Creative The Future of Work CX

Has Covid changed how we design physical CX?


By John McCarthy | Media editor

March 17, 2022 | 7 min read

What impact has enforced isolation and social distancing had on how physical experiences are designed? We take a look as part of The Drum’s Deep Dive into The New Customer Experience Economy.


Has isolation and social distancing changed how we design the world? / Photo by David Werbrouck on Unsplash

You’d have to have been living in a cave for the last few years to miss how the world and its cities, offices, households and public spaces were reconfigured by Covid-19. Hospitality spilled outdoors over gray asphalt, off-peak travel became desirable and even the much-maligned QR code became invaluable.

The Design Council’s chief exec Minnie Moll says that as the world was turned upside down, spaces that once had utility lost it and spaces that didn’t gained it. That spare room became a sanctuary, while state-of-the-art stadiums became no-go zones. And those with large houses or green spaces have had a very different pandemic than the flat-sharing blue-collar worker.

Designers have had to think outside of the box while confined to their box rooms, looking for solutions to creating a world more resilient against the virus. For a start, Moll says: “If you were trying to design out high levels of transmission, you wouldn’t even have door handles.”

Fresh from a day in London where she has been taking meetings, she says she observed firsthand where current design faces the most challenges: “Human beings are social animals. We’ve had incredible change, but at a fundamental level we are social animals and we talk to each other, shake hands and hug. It’s amazing how quickly that all came back.”

So while it’s unlikely people will continue to stand two meters apart, Moll says steps can be taken to protect them when designing retail environments. And designers in the UK have long been leaders in the behavioral quirks that keep shoppers happy and spending, she says – although with the emphasis definitely on spending rather than happiness.

But for all their talk of helping during the pandemic, retailers kept bread and milk – the most common daily staples – as far from the front doors as possible, still determined to circulate people through their product-laden aisles. For the bespectacled, meanwhile, with mask-induced steam-ups on every essential shopping trip, there were no moves to make shelf fonts more readable.

Moll puts the blame firmly on those writing the design briefs: “A lot of designers are telling us they wanted to save the planet, for example, but if that’s not in the brief it’s not going to happen. They want to make more accessible products, but sometimes they are going to have to push back against clients.“

From the retail perspective, Moll says: “We put stuff with highest margin on eye-line on supermarket shelves rather than the stuff we need.”

Profits have long been a design priority. It’s why subways are being crammed to capacity. Same with gigs and airlines. Consumer comfort and safety come second. Budget airlines are famed for sanding away the human basics to the minimum viable product. But we tolerate it to save a few quid. They deliberately made sure you are lacking leg space, but did they mean to make their mid-flight meal deal look so unappealing? And why does the website look like it hasn’t been updated in 10 years?

Moll says: ”Design can be unintentional or intentional. You can have bias – conscious and unconscious.” Some physical experiences are designed to have the profit margins maximized, while others are simply built upon flawed products that came before. But how many people does the status quo suit?

Author Caroline Criado Perez famously explained in her book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men how women are excluded in design – where phones don’t fit their smaller hands, car safety features are less effective and offices are kept too cold for them. There’s an incorrect assumption that capitalism market forces enforce good design. If even women aren’t catered for on the most basic of levels, who else isn’t?

Thankfully Molls has some confidence about the future. In offices, she predicts more multifunctional spaces, better ventilation, a greater emphasis on sustainable design and, potentially, the use of tech to onboard communities more with the architectural process.

Cameron Worth, the founder of internet of things (IoT) agency SharpEnd and a judge at The Drum Design Awards, says he has noticed a shift in brands from “designing for themselves to designing around the needs of their users.”

This is a new competitive space, he says. “A lot of brands that have operated and dominated a niche for many years have become complacent and are of the view that what has worked for many years will continue to work in the future. This has left room for challengers to step in and refresh ways of thinking, designing and creating.”

He points to how Lick has revolutionized paint sampling with posted stick-on samples. “It’s an innovation that makes you think, ‘why didn’t we do this years ago?’” He says there are countless examples tearing up the rule book these last few years.

Contactless design, for example, has been a prominent solution, and Worth wonders how smartphones will continue to make physical items more interactive. “As we emerge, we think it’s more about ‘people want more from retail environments.’ If these experiences can be delivered in a contactless way, like scanning with a smartphone, then it’s a victory for all. Digital extensions make for cleaner designs, so smart labels on products or retail point of sale activated with QR/NFC to get me the info I need.“

But it stops at the digital enhancement of the real world for Worth, who doesn’t see us living in environments constructed of mixed realities.

“Once the technology is at a level that meets the expectations of the modern consumer, it won’t be causing friction – it will be removing it. I think these new technologies will really creep up on us – what seems novel now will become unremarkable before long. Just think about Bluetooth, for example. People balked when Apple came out with Airpods, saying it was solving a problem that didn’t exist, but you get on the tube now and the majority of people are using wireless earphones.”

How many more of these CX examples will we be able to point to as Covid-19 becomes a distant memory? Well, if Moll gets to have her say with initiatives like Design for Planet, the industry will use its power to rebuild a more equitable world, fortified against the coming threats and rising tides.

For more on The New Customer Experience Economy, check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive.

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