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Designing for touchless tech: A UX perspective

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As we approach the latter half of 2020, it’s hard to believe that we have experienced the novel coronavirus for almost a year. This pandemic has caused major changes in the world that have impacted our daily lives. Changes from remote work becoming the norm, to the spark in popularity for touchless tech, there are many aspects of life that may stay changed forever. As life starts to evolve and adapt to current times, technology seems to follow along. As a UX professional, it’s fascinating to see how new tech affects not only our lives but also the way that designers like myself shape our work. 

Our present & future with technology

Physical societal interactions are currently at a minimum. Whether you’re at a restaurant or going to the office, the way you interact with objects and people has drastically changed. Simple actions like paying for food or buying clothes now need to be reconsidered due to the virus. The shift in the way we’re living our lives has triggered a demand for technology to help us adapt to our new lifestyle. An example of one such tech is Amazon’s introduction of the Amazon One, a contactless method of payment with your palm. This kind of new technology highlights the push that companies are trying to make towards contactless interactions. 

A person waving their hand over a palm scanner for payment.
Amazon One will help customers pay quickly and without contact.

Compared to a few months ago, our entire experience in physical stores has now changed drastically. Most stores expect us to wear masks (which they should), with some even offering mandatory hand sanitizer to customers before entering. Go to a store today, and we are now asked (or even expected) to pay through a contactless method, with the exchange of cash being highly discouraged.  Another example of this rapid shift can be found in the restaurant industry, especially in the changes that were made to accommodate customers. Beyond the take-out only and limited seating arrangements, the way that people order has changed as well. A quick, and low touch solution for these worries was the increased implementation of QR codes in restaurants. QR codes have allowed both restaurants and customers to change the traditional ordering experience to cater to COVID-19 worries. With personal devices on-hand, the QR codes act as delivery methods for customers to see a digital menu, order and pay for their meal all without the need for human interaction (whether this is good or bad remains to be seen). As the world continues to navigate through this pandemic, these experiences and more will continue to be part of this new normal, leading us to question what the future holds for us.

How will people’s experiences change? 

Will these changes be permanent even in a post-COVID world? 

How will this affect both UI and UX? 

How do we maintain a human connection?

These questions and more seem to be constantly floating in people’s minds, including mine. There is no doubt that a lot of uncertainty lies ahead, however with innovative pieces of technology being created, it can also make it an exciting journey to navigate.

Designing for different tech 

Technology is constantly evolving as consumer behaviour changes, and we have come a long way in recent years. The design aspect of tech is no exception with new methods of user interaction like gesture, voice and facial recognition being introduced relatively recently. As the touchless tech movement gains momentum, the way that these technologies can be implemented into our lives is now becoming a point of discussion.

Personal Devices

An Iphone opened on the home screen, being held by a hand.
Our phones continue to allow us to interact with the world in unique ways.

Although it may not seem as fancy as the other forms of touchless tech, personal devices provide a safety blanket for those who want to use their device to interact with the world. The shift from shared to personal devices has been going on for a few years now, as companies started to introduce ways for users to do more with their devices. The introduction of Android Pay in 2011 and Apple Pay in 2014 are just a few examples of how personal devices started to become an alternative for users to avoid public surfaces. Apps as well provide different uses to various industries as an alternative for physical interactions. These apps can be used as a form of interaction with guests or employees and provide ease of mind and flexibility for its users. We already do so much with our cell phones and the familiarity of the devices helps lower the learning curve for those who may be hesitant of moving towards these new ways of interacting. These kinds of options already existed prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic has definitely accelerated the need to implement them into our lives.  

Gesture

An individual hovering their hands over the Leapmotion controller and their hands are shown on a screen.
Ultraleap’s Leap Motion Controller can change the way we interact with our digital content.

Gesture technology has existed in various forms for some time now, with one of them being the Xbox Kinect, which was released in 2010. Using this gesture recognition for entertainment was relatively new to the market, and piqued a lot of interest for what the limit was with this kind of tech. Since it’s inception, gesture technology continues to develop and advance other fields outside of entertainment. For example, the company Ultraleap is currently using gesture and motion control technology in its Leap Motion project. As the potential use for this kind of tech also continues to grow, it is exciting to see what possibilities it could create in the near future.

Voice

Nest mini with the volume indicator lit.
“Hey Google” is now a common phase in households.

Voice technology has started to become more prominent in our daily lives. With the introduction of devices like Google Home and Alexa, voice technology has made its way into our households and has created a transition towards a smart home lifestyle. The novelty of it comes from having the ability to turn on & off your lights, play music or obtain information all with a voice command. Although this technology isn’t new, the ability to use it in your house has sparked the attention of many homeowners.

