As we begin to see more friends and family, put social events and gatherings on our calendar, and slowly become more comfortable going maskless, I am grateful for the degree to which we’re now able to return to normal. My kids are in summer camp, and we’re looking forward to a couple of getaways. We can reflect on a difficult past year that our family managed to get through happily and healthily. We found ways to adjust and continue leading our lives, whether it was buying patio heaters so we could have family over for an outdoor holiday visit, rolling up our sleeves to help our kids when school was fully virtual last spring, or using more collaborative, digital tools at work.
While it’s easy to become eager to go back to the way our lives used to be, many people are now taking the opportunity to reflect on the last 18 months of the pandemic and decide whether any of the changes we’ve made as a result of the pandemic should persist in the future. From evaluating friendships to avoiding over-scheduled lives to working from home more often, people are motivated to move forward to a new and improved normal. We’ve realized what we can live without and what we want to have more of.
For example, prior to COVID-19, I had personally never used a grocery-delivery service such as Instacart. But, during the lockdown last spring, I began using Instacart for all of our grocery shopping. And even since we’ve felt comfortable going back into stores again, as of May 2020, I’ve continued to use the service. I grew accustomed to the ease of purchasing my groceries on an app versus my needing to spend one or two hours of my time going grocery shopping. We are now over a year into the pandemic, and I still haven’t given up the convenience of using this app. The reason for this is purely selfish and lazy: the ease and convenience of using the app and having someone else do my grocery shopping are worth the associated costs. For an experience-based reason, I’m now a loyal customer.
Over the past 18 months, businesses have needed to find solutions to address capacity requirements and enable contactless interactions. While some may view these changes as temporary constraints, I believe many pandemic-driven solutions represent improvements to the service experience that should persist as part of the new normal. In this column, I’ll review some of the service experiences that I believe companies have improved because of the necessities of COVID-19.
Back in May 2021, New York City announced the lifting of the capacity limits for museums, theaters, and music venues. My family decided to visit the American Museum of Natural History, which my kids love, during the last weekend before the restriction was removed. In prior years, our strategy had been to get there as soon as the museum opened and see our favorite exhibits before it became too crowded just an hour later. It wasn’t uncommon to have to view some displays from several feet away or to wait ten minutes for an elevator. So we were excited to have the opportunity to see the Museum with fewer visitors. We bought tickets online for a specific time slot and were told to arrive within 30 minutes of that time. At the Museum entrance, they quickly screened us and scanned our tickets, and we were on our way. Once inside, it was such a pleasant experience. Exhibits weren’t crowded, and there were no bottlenecks at the elevator banks disrupting navigation through the museum’s halls. My kids could run ahead and explore a bit on their own without any fear of our losing them in the crowd.
It has now been more than three months since the Museum lifted the capacity limit, and they’re still requiring visitors to purchase tickets for timed entry. In fact, I’ve visited the Web sites of a dozen other museums, zoos, and aquariums around the world, and they’re all requiring advanced ticketing with timed entry. I think the timed-entry feature should remain long after we’ve controlled the pandemic. Although it means people cannot decide to go to a museum or zoo on a whim, the improved experience once you are there is worth the necessity of planning the visit in advance. Perhaps they could reserve some capacity for day-of ticketing for visitors who haven’t planned ahead, similar to walk-ins at restaurants.
Capacity management has been a requirement not only at entertainment venues but also at retail shops and grocery stores. These businesses had to figure out a way to limit the number of people coming into their space, but avoid turning people away completely. Curbside pickup became the go-to solution for most stores, which had been limited to large brands such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot before COVID. Curbside service allowed customers to make purchases without ever needing to enter the store. It’s simple and convenient: just place an order online, choose a store from which to pick up your order, and an employee brings it to your car. Curbside pickup is a service that should continue even once we’ve controlled the pandemic. It offers benefits to the elderly, people with a handicap, and even parents with young kids who don’t want to trek into a store.
When business travel was more common for me, I recall having been ecstatic when hotel chains introduced apps that enabled virtual check-in to your room and mobile key entry. I loved knowing that, if I were tired after my travels, I could go straight to my room without needing to do the front-desk, check-in process. Whether it was eliminating the extra time that going to the front desk involved or simply not wanting to speak to anyone, I appreciated the option of virtual check-in and room-key access. The pandemic encouraged all hotels to adopt such functionality, but they also needed to identify ways of eliminating contact throughout a stay, not just during check-in. Leading hotel chains now allow guests to order room service, make dinner reservations, and request late check-out using their mobile app. Even though these requests previously necessitated only a phone call to the front desk—not physical contact—this illustrates that guests are now demanding the ease of using digital technology to make such requests versus their having to pick up the phone.
