Well, 2020 happened.

When I wrote last year’s article with my predictions for user experience design and content strategy in 2020, an inherent assumption was that if/when change would occur, such change would be subtle and evolutionary. 

Change happened, alright. As sudden and unsubtle as a brick through a glass window.

Not to belabor the point many end-of-the-year thought pieces have made, but the world is still in uncharted territory after the events of the past year. Expectations of what “normal” is have been reset, and maybe forever. More on that later.

So, without further ado, here are some thoughts and predictions of things that will be happening in the coming year. Think of them less as trends and more as “focus areas” to consider.

More Transparency in Data Visualization

There have been a LOT of data visualizations rolled out over the past year, from the COVID Tracking Project to various news agencies showcasing the economic impact of the global pandemic. These visualizations help “translate” the data into something that lay people can understand. 

Except… When incomplete data is used in the visualization, it can tell a story that is misleading. One example: Hospitalizations. Showing a rising trendline in hospitalizations during a pandemic is scary. Unless the visualization also shows that the trendline is not far off from the traditional counts in previous years. Without context, potentially good news becomes bad news.  

Designers and content strategists need to be mindful of how they present data to users —and make sure to show the data in context. Because any visualization without that context does a disservice to the people who consume the information you are trying to relay.

Touch-free Everything

If you weren’t a germaphobe before, you may be now. At the very least, you are more thoughtful about how and what you touch. Some companies are taking proactive actions to support this mindset—not only to reassure customers, but also to ensure the safety of their employees.

Tap-to-pay and voice interaction is already here but expect online ordering to become available from every retailer—even some small businesses. Some may follow the example of the Amazon Go retail stores, which allow customers to basically buy all items without any physical interaction with a checkout clerk (it’s all done through the customer’s Prime Now account and an app). Other businesses will close regular checkout queues and push customers to use mobile ordering applications. This is what is being done in the Universal Orlando parks, to great success.

So, expect a lot of innovation around how people engage with the physical world, especially when it comes to how our mobile devices engage with physical spaces. 

The End of Collaborative Workspaces

For many white-collar workers, their office the past nine months has been at home, and even when it is deemed safe to return to the office, the idea of meeting a bunch of people in a single room may never gain full acceptance again. Teams are leveraging software like Miro and Mural as everyone works in isolation, and I fully expect this technology to gain in usage and acceptance.

The impact on both design activities and collaboration with stakeholders for UX and content strategists is significant. It makes collaborative design sessions less than optimal. But it beats not doing it. 

More Virtual Experiences

I used to love going to conferences and conventions and had planned to attend at least three such events this past year. That ended up not happening, of course. And while many similar events are scheduled for 2021, my expectation is many of these events will be canceled due to lack of demand and interest. Lots of people don’t want to be around strangers right now. 

Many of these conferences went virtual and I expect quite a few to stay that way. The challenge with these virtual experiences is they are, well, virtual. You have no maps to orient yourself, and unless the “index” listing the events and content available is effective and supportive, the experience would leave many disappointed—especially if they paid to “attend.” 

The implication for experience design and content strategy is clear: Focus on understanding the attendee’s mental model, figure out what they are looking to see and do, and provide lots of ways for them to get the most out of it. It is also important that you  provide guidance through supporting content that is easy to access and understand.

Increased Emphasis on Loyal Customers

Whatever happens to the economy, companies will have to weather even more headwinds in the coming months. This will result in many companies turning to their loyal base—the frequent (and in many cases, wealthiest) customers. 

More than just building on existing loyalty programs, companies will invest more time and money in “micro-targeting” offers and benefits to these customers, to prop up their bottom line. Whether it is discounted hotel rooms, free perks, or even custom packages, expect to see a lot more outreach if you have spent a lot of money with a company over the years.

The implication for content strategists is to start thinking about tailored messages that support this time of outreach, and to be mindful that customers aren’t always comfortable with a company referring to previous purchases as part of such messaging. UX designers should think of ways to get customers to come back to previous spending with a brand or company in a way that gets customers excited about spending money with that company again.

Small Businesses Going Online and Staying Safe Off-line

The area most impacted by COVID-related lockdowns has been small businesses, especially businesses that cater to diners or retail customers. Many restaurants have stayed open thanks to food delivery, but scores of others have not been able to survive. Savvy small businesses have gone to online marketplaces to sell their wares, and others have supported pickup and delivery of products. 

Service providers have stepped up their game when it comes to hygiene and courtesy, making sure to stay masked and socially distant throughout any visit to a customer’s home.

The opportunity is there to create new applications and supporting content for these businesses. Help them help their customers, stay open, and do some good.

A Focus on Understanding People’s New Baselines and Expectations

If your UX team has any legacy research regarding how your users live and work, well…I’m not stating that it’s worthless now, but I don’t have much confidence it is up to date with today. The Nielsen Norman Group has a great article on how COVID-19 has changed your users, and the underlying premise reinforces mine: Understand the mindset of your users RIGHT NOW

This quote is exactly right: “User needs are changing quickly, and we must keep up. The companies that are the most flexible and resilient will be the ones that survive—and that starts with good research.”

New Experiences, New Opportunities

No one knows what the future holds, but I will state this for the record: Whatever happens, the need for focused user experience practitioners and content strategists will continue to exist. There is not a “New Normal” as many have said about 2021. I consider what we are living through the “Next Normal.” 

The only constant is change, and we need to evolve to understand what that next baseline of user expectations are. New challenges caused by circumstance are opportunities to innovate and create new ways of doing things. 

Good luck to you as you keep moving forward into this “undiscovered country.” 

The Author

Joseph Dickerson is a past UX Lead at Microsoft with a diverse background in application design and development, information architecture, user research, and usability testing. Dickerson currently manages a design team at ZoomInfo, working on cutting-edge B2B solutions for companies around the world. He has led design teams for companies around the world, as well as headed ethnographic research efforts on multiple mission-critical focus areas. He has authored seven books, including two books on user experience design: the recently updated “Experience (Still) Matters: Essays, Tactics and Lessons in User Experience Design” and “UX101: A Primer on User Experience Design.”

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