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COVID-19 How it Has Changed Your Users

The widen of the new coronavirus is dramatically changing people’s lives across the world and this in turn changes how they use your product. There are few — if any — industries that haven’t been impacted in some way. Your users’ preferences and behaviors have likely shifted, and may be very unlike now than they were in 2019.

How people’s daily lives and routines have changed depends on the individual, their profession role, living situation, and location, but consider some of the common shifts in the table below.

The reason for these differences can be hugely complex, due to the virus itself, but also the economic and political consequences of the virus’s spread. The magnitude and exact nature of the changes can depend on geographic location and on the individual. Each behavior shift may be a short-term change or may have massive, long-term consequences for related industries. 

Take the new interest in online shopping for example: UBS estimates that ecommerce will make up 25% of retail sales over the next five years, compared to 15% in 2019. The Financial Times reports that 60% of retail in China will be ecommerce in the next three years. If you’re in ecommerce, that’s a huge influx of potential new customers, potentially with different user needs.

There are also substantial preference and psychological shifts occurring. Experts worry that the pandemic has led to increases in depression and anxiety. People have different expectations and concerns than they had in 2019, and some of those differences may be lasting.

For Now We Need More Research, Not Less

For many products and services, user needs are shifting quickly. Lots of teams have decided to put off on doing previously planned research projects, but I believe this is a time for more research, not less. User research is a form of risk reduction, and the greater the risk (for example, because of fast change), the more you need that risk reduced.

Each user group is unique, and that’s why everyone needs to do their own research. Depending on who is your user populations, their behavior and preference changes may be different from another user population. 

When assessing COVID-19’s impact on your users, consider whether there are:

  • Behavioral shifts
  • Psychological shifts
  • Changes in user groups
  • Regional effects
  • Temporal effects

Each of these is discussed below, along with examples from Despegar.

Behavioral Changes

Are users doing various activities than they used to? Has the frequency of any activities changed? The basal motivations of these behavior changes could be due to:

  • A desire to avoid catching or spreading the virus
  • Compliance with local regulations or quarantines
  • Economic consequences of the virus or quarantine
  • Some combination of these, or other factors

In his investigation, Guido encountered some Despegar users who reported that they wanted to travel and were allowed to within their home country’s restrictions, yet were not booking travel because their future incomes were uncertain.

Psychological Shifts

Are your users’ worries and anxieties different now? Have their priorities changed?

Guido’s research has shown that sensitivity is now much more significant in communicating with their users. Emilia’s team is working towards a softer brand voice. They’ve realized that their customers don’t want to see high-pressure sales tactics right now, particularly in the context of travel.

“Some stakeholders had different expectations, they felt the need to sell,” Emilia said. “But most people right now are not confident about traveling. We’re figuring out how to make people feel safe. We’ve found a way to be transparent and honest with people, but still reassure them.”

Variations in User Groups

Have elements like risk tolerance, age, life stage, or living situations created new rifts in user behavior? You may need to revisit and redefine your company’s personas.

Despegar’s research has discovered new splits in its user groups — risk-averse vs. risk-tolerant travelers. Each group may have different needs and preferences, and Despegar is learning how to design for them.

Emilia’s team writes guidelines for the content generated by suppliers such as hotel chains providing photos of their hotel amenities. The hotels started submitting photos that strongly emphasized disinfection and wearing masks. 

Emilia and Guido’s teams were concerned about how their users would respond. They ran an experiment comparing normal amenity photos vs. photos that emphasized sanitation. Their results were confusing — some respondents commented that the sanitary photos made them feel safe and some said it made them uncomfortable. This split is likely related to each individual’s risk tolerance and perspective on the pandemic.

But, the team discovered a compromise by deeply analyzing the information. “We found out that more intimate photos — like, photos of your room or your food — were more likely to provoke an adverse reaction,” Emilia said, “compared to photos of large communal spaces like a lobby. The more intimate the space, the less people wanted to be reminded of COVID. But in a lobby, people were more receptive of seeing someone dressed like a Ghostbuster disinfecting the walls.”