Facial recognition & Biometrics

A pile of face masks on a wooden table.
Face masks have caused disruptions in the way we use facial recognition.

Facial recognition although useful can sometimes be considered a controversial piece of tech. Here at TTT we have shown the value facial recognition can provide, while also ensuring that it’s being ethically used. Facial recognition can be used in a variety of devices, with a common one being our own phones. If you own a cellphone that came out within the last two years, there is a really high chance that it has facial recognition capabilities. However, COVID also has changed the way we interact with facial recognition, due to the increased daily use of masks. Masks have become part of our day-to-day and I’m sure we all have struggled when we tried opening our phones with FaceID. As mentioned earlier, companies continue to develop innovative ways to adapt the technology to the current world situation, with Amazon One being a prime example. Using your palm as a way to confirm your identity sets the stage for other companies to utilize this tech for other purposes outside of payment. Habitual things like unlocking our phones have now also been changed by the virus and although this may seem minor in the big picture, it does allow for new tech to pave the way.  The action of picking up your phone and looking at it causing it to unlock is performed many times throughout the day, but the technology that makes it possible goes beyond the phone. 

Shaking up the design world

Although users only witness the finished product, there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that makes the adoption of these technologies possible. As the tech evolves and adapts to current times, the individuals designing them have to as well. As a UX professional, I feel obliged to talk about the changes within the UX space, however I also want to share my thoughts on the UI side. 

UI

One of the biggest challenges with designing for touchless tech is considering the way people interact with it. Without the presence of buttons or a physical touch, it creates a challenge for designers when building the framework. For example, voice technology uses speech as the method of interaction with the user, removing the traditional touch component. This causes the framework for UI to be reconsidered, due to the different requirements. This shift can ultimately lead to a replacement or augmentation of traditional UI designers with voice designers instead. This same approach can be considered when looking at  gesture and biometric tech, because as the world starts bringing touchless tech more into the mainstream it could create some unrest for the way UI is approached. 

UX

Similar to UI, UX can be assessed in a similar way. The user experience right now has shifted towards an attempt to minimize social interaction and the uncertainty remains whether this will be a permanent or a temporary shift.  

User experience goes beyond just the initial use of the product or service, and aspects like emotion, timing and more have to be considered. Take an interaction like unlocking your phone for example; something we do many times (maybe too many) in one day. If you have any form of biometrical unlocking, you’re more likely to enjoy the experience if your phone unlocks the first time as opposed to struggling with it. The resulting emotion from this interaction is also impacted by its duration, which can sometimes be longer than its manual counterpart. For the most part, showing your face or pressing with your finger should be quicker than inputting a passcode, but we are all too familiar with the fact that this is not always the case (especially with a mask!)

The advances that were made towards user experience in payment, specifically that of contactless payment, can also provide further perspective towards the different principles of UX. Prior to this technology, our method of interaction consisted of either paying in cash, inputting a pin or giving a signature. Although these methods are still relatively quick, contactless payments on average are 52% faster than a contact method and therefore creates a more fluid user experience. The seamless integration of convenience and usability come together to create a more satisfactory user experience. The results of this improved user experience are also beneficial towards businesses that use the technology. As customers are helped in a more efficient manner, this helps businesses to achieve a quicker turnover rate and also instill a positive experience for the customer. 

As we venture through these unprecedented times, it is important to look back and ask questions to see how we can improve our work. I would say that there are two big concerns facing UX designers when it comes to touchless tech:

  1. Trying to ensure that the overall experience feels humanized.
  2. COVID has deterred people apart from each other, how do we bring them together?

A one size fits all solution does not exist in this case as each interaction is different and can depend on the user. To resolve these concerns, it is important to understand and assess daily processes, look at touch points, and create solutions so that we can better the overall experience. This can be difficult to implement, however it is an important aspect to consider towards the overall user experience. We don’t know how long society will be restricted, so making these interactions relatable and humanized is crucial. Testing will also be a huge component moving forward as we take experiences from today and figure out how we can improve them for tomorrow. Touchless tech is still rather “new” and with there being new variations of it in the pipeline, it is important to understand what works and what doesn’t. 

What now?

It seems like a new world out there. Things we took for granted are now gone and we are starting to adjust to what seems to be the “new normal” (I have heard that term too many times now). It’s still uncertain if touchless tech will be a part of our future, but the sudden interest in it has created opportunities for it in a post COVID-19 world. These different types of technologies have and will continue to cause changes to not only the end-user but also to those designing them. There is a lot of uncertainty for many, but I am optimistic about the possibilities that these technologies have for us in the future. 

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