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Hands off! How Covid-19 paves the way for fully touchless experiences

By Peter Ballard



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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July 27, 2020 | 8 min read

During lockdown people have formed new behaviours and habits, aversions and intricacies. One of these was the buzz around public touchpoints being possible vessels of Covid-19 spread.

Elevators touchless

When these objects or devices are public in nature – perhaps they’re not easily cleanable or controllable – people are becoming touch adverse, forming a fear of ‘dirty tech’. This indicates big implications to what comes next for all manner of public devices like the humble ATM or the self-service checkout.

Could we be on the brink of a cashless society? Could we be seeing more traditional, face-to-face customer transactions coming back to stores?

A study conducted by Foolproof identified that Covid-19 has increased UK consumers’ sensitivity to the cleanliness of public touchpoints, with 80% of people surveyed affirming they will change the way they engage with publicly available technology.

The report also highlighted that almost three quarters (72%) of people have either worn gloves or wiped down a public touch surface.

The data paints a stark picture

These findings suggest an appetite for consumer change in the form of touching less public technology post Covid-19.

It also implies businesses – such as pubs, restaurants, supermarkets and banks – need to think hard and fast about all manner of customer-centric alternatives to the public touchscreens found at ATMs, card payment terminals and self-service check outs.

Communicating and promoting hygiene around public touch screens such as cleaning at regular intervals and exposing them to fewer people, has worked in the short term. However, many public touchscreen devices and the technology powering them are not built to be cleaned as often or as vigorously as they are being leading to potential expensive repairs and refits. Quick fixes of this kind are table stakes when the opportunity to reimagine the model for transaction and interaction is up for grabs.

People want alternatives to help them reduce touch particularly in the payments sphere. We found that nearly 50% of respondents would prefer to use contactless payment where possible, with 25% saying they’ll use cash machines less. A further 20% expressed an interest in shopping more online.

However, these alternatives rely on what is possible today powered by the existing model of transaction, not what could come next with new, innovative thinking.

Changing consumer attitudes to touching tech

Irrespective of your industry or the sector your client(s) work in, the way in which people interact and transact with businesses will change. We’re on a trajectory away from public devices and heading towards private devices (smartphones) doing the leg work in interaction.

In the immediate term, this means asking questions about the ways in which consumers can interact with businesses for example:

  • How much can customers do over their phones from home?
  • How good is their digital self-serve; do they have a robust online purchase journey and the infrastructure and logistics to support it?
  • How much of their existing technology can be retrofitted to reduce touch?
  • How are the low-tech solutions already in place to reduce touch performing? Do they need to be reviewed?
  • Have customers been questioned about how they wish to be served now, and in the future?

In the long term, this does mean thinking about fully touchless experiences and wider changes to the way people transact with a particular business.

Focus efforts, don’t explore unlikely avenues

The likelihood is that we’re not going to be controlling touchpoints with gesture or voice anytime soon. Consumer appetite doesn’t reflect this kind of trajectory. Yes, interactions of this kind are possible, but costly, and too many leaps away from where we are today and how consumers normally interact with devices to facilitate a mass upheaval.

What’s required is looking at what’s available today, understanding what mimics but augments current behaviour – adding familiarity – and then imagining what could be possible technologically in the near to medium term. At the centre of this is the locus of opportunity for the future model of transaction and interaction.

Isn’t it obvious? Your phone is the answer

The answer may very well be already in your pocket. As consumers, we already use our phones to converse, to shop, to read and in some cases, to pay for goods.

However, the option to pay with your phone only comes at the end of the transaction after going through other points of the purchase journey laden with touch, like using a check-out, or a touch-based ticketing terminal. Removing these touchpoints will move us away from the tyranny of touching public devices altogether.

A better model would be one which opens out a phone’s nascent ability to control the action, by scanning products in a shop, at a ticket machine, or entering your destination and paying, prior to catching a lift. However, whatever is created cannot and should not add unnecessary friction to the customer journey.

Picture a journey where you scan and pay for all items only using your phone, a device which you control the cleanliness of. All items are aggregated into a basket, you check-out by entering your card details into your phone, or paying directly with an existing mobile wallet. No need for wiping, or touching screens that have had thousands of previous touches today.

Retailers like Sainsbury’s and Asda have upped the ante on their touchless tech in light of Covid-19. This has led to various improvements being made to their in-store apps to support them in more stores and improve the user experience. However, some features like scanning as you go, as opposed to at the end of the shop, do limit usage for bigger (in monetary terms) shops. Moreover, each store requires its own application download and has its own distinct functionality which potentially presents barriers to adoption.

In a different touchless world, with fewer apps, you scan a QR code or respond to a proximity triggered pop up which allows you to call the lift and select the floor. To purchase a ticket, you scan a code and enter your travel details from a menu on your phone and pay.

This way of transacting and interacting latches onto an existing behaviour many of us exhibit, a willingness and readiness to use our phones. It requires no new behaviours to be learnt on part of the consumer. It does, however, put onus on the provider and their technology.

Think hard about what to do next with touch

Things are gradually going back to normal in most UK regions, but how consumers pay and transact should not. Public technology is not the most hygienic of interfaces – it’s known to collect millions of bacteria from constant daily use. However, until now, only the most fastidious of people considered it worthy of avoidance, or additional cleansing. The cleansing part is a norm for now, but why should the onus of action be heaped onto customers?

During this time of increased caution even as lockdown eases, people will continue to pick up habits that will stay with us even after the risk has abated – things will change. Smart businesses need to design ahead now for these new consumer preferences, particularly if they want to remain competitive.

Going back is a failure

Going back entirely to how we were before this global pandemic will show that we have learnt nothing, whereas reimagining transaction and interaction models for the touch-laden points of any given action opens a world of opportunity, paving the way to improve customer experience wholesale.

These improvements will inevitably save time and cost, and involve partners opening up their technology to consumers’ devices. Forcing people back into an old, ineffective and unsanitary way of doing things would be a failure.

This isn’t to say businesses should rip out checkouts and remove customer service representatives. In fact, we’d advise strongly against doing that. But it is to say that a new model of transaction and interaction is within touching distance. Businesses have a responsibility to put their customers at ease by exploring new, unified ways of making this model work with the least possible onus on their customers.

Get thinking now or get left behind

Big changes to people’s needs and behaviours means that all businesses need to think harder about what they do next, beyond keeping their business afloat and opening up their stores. An unwillingness from people to touch things as they readily did before is a big challenge to our current model of commerce, transaction and interaction. Our message is: get thinking now or get left behind.

Peter Ballard, co-founder, Foolproof


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