Regional Actions

The severity of the changes may depend on each region’s rate of infections, how the local government is responding, and what restrictions are in place.

One of Despegar’s biggest challenges right now stems from the fact that they serve many countries across Latin America. Different areas have different amounts of virus spread, as well as different political responses to the pandemic.

“The politics and culture are an important factor,” said Emilia. She added that Brazil’s leaders have downplayed the risk of coronavirus, while Argentina has taken its quarantine very seriously.

“In our interviews and surveys, we found different approaches to travel post coronavirus in each country,” said Guido. “Brazilians and Mexicans reported traveling as early as May. It’s quite different — what you hear when you speak to a Brazilian compared to an Argentinian. That’s a big challenge, because we offer the same product for both populations.”

Temporal Effects

How long will each of these shifts last? Will they end suddenly, fade out gradually, or be permanent?

It may be difficult to find a firm answer to these questions, especially since we currently don’t know how, if, or when the coronavirus will become less of a disruptive influence in our lives. (And again, depending on where you live, that amount of disruption will vary.)

Possibly, some behaviors and preferences will fade out in the long run, but some will be permanent. Answering this question will require continuing user research over the coming months and years. (And no, you can’t ask people, “How will you behave in two years if a vaccine is available?” People simply aren’t good at predicting what they’ll do or think in the future. But you can make the plans to do more research in the future and find out then.)

Despegar has already seen changes in its users over the past five months. Some are ready for international travel, but many continue to be hesitant about leaving their own country. Some might still be anxious about how sanitary planes and hotels will be. It’s unclear how long those behaviors and preferences will stick around.

Shift Your Research to Match the New Reality

Qualitative research will be invaluable for uncovering deep insights about new user behaviors and preferences, particularly self-reported methods like interviews and surveys. View approaching your pandemic research as a discovery — your focus should be on understanding how and why your users have changed.

If your team uses benchmarking to track improvements to your user experience over time, be aware that the pandemic might disrupt or invalidate your metrics. When comparing a new design to an old design, you (ideally) isolate variables as much as possible, so that the design is the independent variable. Depending on your scope, you may be dealing with a very different user population now than you had before — that’s a big confounding variable. Analytics data will be particularly impacted, since it captures real-life activity.  

Be aware of these invisible factors when interpreting your data. The variations you see in your metrics may not be completely due to your design decisions. Combine your quantitative data with qualitative research to understand why your metrics might be changing. 

Depending on where your research will be conducted, it may be more or less possible to conduct an in-person study. If you do plan in-person research, find out what regulations and standards you’ll need to comply with in your area.

The safest way to conduct research right now is to do it remotely. You’ll likely have an easier time convincing your users to participate in a study from home, and you won’t risk anyone’s health. With the exception of, perhaps, field studies, every research method can be done remotely. With careful advance planning you can get the same quality and depth of insights as from in-person research.

When recruiting participants, be sensitive to their emotional state. You don’t want to come off as greedy, pushy, or callous. You may need to radically change how you find your participants. 

For example, Despegar used to recruit participants from lists of people who had previously booked travel with them. However, the researchers realized that someone who had previously purchased a trip might be stressed and trying to cancel it, so possibly unlikely to participate in a study. “It wasn’t ok for us to go ask them how they’re feeling and when they’ll travel,” said Emilia. The research team got creative and looked for heavy travelers on social media and in social groups.

COVID-19 Hesitations Can Also Be UX Opportunities

As UX professionals, we suddenly find ourselves facing a hugely complicated web of interconnected new influences on user behavior. This pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe of global proportions, but it’s also providing opportunities for some UX teams to improve the lives of their users in ways that weren’t possible before. 

For example, one person working in Canadian local government told me that UX was receiving a huge amount of attention and resources due the pandemic. The digital tools had previously been an afterthought and nobody cared much about them. But now, the local government has a huge motivation to help people complete their tasks online, to prevent them from coming into physical offices. Suddenly, the ease of use for those digital products became very, very important — possibly life-saving.

User needs are changing quickly and we must keep up. The companies that are the most supple and strong will be the ones that survive — and that starts with good investigation.

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