The shift to contactless service is happening not only with hotels but also with car rentals, restaurants, and car servicing. For car rentals, you receive an email message about the location of your vehicle, the keys are already inside, and they’ll check your credentials as you exit the secure parking lot or garage. Restaurants have a QR code on each table so customers can pull up the menu, place an order with their server, and pay online once they’ve finished their meal. As a diner, you still experience the benefits of eating out, but have the convenience of looking at an online menu—for example, if you want to order an extra glass of wine without waiting for your server to bring you a menu—and you can pay your bill without the back-and-forth process of a physical credit-card transaction. BMW India recently announced that they’ll be able to handle car servicing without customers ever needing to go to the dealership. Using the BMW app, customers can select a local service shop, a pickup date and time for their car, and the service type. Once approved, a BMW employee picks up the car and brings it into the shop for servicing. Customers receive an estimate, approve the cost, and pay using the app. Once the repairs are complete, BMW returns the car to the customer’s home, so the BMW app facilitates the entire experience. 
During extended periods of self-isolation or quarantine, people were desperate to stay connected with others and the lives they’d had before. Employers were forced to close their offices and needed to enable remote working. Schools required virtual learning, with students’ education switching from in-person classrooms to notebook computers and Google Meets. Adults held Zoom sessions with friends, and kids played Roblox with friends on iPads while using Facetime. For those of us lucky enough to be returning to normal, kids are enjoying a return to in-person camps and being able to get dinner out with friends. Connecting via a screen is certainly no substitute for meeting and hugging in person. However, we’ve become accustomed to many aspects of remote access over the last 18 months that should continue. For example, remote working is a wonderful option for both employees and companies—at least for the business models for which it is an option. Remote working should be here to stay, as I wrote about previously for UXmatters.
Telehealth was already growing as an industry pre-COVID, and its use has soared during the pandemic. While most patients still prefer in-person doctor visits and are now starting to schedule the visits they put off during the height of the pandemic, the use of telehealth will likely remain strong—especially for mental healthcare because patients really appreciate the comfort and privacy of being at home while speaking to a therapist. It’s also likely to remain a popular option for triage situations, when patients aren’t sure whether an in-person visit is necessary or need quick guidance. 
A final example of remote access that should remain post-COVID is fitness and exercise. I, personally, have relished the ability to take classes at home, without ever having to get into my car for a 40-minute round-trip drive to my gym. Live classes still let me feel part of a class. Plus, on-demand classes offer me more flexibility in integrating a workout into my schedule. Moreover, I’ve been able to add diversity to my health-and-fitness routine, by taking classes such as dance or mindfulness that my local gym doesn’t offer. But it’s not just me who has enjoyed virtual access to workouts and fitness. According to one survey by MindBody, “Since the start of the pandemic, some 80% of fitness consumers live-streamed workouts compared with 7% in 2019.”  This trend is likely to continue, according to Chris Rondeau, CEO of Planet Fitness, who states, “A legacy of the pandemic is that people know how to juggle various things at home now. When the pandemic dies down, digital options will be a substitute they’re familiar with if they don’t have time to make it to the gym…. It’s ingrained in habits now.” 
Improved Service Communications
Over the years, I’ve often written about the importance of clear communications during service experiences. Customers want to understand how to access a service and what to expect from the service. COVID-19 has forced businesses and brands to be very explicit and detailed in their communications regarding what customers can expect from their service experience. Whether it was creating arrows that directed traffic in one direction in stores, signs about masking policies, or alerts about delays in order processing because of supply-chain issues, companies had new communication challenges they had to address. Companies needed to be transparent about policies and operations that customers had not cared about in the past—answering questions such as “How often do you clean?” or “How many people are allowed in the store at once?” Companies needed to consider carefully what knowledge would be important for their customers to have when interacting with their service. As the need for such communications decreases as the pandemic wanes, I hope companies have realized the importance of thinking strategically and empathetically about what customers might want to know during interactions with their service.
Empathy Every Day
What I have always loved about service design is its inherent complexity. To create a wonderful service experience, organizations must strategically align their systems, user interfaces, processes, and data. But most importantly, people—both their customers and employees—must align as well. If the interactions between an employee and a customer are not orchestrated thoroughly, the service experience falters.
The pandemic has elevated the need for empathy even further. With employees and customers’ health depending on their reciprocal agreement to comply with guidelines for masking and social distancing, the deliberate design of their interactions was imperative. Plus, a positive outcome of this difficult year is the renewed appreciation that people have for a company’s employees, whether they’re grocery-store workers, healthcare professionals, or delivery people. We’ve appreciated their risking their health by staying on the job to support us.
Empathy has always been a core part of the work of experience designers. Our work requires the ability to understand others’ perspectives, needs, and situations, and our designs reflect that understanding. The pandemic has reinforced the importance of empathy in our everyday interactions.
Director of Strategy & Experience Design at NTT Data
Woodbridge, New Jersey, USA
Laura’s 10 years of experience have focused on representing the human element in any interaction with a brand through actionable, business-impacting insight gathering and design. At NTT Data, Laura leads cross-channel experience design strategy engagements for clients. Clients have included AstraZeneca, Hachette Book Group, GlaxoSmithKline, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Honeywell, and the NBA. In addition to her Service Design column for UXmatters, Laura has written articles for the Service Design Network’s Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design, User Experience Magazine, Communication Arts, and Johnny Holland. She has presented on service design at SDN’s Global Service Design Conference, the Usability Professionals’ Association International Conference, IxDA New York City, and IxDA New Jersey. Read More