Designing products and services that people love requires a deep understanding of evolving consumer behaviors. In recent history, we’ve often relied on behavior changes driven by emerging technology as the primary source of innovation opportunities. However, the global COVID-19 pandemic has proven to all of us that it’s not just technology that changes the world. Public health emergencies have the same potential to disrupt long-held social norms, buying behaviors and business models.
Now that the roots of many old routines have been torn out of the ground, behaviors that were once understood as second nature can now be questioned. Do we have to go to universities that require decades of student debt? Do weddings have to always take place in person? Can we have online relationships that are just as meaningful as physical ones?
This type of systemic change is an unfolding process with myriad interdependencies that we cannot pretend to completely understand or control. Some changes may be short-lived. Some may never occur. Even with the uncertainty, it’s our duty as designers to explore what’s likely to change the course of the human experience—and what new opportunities for innovation may arise.
Below are design provocations based on five key consumer behavior changes we’ve been observing and talking about since the crisis began in early 2020.
Better Sanitation, Flexibility and Local Support
People and communities often bounce back from health crises with innovations that multiply the strength of their towns and cities in the long-run. Nineteenth century cholera outbreaks inspired the design of Central Park and other critical sanitation innovations. Moving forward, we anticipate people will continue to seek benefits of cleaner shared spaces, community self-reliance and flexibility of remote collaboration. In the long-run, it will reduce barriers to growth, both economically and socially.
The new community resilience might manifest as a growing customer preference for venues that have implemented health passports/check-in systems or elegantly distanced environments. Neighbors may come together more regularly on managing a community garden, or subscribing to a local farmshare. To supplement lost face-to-face time, school teachers may visit micro groups of students each week in spaces designed for safe in-person learning—creating new education experiences that replace existing models.
The Stigma Fades Away
During this pandemic, many have become very attentive not only to their personal hygiene and physical wellness rituals, but also to the condition of their mental health. Looking forward, we anticipate consumers may likely continue to be attracted by products and services that have a positive effect on their mental well-being and feeling of safety.
This de-stigmatization of mental health might result in employers offering weekly sessions with digital therapists as a benefit to attract and retain talent. As a way of tracking and improving one’s well-being, the habit of sharing data about stress levels and mental health indicators could become as comfortable and common as sharing steps and jogging statistics. Larger organizations such as banks could provide mental and social well-being support in order to reduce future risks of financial trouble.
Making Money Go Further, Sustainably
The cocktail of economic and emotional shock caused by the global pandemic could very well rattle consumption culture in the years to come. The economic reopening will see a greater number of conscious consumers—ones that are thrifty, resourceful and more disciplined in how they use cash and time. Sharing economy, upcycling and circular economy services may grow, even becoming mainstream status symbols rather than niche economies.
This focus on conscious consumption means customers will make purchases based on their high upcycling potential, or because the brand is aligned with their ethical values or committed to improving social outcomes. As a result, they may prioritize durability and material quality over purchases that offer only short-term benefit, while also opting-in for new reuse and recycle solutions emerging in the market. Through the adoption of new zero-waste platforms, consumers will become more aware of alternative food resources in their surroundings, allowing them to make ethical purchases, while staying within their budget.
Deeper Connections in the Digital Realm
When physical movement was restricted by lockdown, digital space exploded with activity. The meetings that make the world economy spin moved into laptop screens, an online game transformed into the world’s most intense, psychedelic and crowded concert venue, wedding celebrations were hosted over video calls, people graduated in virtual worlds in Minecraft and a generation of students moved to digital classrooms. Sure there have been some gaffes and awkward moments in the process, but the relative amount of success stories reflects our ability to adopt a new set of digital-social behaviors.
It’s possible one’s inner circle would expand and become more evenly distributed between in person and digital realities. These relationships might become deeper and more meaningful, as they may have the possibility to ‘spend time together’ socializing online in new forms. To bring back the feeling of face-to-face interactions, digital events will become increasingly immersive, including weddings, funerals, concerts and festivals.
Home, Sweet Office, Classroom, Gym, Etc.
Since the lockdown began, many houses have become multi-purpose spaces with more people than ever working, socializing, learning and exercising from the comfort/discomfort of their own homes. We began to transform layouts, use forgotten spaces and buy new furniture, slowly transforming the contemporary paradigm of the home into something new and functional. Our homes became a powerful weapon in the fight against contagion and isolation, unlocking new layers of its purpose, comfort, safety and usefulness.
Moving forward, we expect to see the home, and in-home behaviours, evolve. We are likely to see a blending of work-time and family time throughout the day, rather than being concentrated in the evenings. The home will need to support more “modes” as people bring the gym, school, and cafe into the home. Common areas may be re-designed in modular formats to enable greater fluidity throughout the day. With more people in the house more often, homeowners may invest more time and money into optimizing home energy usage and air quality.