Before all this, the luckiest of us were able to focus our attention where we wanted. We pursued what we loved, made qualitative choices and enjoyed a relatively entitled autonomy. This is what more than a decade of growth economy, entrepreneurialism, access to capital, and the American “promise” gets you. This is the dream we unconsciously pursue. This was the model.
Of course, globally, there was daily evidence of clear and present societal risk and injustice – from political corruption to refugee camps, famine and environmental ruin. But from the privileged sanctuaries of our New York offices and homes, and within our broad design community, these risks were far enough away to motivate discretionary action, but not enough to completely derail our daily routines.
But interestingly, if you can remember back just several months, many existential threats lived in an invisible form, coming through the rectilinear windows we carry in our pockets and that sit atop our desks. During the last year in particular, the media dialogue was packed with coverage on the ethics and responsibilities of the digital world, dominated by the companies that professor and entrepreneur Scott Galloway calls “The Four”. They are enormous, world-changing, and have an inextricable link to our personal lives as portals to our privacy, data, security and information.
With our heads often focused on these technology-created issues, it’s been a rude awakening to snap back to a threat created by a physical, biological force. Worrying about data breaches and information security can feel deep and intimate (after all, my profile is my privacy), but it somehow pales in comparison to the physical smack that a virus like COVID-19 delivered to the most immediate aspects of our lives.
At HUSH, it’s been incredibly interesting to see how rapidly the dialogue has changed in the last few months. We work a lot with big technology firms, ones that make digital products and services that connect billions of people around the world. Their focus on digital threats and data responsibility has shifted quickly to IRL (in real life) concerns. For many years, we’ve helped a lot of these firms figure out how they translate what they do so extremely well in that digital realm into the real world – where their audiences wake up every day and “experience” their brand and mission. Inspired by recent events, that thinking has turned to another big question: If Big Tech is the first to bounce back, as many economists predict, how will it re-engage with the real world and design experiences for all of us who go back to work, back to play, and back to learning with these companies?
Big Tech has battled “viruses” for decades. Malware, trojan horses, hackers, and other digital threats have, from time to time, undermined their customers’ allegiances, breached critical security walls and made for PR fiascos that have affected stock prices, consumer confidence and company culture.
But it’s precisely these decades of battling digital viruses that make Big Tech some of the most apt entities to help design and define the future of IRL experiences in response to the IRL pandemic at hand. Just think: What has Big Tech done to build your confidence and put the ever-present threat of a digital virus into the back of your memory as a user of many of their digital products? What can we learn from this ability to assuage fears – to nurture calm and rebuild confidence globally in the people who engage with their services and products every day, billions of times over – that can influence the way we design our future IRL world?
For our answer, perhaps we can look at post-COVID-19 experience design across a broad swath of contexts, through the lenses of real estate/workplace/HR as well as brand/B2C experiences and B2B spaces and engagements. We see three core design principles employed by Big Tech companies that will translate into how we design public experience going forward:
Just think about Google’s products from even five years ago. The quality of their current digital platforms are designed exponentially better, integrated and seamless. This is the result of rigorous data collection, testing and feedback that optimizes virtually every point of interaction. As consumers, we demand nothing less – and quickly move on from any substandard digital experience. How does this apply to the future of IRL experiences – their design, and our expectations of them? It means, from here on out, real life experiences need to be worth it.
In a COVID-19 world, the risk of venturing into the public realm becomes significantly higher. As in any free market, if the risk of something is higher, its potential free market value will also be higher. As such, people and businesses won’t (and shouldn’t) settle for any experience that is average. It needs to be a huge return on our personal investments. We’ve just come through an era of experiential over-saturation where the public’s ability to discern exceptional quality from banal average was quite difficult.
Even in some of our most essential and meaningful public spaces – from institutions to workplaces – the experience of the end user has often been neglected. You’ve felt the pain of these experiences if you’ve ever navigated the terminals of LaGuardia Airport or attempted to use Penn Station’s wayfinding or explore its food halls; to address this, both locations are currently being redesigned by some of the best architectural firms in the world. Then there’s the retail world of NYC’s 5th Avenue, which was experiencing its own reckoning even before C-19.
Our late-capitalism cultural experiences also need to be examined. The exponential rise of “Museums of…” indicates a drop in design quality and efficacy. Frankly, audiences aren’t experiencing something exquisite or transcendental in these spaces; rather, they are offsetting their own emotional gratification from the in-the-moment IRL space to that of the digital space of their future social media posts.
This stands in stark contrast to those experiences that have pushed the boundaries of both historical and contemporary experiential design quality: Madison Square Park’s landscaping, pathways and site-specific arts program; the Whitney Museum’s bold architectural moves and direct relationships to the exhibit spaces inside; and Donald Judd’s precisely proportioned and adorned 101 Spring Street loft from 1968 (now a museum run by the Judd Foundation). This is design and experience that considers every detail, entry, exit and emotional arc, and represents a benchmark on which to build future IRL spaces that deliver via their quality and immediacy of impact.
