The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust our lives into uncertainty. The unemployment rate remains high, people struggle to plan their days and their lives due to unclear and ever-changing guidelines for returning to work and school, and consumers worry about both their finances and the health and well-being of their families and communities. COVID-19 has resulted in a new state of worry, ambiguity, disruption and volatility. 

As more customers turn to digital channels to research, compare, purchase, use or renew needed products and services, they do so with more on their mind. Supporting customers during this time of societal upheaval requires businesses to earn the trust of customers and pay close attention to their critical needs, values and expectations across their entire shopping experience and with consideration to the contexts of their lives. This is the foundation of an experience-driven approach to e-commerce.

Working with Idea Couture, our premier human-centered design agency, we’ve identified four design principles that can help businesses navigate these precarious times. One of these principles, “design for uncertain futures,” describes how businesses can activate and operate through uncharted territory:

  • Provide purpose: In times of crisis, people often endure by finding purpose, both individually and as a community. For example, starting from the early days of the pandemic, we’ve seen thousands of citizens make homemade masks and either donate them or give the profits to causes they believe in. These modern-day versions of the World War-era victory gardens provide people with a sense of direction, stability and a clear path of action during an otherwise uncertain time. 

    To stand out in a now-crowded e-commerce space, companies that could formerly rely just on price or product to compete now also need to convey a message of what they stand for. For example, along with their quick design and production of ventilators, Dyson has created 44 engineering challenges for children and teens to help parents and kids learn and explore during times of homeschooling and distance learning. A brand and e-commerce experience that articulates a strong sense of purpose and direction will help customers get to know the business and stand with it through uncertain times. 

  • Demonstrate empathy: The current crisis has also provoked a surge in downloads of mental health apps and user engagement with mental health platforms. People are struggling with new problems, like Zoom fatigue, isolation and loneliness, grief over the loss of loved ones, job loss and juggling full-time employment with full-time parenting. This is leading to burnout and overwhelming feelings of fatigue and uncertainty. 

    Given the burdens people are carrying, some forms of brand promotion and marketing can feel disingenuous. To overcome this, businesses need to connect with consumers in a way that is empathetic and transparent. E-commerce giant eBay gets this, and has pledged $100 million to make it a bit easier for small sellers to turn a profit and generate revenue through e-commerce by starting its “Up & Running” accelerator program, which will make the eBay store free for three months. By encouraging a feeling of unity, brands can provide reassurance and stability; a simple message of “we’re going through it too” in customer support, service and loyalty programs can go a long way toward building trust and consumer confidence. 

  • Cultivate trust: We’re living through a moment where our systems and institutions themselves are being questioned, and major legacy brands are making hard financial decisions, closing their doors and even declaring bankruptcy. With such upheaval in trusted brands, services and products, consumers are looking for organizations to demonstrate transparency, ethical diligence and an anticipatory mindset in their strategic leadership. When a brand or a business looks like they can weather the storm, consumer confidence rises.

    Moving forward, the value and integrity of products and services will be determined by the degree of assurance they can deliver to overcome feelings of fear and doubt. For example, McDonald’s in the Philippines outlined new COVID worker requirements, and assured customers that they would not hesitate to close restaurants if they felt safety and well-being were at risk. Clear indicators of stability and credibility in messaging, products, services and organizational policies can cultivate trust. 

  • Create a future memory: In times of uncertainty, the ability to imagine and drive confidently toward the future inspires action and engenders trust. An example is Bill Gates’ application of war gaming methodologies in public health, which he calls “germ games.” The capacity to think strategically is becoming more important than ever. 

    Scenario planning – and related methodologies such as wildcard and blind spot analysis – can provide a systematic way of organizing uncertain information and considering the impact of different changes and events. Organizations that can establish reliable, trusted and secure systems that are agile, dynamic and flexible in the face of change will cultivate a sense of comfort and connection with consumers. 

Balancing Certainty with Uncertainty

Businesses need to anticipate the needs of their customers, employees and communities as they navigate the altered experiences of today. This isn’t easy, given the fact that our behaviors, values and attitudes are still in flux. As the run on toilet paper and flour during the early months of the pandemic demonstrated, consumers were (and still are) looking to grasp a sense of stability during an extreme moment of uncertainty. 

Moving forward, as customers expect more consistency across omnichannel and digitally enabled experiences, commerce will need to be different in order to deliver. Getting it right requires the blending of technology, creativity and human understanding. Businesses need to ask themselves key questions: Are we genuinely aligned with consumers’ current mindset, paying attention to their shifting needs and values, and demonstrating that we’re right there with them? What are the contexts of their lives that shape how we need to reach (market) and sell (commerce)?

Companies that cultivate a holistic and grounded understanding of people and human behavior, and take an experience-driven approach to commerce, will have a huge advantage in the market. Reaching and selling to consumers in a more consistent and holistic manner involves more than just a new piece of creative content or implemented software. By designing for uncertain futures, organizations can increase sales, attract new buyers, and create and strengthen customer loyalty and brand identity. 

Jillian Powers

Jillian Powers

Jillian is a senior resident ethnography and human-centered designer at Idea Couture, Cognizant’s premier human-centered design agency. She has over 10 years... Read more