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.
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.