clever. It might even have elicited a smile in our difficult times.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments about sites and applications where you’ve seen good, bad, and ugly user experiences during this period of crises. Examples from mobile and voice user interfaces (VUIs) are especially welcome.

Hold onto your empathy—the world needs it. 

Independent Consultant

Pittsburgh, Pensylvania, USA

Amy ArdenAmy loves working with organizations to solve complicated problems. She believes that every day is a chance to use design to make something a little bit—or a lot!—better. Over her career, she’s worked with nonprofits, federal agencies, professional-services firms, and Fortune 500 retailers. Her favorite projects include designing a chatbot to help provide information to the public about opioid abuse and creating an exhibition Web site and social-media channels for the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials. Amy enjoys talking shop and learning from other UX professionals. In addition to writing for UXmatters, she has presented at several conferences, including Customer Contact Week 2019, IA Summit 2018, and UXPA DC 2017.  Read More

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