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Of all the controversies, debates and disagreements over the impacts of COVID-19, one thing is clear: how organizations gauge the customer experience and design products and services around them has changed dramatically. That is leaving many organizations at a competitive disadvantage, as they struggle to adopt a digital-first strategy with many employees still working largely from home.

Indeed, a digital-first strategy has become a must-have approach to engaging with customers, and it is the customers themselves who are insisting on it.

Does Your Digital Experience Leave Anyone Out?

"Digital experiences rapidly became more critical than ever as it was the main — or only –— channel customers had to interact," said Jennifer Wise, a principal analyst of experience design at Forrester Research. "The impact is two-fold: prioritizing fixing the basics to make sure customers can complete their goals, and changing feature and function priorities to address rapid shifts in customer expectations and needs."

But how to turn all of this into realities that will serve all customer demographics is no easy task. Many organizations struggle with being up to the task in the midst of unprecedented business upheaval.

“How to get it all designed and built is at issue at the moment,” explained James Christie, experience design director at Mad*Pow, a digital agency that leverages strategic design and the psychology of motivation to create innovative experiences for customers. “Many organizations are facing capacity problems — too many need a transformation and it all has to be done now. We can see that internal teams are overwhelmed, and many agencies are working at capacity to meet the demand.”

The result of this overload is some customer segments are being underserved, especially in the upper age brackets.

“One constituency is more often overlooked in digital projects — and that is seniors,” Christie said. “In the past, organizations had this mindset that most elderly customers would be more likely to use the in-store option. Now that has been taken away and organizations are belatedly realizing that their digital service isn’t well suited for the needs of older users. So it’s not just about building new customer engagement methods, it’s often about retooling existing systems to be more accessible and inclusive.”

Related Article: The Demographic Your Digital Practices Can't Ignore

Growing Interest in, and Adoption of, Design Thinking

As organizations scramble to close the customer engagement gaps, the concept of Design Thinking is increasingly being applied to business strategies and operations. According to the Interaction Design Foundation, "design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Involving five phases —Emphasize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test — it is most useful to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown."

“In my current role, we are focusing on applying Design Thinking processes to the design of customer experiences, regardless of the channel of connection,” said Marianne Carr, customer experience design lead at GEHA Health. “It’s about asking the questions, ‘what makes it easier for the customer on their terms? What will be the customer’s emotional response to this element?’ The best way to get at this is to ask the customer. Test and learn. Understanding the customer’s goals and designing to help them reach these goals is what is important.”

Related Article: Use Design Thinking to Put Yourself in Your Customers' Shoes

Organizations See the Need to Change the Rules of the Game

The good news is many organizations are recognizing they need to change their approaches to working with customers.

"The trajectory of awareness and acceptance of digital technology has accelerated as customers have, and want, to replace in-store, employee and touch-reliant interactions," Wise said. "Some instances of include the spike in adoption of contactless payments, website traffic and expectations for check-out delivery options."

“Another shift is in the more immediate demand for digital-physical bridges to connect users to information without picking up products or asking an employee,” Wise continued. Examples include “QR codes that have finally seen adoption as they connect users to digital menus as restaurants, locator features available in the app to replace asking employees for directions, and visual and barcode search in-store to pull-up product details and ratings and reviews without picking up the product.”

As to what elements are making their way into wider use now, “At the technology end, users are starting to expect an omni-channel experience as a matter of course,” explained Liz Possee Corthell, experience strategist, also at Mad*Pow. “Why shouldn’t customers be able to interact with their services by whatever devices suits their needs best — computer, mobile, voice and more?”

Still, this is all a lot to absorb and process, and remote workforces are a new reality for many organizations.

“We’ve seen a big upswing from clients wanting digital transformation right now, but they are finding it hard to carry out critical innovation while people are working from home,” said Christie. “Many organizations are new to remote work and remote design thinking in particular. Fortunately, there are great tools out there for remote visual collaboration, and we’ve had great success adapting traditional research and workshop activities into remote formats.”

“At this point, many organizations we work with are finding that they can be even more efficient than before by using remote techniques and being lean by necessity,” Christie continued. “We wonder how many will not be hurrying to reopen offices, even after the hoped-for end to this crisis.”

Finally, “The best practice is to not focus on engagement — but to understand the customer,” stressed Wise. Questions to ask include “What is her goal? What information does she need to make a decision? And how does your experience provide her with that information in a means that is easy, intuitive, effective and positive to interact with? The content, terminology, features, interactive elements, and underlying technology should be in service to that objective.”