American sociologist Robert K Merton is widely credited with identifying the law of unintended consequences, which is defined as ‘outcomes of a purposeful action that are not intended or foreseen’.
The defining purposeful action of this year has been the decision of governments around the world to introduce some form of lockdown or general quarantine for periods ranging from weeks to months.
And so, in one fell swoop, the world that we knew changed overnight in ways that we couldn’t have imagined. The move toward a cashless society, for example, was catapulted forward by at least a decade. People who had resisted going cashless are suddenly struggling to remember when they last used actual cash.
Similarly, teleworking has undergone an enormous global trial with widespread success. In fact, several of the world’s biggest companies (particularly in the technology sector) have announced policies designed to give their staff drastically greater freedom to work remotely.
A collective turn to technology
While it’s important to acknowledge that some things will go back to ‘normal’ when Covid-19 is eventually controlled by treatment or vaccine, it’s hard to see us fully reverting to the old ways in terms of how and where we work, shop, communicate or share information.
Whatever you choose to call the coming age — the new normal, next normal, now normal — the fact is that regular interactions and habits will look fundamentally different than they did a year ago.
The key to this shifted reality is the fact that the technologies underpinning these sudden global experiments worked. The software enabling teleworking, the apps facilitating cashless transactions and the platforms powering video calls proved themselves, by and large, to be reliable and simple enough to make the consumer leap that much easier.
In the teleworking space, programmes like Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts made it easier than ever to be part of a collective while working remotely. After it recovered from an early stumble, Zoom became a verb.
Similarly, apps like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay have done exactly what it says on the tin in terms of delivering a seamless cashless experience. The moral of the story is that those brands who deliver excellence in the digital customer experience are the ones that will succeed and thrive in the post-Covid era — and beyond.
Making the changes that last
The challenge for the majority of companies now, particularly those who were already lagging when it came to digital, is to plot their optimised, online path forward and then follow it. Few things in business are more easily said. Luckily, keeping the following principles in mind can help guide your progress.
Make it worthy. It was never enough to simply be online, and this has never been more true than it is right now. To be adopted by consumers and to be used repeatedly, digital services must be worthy of the time investment people are asked to make. Success lies in creating an experience and a payoff that makes people want to use the service, be it an app, a website, a device or a platform.
Value is key. Consumers have had more time than ever to trial and evaluate new digital solutions, and those that deliver genuine value for money are winning their allegiance. Value is not just about cost — it involves convenience and ease of use, delivered in a well-designed digital experience that has a genuine purpose or place in the lives of its users.
Consistency is critical. The experience, usability and performance of any digital service must be consistent and seamless across all platforms, whether on the web, iOS or Android. The need for cross-platform functionality existed well before coronavirus, but when our everyday interactions and critical transactions shifted overnight to being online only, that consistency became table stakes.
It has to work. It may sound obvious, but having technology that works reliably every time, regardless of platform, traffic or any other variable, isn’t always guaranteed. You also have to ensure factors like security, data protection, accessibility and localisation. If you want to be part of consumers’ day-to-day life, they must be able to count on you when they need you. So if you’re a bank and people aren’t coming into your branches because they fear social interaction, they need to be able to replicate that familiar experience as closely and easily as digitally possible.
Agility must be built in. While corporate agility was always important, Covid-19 has dramatically upped the ante in terms of just how quickly a business may need to pivot, innovate and adapt. From a digital perspective, companies can significantly upgrade their agility levels by calling on proven frameworks and best practices when developing a solution. A system built well, right from the outset, lets you grow and adapt it into the future. Key to this is engineering the frontend as a cohesive part of your broader digital estate, rather than spinning up a cool-looking app that isn’t properly integrated into the larger company or system architecture.
Resetting expectations for digital
The days of customers putting up with so-so experiences in favour of a familiar result are firmly, thankfully, behind us. Today’s digital demands go beyond talk of ‘transformation’ or ‘integration’ — the handheld experiences, transactions and interactions set to power the post-Covid age are all those things without trying.
Zoom’s earnings report in June showed an increase of 354% in customers with more than 10 employees and Q2 revenue that was well above double the same quarter in 2019. Almost overnight what had been a handy business app became an indispensable tool for colleagues, educators, doctors, legislators, families and friends. People flocked to the service because it was easy to use, consistent across devices and free for anyone to access. Other tele-meeting programmes saw similar growth, but only a few are household names.
Value, consistency and reliability are expected by users, and the ability to adapt quickly is essential for businesses. All of it can be achieved only by putting the user first when it comes to solution development and experience design. This requires leveraging best practices and proven standards for usability, accessibility, design and simplicity in content and user flows.
It’s what NearForm do from the start of every engagement — including each contact tracing app we build. In fact, we’ve codified our learnings from years of developing software solutions, mobile apps and digital platforms that address a variety of needs across multiple sectors, because we found that the same principles can guide nearly every project to a solution that works, now, tomorrow and even through a pandemic.