As we find ourselves at the one-year mark of living through a global pandemic, the novelty of ultra-fast digitization is starting to fade. In 2020, the majority of daily habits and essential to-do lists that once made up so many of our in-person interactions were forced to happen virtually. In 2021, most of what people are doing—they’re doing online. Today’s new reality is proving that people aren’t just accustomed to online experiences, but expect the digital experience to translate as seamlessly and effectively as they once would have in person.

Digital experience expectations around a genuinely good user experience have changed. A recent article published by BuiltInNYC explained the ways the approach to design has evolved for companies who create software in 2021. The lightspeed digital transformation has caused the impact of design to broaden digital experience along with the reach of all the steps and teams involved in UI/UX design. Design is no longer “just the product of an exclusive group puzzling over color variations on a website.” “It’s a collaborative process to define business priorities and public responsibilities, understand customer needs—even who customers are—and coalesce around brand visions that express a particular point of view.”

BuiltInNYC calls this coalescence between better design and an intentional company culture shift ‘design maturity.’ In this state, cross-disciplinary team collaboration thrives, and the impact of providing a helpful UX deepens, as UI/UX designers see an opportunity to act as liaisons between IRL (in real life) human experiences and their digital interactions. 

This evolution has caused the value of designing—and delivering—genuinely good user experiences to skyrocket. More importantly, though, it’s helped to prioritize genuine human experiences within building tech, leading to a more humanized approach to UI/UX design and some welcome and necessary change as a result.

Using Discovery Research to Better Understand the Human Experience 

Digital Experience - Discover research for better human experience and UX

One of the most imperative parts of UX actually doesn’t involve any design at all—a survey by User Interviews reported that 93% of UX researchers conduct all of their research prior to the rest of the design team starting any actual wireframing or concepting. Because of the rapidly changing digital landscape, however, the way teams conduct UX research in 2021 might have a different kind of timeline.

To keep up with this new dynamic and help companies better understand their users’ behavioral shifts, more UX teams are prioritizing discovery research—which means researching a problem, framing for what needs to be solved, and then spending time gathering evidence without having a set hypothesis to test for. The Full-Stack Researcher reported after interviewing over 100 product and UX teams, that “in 2021, discovery research is no longer treated as a ‘nice to have’…scaling companies spend 70% of research resources on discovery.”

Digital Experience - User's Behavioral Shift

As explained in an article by the UX Collective, “the problems users are facing and their needs this week may not be the same problems they need to solve…as the crisis continues to unfold with cascading effects.”As the digital wave continues to bring new types of users online, UX researchers continue to experience a constant tidal wave of new—primarily qualitative—data. New insights become available from previously unengaged communities and demographics at an extremely fast pace—reflective of the constantly, rapidly evolving user needs during a time of crisis. 

Ongoing discovery research allows UX teams to prioritize actual human experiences in real-time, helping designers make increasingly humanized decisions within the program. By increasing discovery research, teams are also better equipped to adopt product-led growth—an “alternative go-to-market strategy that uses the product to acquire, activate and retain customers.” When end-users (and their needs) become the primary driving factors behind company strategy, UX design becomes increasingly humanized—and usability increases. 

Change in Action: Increased Usability, Better UX in the Health Care Industry

In particular, among the companies who stand to benefit from increased usability and overall better design are those in the healthcare and mental health industries. This is largely due to an influx in end-users—resulting in increased opportunity and a wider data pool for conducting more thorough discovery research.

Usability within the digital healthcare space has been notoriously problematic. And, prior to COVID-19, this disconnect logically made sense. Those who spent more time online (younger demographics) were less frequently in need of medical information, and those who did need access to healthcare (elderly demographics) were not seeking it out online. Thus, these interfaces would receive little traffic, less attention, and even less time spent by companies conducting data analysis or working to increase their usability. The result? Extremely poor, inconsistent UX. 

Now, healthcare companies are seeing a completely different set of users online. As the most at-risk group during COVID-19, people ages 70+ have also become the group to spend the most time inside, requiring health companies to be able to help them virtually and rethink their UX design strategy. “Now, we really need to design better for senior citizens who can’t rely on the old solutions,” says Jakob Nielsen, user advocate and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group. “Interfaces have to be really, really simplified dramatically for the senior citizens to use them well.”

While modern design did not previously accommodate seniors, a new trend towards simplicity and accessibility emerged as a large-scale impact of the pandemic on UX design. In response to this trend, many UX design consultancies are focused on helping the healthcare industry implement some of these changes by guiding them through a more humanized methodology. 

MadPow, a design consultancy in the HealthTech space, encourages clients in the mental health space to take a more psychologically-grounded approach by actively keeping users’ actual experiences top-of-mind. As an example, MadPow’s recommended model prioritizes six pillars (easily memorized by the acronym ‘HEALTH’) as best practices in digital design for mental health care providers:

  • Human. Putting an emphasis on personal factors (like social support and incentives) helps motivate users to continue using a platform. 
  • Evidence-based. A data-driven approach is more important than ever: designers should not only use research findings to motivate their approach, but also make those findings transparent to their users. 
  • Accepting. Encouraging empathetic design across the platform helps maintain positive user interaction and ongoing motivation.
  • Lasting. When an app or interface is well-designed to help users with a specific illness, users should come away from the experience feeling empowered and motivated – never judged. 
  • Tested. When testing, prioritize usability. This helps patients avoid making potentially harmful assumptions or accidental negative conclusions while using the platform. 
  • Holistic. It’s important to pay attention to differences in patient needs depending on their demographics. A successful user experience should clearly target a specific audience in order to avoid designing for contradictory needs.

If healthcare companies continue to place a greater emphasis on humanizing their user experience—through methods like discovery research and a focus on accessibility—overall usability in the industry will increase. By actively working to build products with a humanized approach to UX design, the industry as a whole can get closer to creating a culture of ‘design maturity’ that genuinely puts the public first. 

With big companies paying more attention to features like accessibility, it’s safe to say 2021 positively forecasts a wave of more inclusive design seen throughout technology overall. As companies in the healthcare industry continue to grow their user base to the broader public, other industries such as travel and e-commerce will likely begin to take notice. Already, the Nielsen/Norman group is highlighting companies who are emphasizing offering new features and services to meet the changing needs, saying: “before the pandemic, we didn’t see these kinds of features as being very important…Those features, today, are our core products.” The positive change of prioritizing usability will influence bigger, industry-agnostic tech giants who make technology to follow suit. 

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