If these last few months have shown me anything it’s that we’ve been very privileged. Going outside when we want, buying what we want when we want it, and having loved ones close to us. They’re luxuries we thought we wouldn’t need to compromise. They were life’s givens.
But the world we design in and the people we design for are changing and we need to meet people where they are.
So where are people right now? Their normal habits and routines went overnight. And we know from behavioural science that the more time we spend out of that drifting, habit-based daze; the more mental resources we use up. That means we’re physically tired. And we’re emotionally tired too, from time spent worrying about our immediate needs and our family and friends. Their health, their jobs, their happiness.
What can we do as designers to help? We have a key role to play in the days ahead, helping to solve a multitude of challenges presented by this new-normal. But we also have a duty to avoid adding to the mental load people are facing right now and will face as the lockdown is gradually lifted. Because mental load pushes people to make decisions that might not be best for them, or for others. Like trying to be ‘normal’ and meet with friends or taking that trip that isn’t essential.
I’d suggest design backed by behavioural science is the key to this. And behavioural science shows us what really matters right now is more empathy, more simplicity, and more speed.
Every brief should start with the question: What behaviour are we asking people to do? The more specific the better. We’ll be thinking about what we want people to do and what might stop them from doing it, before we do anything that looks like design. No colour palettes, no wireframes, just focused on approaching the design issue with empathy, walking a mile in peoples’ shoes and noting the problems faced. We’re less likely to spend time making alternative designs just so our clients have options and more likely to get to the most effective solution, whatever guise that might take. Like how the solution of putting climbing plants up a heavily graffitied wall in a park, as I once did, came from the understanding that posters on walls can be ignored, but people don’t tear down climbing plants, not even graffiti artists.
Simplicity is the thing we strive for but never seem to grasp fully. But now is the time for stripping back. Thankfully understanding our associative brains helps. We can tap into simplicity by letting design create associations. Images relating to the thing we’re talking about. Words shaped by simile or metaphor. Even our colour choices could have meaning in the real world. Red stop, green go. It’s all there to make our designs easier to understand. And it should be all about how quickly people can just get it, no extra explanation needed.
And there’s a real need for speed right now. This requires us to get in the habit of thinking we’re going to test the impact of our design quickly. Bin anything that doesn’t work. And replace it with something else. The start-point for quicker tests and iterations? Not being scared by the very unlikely backfire effect of our designs. Then our whole process should get quicker.
Take queuing in supermarkets, where we’ve seen these three principles applied recently to solve social-distancing problems. The marking out of where people should stand or queue using gaffer tape. A very quick design solution that instigates the desired behaviour and understands that people don’t have the headspace to read signs or engage with a campaign at the moment. It’s a solution that’s simple and takes as long to roll-out as it does to raid the hardware aisle. And if it had failed to work, the tape could have come up to try something else.
This approach might not facilitate some of the luxuries we’re used to in the design process. But it will help us deliver creative and effective solutions at pace, to meet people where they are in our rapidly unfolding new-normal.
This article first appeared on the Design Business Association website, 04/05/2020.