How experience design helps organizations thrive during crisis

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On June 17th, 2020, I walked into Trader Joe’s after waiting in line for 45 minutes. It was the first time I’d stepped out of my house in 107 days. Since the pandemic hit, I had managed to do everything virtually, from working to grocery shopping — and the world felt a little alien.

Every experience around me had changed: work, shopping, entertainment, even my health experience had changed. And it wasn’t just me. Those experiences had changed for hundreds of millions of people around the world, too.

In fact, the pandemic forced every organization to find new ways to operate. Over 80% of all businesses in the United States had to design a remote work experience for their employees. At the beginning of 2020, only 7% of retailers had curbside pickup — now 44% do. And digital product adoption accelerated by seven years in 2020 alone.

Unfortunately, not all businesses were able to adapt to the new environment. But there were a handful of organizations that survived and, dare I say it, even thrived during the pandemic. And I’m not talking about companies, like Zoom, that were poised to do well during times like these. No, there were brands that could have sunk during COVID, but instead, they fundamentally redesigned their most important experiences for both their customers and employees.

In other words, they relied on experience design.

The concept of experience design is not completely new, but it’s become even more important during a crisis as organizations change the basic experiences they offer. At its core, experience design means assessing the gap between experiences you’re providing and those you should be providing — then designing new breakthrough experiences to close that gap.

Uber, for example, saw their rideshare business drop when COVID hit and people stopped going places. But instead of wallowing, the company pivoted to Uber Eats to design new delivery experiences. Researchers tested, validated, and tuned dozens of ideas before landing on prescription, grocery, and alcohol delivery. They also designed a contactless pickup system that their customers both wanted and needed. And the success of Uber Eats offset any loss from the rideshare side.

Airbnb also found themselves in a similar situation at the beginning of the pandemic. Almost overnight, people stopped traveling and canceled their trips.

But Airbnb did some research and found that people still wanted to vacation, they just wanted to travel by car and to places that were deemed safer. So the company redesigned its website and app to show prospective travelers everything from cabins to lavish beach houses within 300 miles of where they lived. Researchers also discovered that would-be travelers wanted to book entire homes to quarantine together for much longer periods of time. So Airbnb launched a whole new product called Monthly Stays.

And when Airbnb went public at the end of 2020, the company was valued at more than the next three hospitality chains combined.

But experience design is not just a pandemic-era phenomenon. COVID-19 simply highlighted the fact that organizations that win long-term aren’t just optimizing the experiences they already have, they’re designing completely new ones.

It’s now easier than ever for customers to switch brands. Every business leader is trying to understand what their customers want and need and deliver those experiences better and faster than their competitors. The companies that thrive take an outside-in approach to designing new products and services, they’re always in touch with how their customers think and feel, and they act on those insights to deliver what they want now and in the future.

Designing those new products and services, however, requires dependable research, and experience design offers researchers the chance they deserve to be the heroes they are. In fact, recent Qualtrics and McKinsey studies found that the concept of experience design resonated deeply with researchers.

Great experiences are built on great research. Half the magic of designing the right product experience is asking the right person. And while that seems like it might be simple, the mechanics behind it can be much more difficult. Asking the right person also means asking them the right questions, segmenting the market in the right way, and getting a hold of customers that may be more difficult to reach, among a host of other things. Solid research requires a sophisticated research platform and a heroic research team.

But experience design is only part of the battle. Organizations can’t just design new experiences and then hope for the best. Instead, they need to continuously improve those experiences by listening to continuous feedback, identifying issues, addressing the root causes of those issues, and closing the gaps before they manifest themselves as actual problems.

While the pandemic offered a unique challenge over the last year to organizations across the world, the process of designing and improving experiences is timeless. As companies continue to face changing landscapes, they’ll need to look proactively to the future to assess where their experiences are falling short, then design the breakthrough experiences of tomorrow.

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