It's Time to Start Designing for the Future

March 23, 2021

[This article first appeared on the Fast Co. website on March 11, 2021. It is republished here with permission.]

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way American workers interact in public and private spaces. Employees and students forced to stay at home have had to carve out workspaces for themselves, often contending with partners and children doing the same. Interactions with colleagues are, for the most part, remote — through email and videoconferencing apps — changing the way business relationships are maintained and how new relationships are formed. Business travel has been put on pause, making it more difficult to make direct personal connections with potential collaborators.

These realities will likely persist in some form as the pandemic draws to a close and the world settles into a new definition of normal. Leaders across industries must rethink design and user experience. “You can’t have disconnected, fragmented experiences right now,” says Jeff Chow, senior vice president of product at digital product design company InVision. Businesses must work hard to create better employee and customer journeys, carefully considering how form will follow function amid practical concerns about safety and workplace efficiency. Deem and Fast Company recently hosted Destination Innovation, inviting a panel of experts to discuss how human-centered design is transforming how we think about travel, learning, and working across time and space. Here are the key takeaways from their discussion.

Designing better spaces

The pandemic is already changing how people are using public and private spaces. Take our homes, which increasingly are doing double duty as workplaces: “Our residential spaces are going to have to evolve,” says Khoi Vo, vice president of industry relations at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). For example, designs will have to factor in the work-from-home trend through flexible spaces that can be converted into offices and acoustical design elements designed to minimize noise in the working environment.

Meanwhile, commercial spaces will have to be designed to account for a workforce that may be decentralized and look more like a remote ecosystem. “There could be a whole workplace ecology where somebody might be at a coffee shop, or at their apartment, or they might be in the office,” Vo says. “And the workplace of the future will be about negotiating all of these different people, their habits, and what they need to be productive at work.”

One important result of this shift is that workplaces may become accessible to a broader range of talent. “We’ve entered a world which is flexible enough to enable diversity of need,” says Melissa Dalrymple, partner at consulting giant McKinsey & Company. “We’re embracing multiple needs formally, in terms of things like accessibility and disability, at a degree the design community has never had to deal with before.”

Balancing the digital and the physical

Remote options for work and learning can provide a lot of benefits. For example, a digital learning platform allows SCAD students flexibility in how they learn. “We either teach asynchronously or synchronously,” Vo says. “For example, students can meet with their professor in real time or there’s also information that they can access at any time they want online.”

As a result, students can learn and collaborate across time zones, which can even make project-based work more efficient. At the end of the day, students in one time zone can pass a project on to collaborators in a later time zone. “They divide and conquer,” he says. “It’s been very successful and very efficient for them.”

However, remote work can also mean that it’s harder to build relationships with colleagues or have an unplanned water cooler moment that sparks new ideas. “Harnessing serendipity is one of our fundamental design principles,” Chow says. “Where are there micro moments of relationship building? Where are there ‘aha’ moments?” Digital workplaces and learning environments need to account for these questions and build in features to address them.

For example, when considering how to build more personal interaction into education from home, SCAD students developed a proposal called Hallway in which students can play games between classes to recreate the feeling of bumping into friends at lockers.

Good communication goes a long way

As user experience shifts, so too will the need to communicate well, Dalrymple says. Take airlines, which have elevated their focus on safety precautions during the pandemic. “Basic cleanliness has become table stakes.”

How companies frame communication around the solutions they’re delivering has become equally important, she says, especially as changing solutions impact user experience. Companies should clearly explain the steps they’re taking and why, and even acknowledge when they might be inconvenient for customers. They may offer solutions to address the inconvenience, such as flexible cancelation policies. “If you want to come out of this stronger, you need to invest in your customer experience,” Dalrymple says. “We’re all sort of living in beta at the moment, and it’s really about keeping your ear to the ground and ensuring ultimately that you can test solutions and learn.”

“I think people have to understand that design is a process,” Vo says. “We’re not always going to hit it out of the ballpark from the first time, but it’s an evolution that everybody has to participate in.”

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