In the post-COVID-19 world, experiences have to over-deliver by factors of two to three times what they used to. Because of this risk/reward correlation, they will be designed to create never-before-seen moments accessible only in the physical realm, that generate value through exceptional quality, detail, uniqueness and the highest level of design. In a way, it’s a turning point – a great moment for best-in-class experience designers – as all others will fall by the wayside. Beyond their hygienic improvements, experiences will deliver even more nuanced customization for their audiences, will create exceptional arrival moments akin to audio-visual performance, and will retain physicalized memories of our particular experience so that our second visit is more advanced than our first. These kinds of design and technical details mirror that which has existed in digital experience for decades, like software “preferences” or a user’s “cache” to improve performance.
Like in Big Tech, this will take a designer’s devotion to eliminating all experiential mediocrity, just as it does when Facebook A/B tests its own products, rigorously weeding out underperformance. After all, as we’ve learned from our experience working remotely under quarantine, there may be no powerful reason to return to a workplace unless the communal experience and space is of such a high-caliber of design, interaction, connection, and learning that it enhances work-life in significantly impactful ways.
Who knew that “two-factor authentication” would become a household term? Captcha, a mandatory step in authenticating anything online by proving you’re “not a robot” is now a simple click. This is more than a sign of the times. It’s the successful contemporary branding of digital security and authentication.
Designers willutilize the same ideas Big Tech applies to its digital products in terms of authentication, protection and security, and apply them to real-world experiences. This means quantification of what tech entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasa calls a “Bio-Trust” metric – the ability to believe that a person or place can guarantee a quantitative level of hygiene. Designers will need to reckon with this new standard, using a new type of branding to apply the optics of Bio-Trust for all face-to-face experiences. Without this, audiences won’t feel secure nor able to authentically participate in any communal experience without hesitation.
This presents a huge opportunity for designers, who can bring to life a long-term visual system that helps reinforce behaviours and confidence. Whether it’s defining the semiotics of simple graphics systems for urban landscapes, or an equivalent to the quality assurance ratings that have existed in the restaurant industry, or in the sustainability quotients of modern architecture, we’ll need to design the optics of Bio-Trust and hope they’re broadly adopted.
For every digital product that we use religiously, there are hundreds more that failed and were intentionally put to bed. Whether it’s Google+, Facebook Email, or the Amazon Fire Phone, Big Tech is ruthless about adapting to the next technological innovation. Facebook’s mantra, although highly politicized in recent years, has been “Move fast, and break things” for a reason.
It’s shocking to remember that our interactions with discontinued products and services like Vine, Google Wave, Google Glass, Facebook Places, and others may have once been deep and meaningful. But they were ultimately underperformers, and our affinity and emotion is now wedded to newer tools.
Designers will need to be similarly ruthless in adapting real experiences for our post-COVID challenges. We’ll need to make a host of quick and meaningful technological changes and additions to the spaces we inhabit – since audiences will no longer mindlessly engage with technology that has bio-risk. This could be as simple and obvious as a move to “touchless” tech – with many of our experiences becoming gesture- or mobile-activated. But really that’s only where things begin, a superficial first expression of a more disruptive paradigm.
These integrations will allow the potential for creative and inspired usage of new tech to come back exponentially. As technology drives towards ruthlessly quantitative benefits (solving the problem of touchless interfaces or socially distanced queuing), there will be a similarly whimsical and beautiful reactionary force exploring the potential of technological change.
We’ll see people harnessing new technology and platforms for personal, creative, and unexpected outputs. Is this a “TikTok moment,” where a cultural zeitgeist is defined by a platform? Or, will people flock to hack it and turn it into something new? Will it be a moment in which new technology innovation will be reused and remade? The applications are potentially endless: consider the effect of using computer vision and blob-tracking tools – which have been around for a long time – as pragmatic social-distancing technologies and a standardized technological infrastructure.
Imagine walking through the public or private space in between a transit hub and a workplace lobby that has incorporated this kind of end to end visual detection. What if instead of a harsh “beep” sound when people gather too closely, the experience became a simple, beautiful audio/visual game, optimizing bio-safe behaviours and rewarding people with credits that can be cashed in as part of the local retail program? Or, what about a communal digital art project that visualizes people’s every day movement so long as they stay six feet apart?
There is creativity and beautiful moments of experience to be had, even among the sweeping, and more generic, technological infrastructure changes that will happen in the first-wave response.
While COVID-19 has put a damper on IRL for the moment, it’s inevitable that we’ll bounce back. We’re animals at heart and crave community, exploration and discovery.Buteven if many things go back to near-normal, we have to begin to paint a picture of that future and look for opportunities to improve it with design – beyond the basics. We cannot simply return to business as usual, with the same expectations, services and outcomes. Everything can be redesigned to consider a future where experiences have to be both inspiring and safe, functional and experimental, in-person and virtual. We have to design what living in this dual reality will mean. In this IRL challenge, Big Tech, and how it has managed to overcome these kinds of digital threats to its products, processes, and services, may actually hold the key.
This is the design challenge for the next era – affecting the way we think about public experiences like transportation, urban space, placemaking and the arts; about commercial experiences driven by retail consumerism, paid brand experiences, and entertainment; about the workplace, where community, communication, and group efficiency will become very different. In that transition back to our spaces and experiences, designers have a real chance to do more than change how they look and feel. We can design excellence, beauty and trust – all at the same time.
David Schwarz is a founding partner of experience design firm HUSH, which has worked on experiential design projects for Facebook, Instagram, Google, LinkedIn and more.
David Schwarz, a founding partner of New York studio HUSH, explains how the lessons of Big Tech could inform experiential design from now on.