Insights

Self-service station interactions beyond COVID-19

April 2, 2020

How comfortable would you be using a touch screen or key pad in a public or commercial space from now on?

A few months ago most of us would have deemed a global pandemic as just a dystopia. Suddenly, nurses and doctors are struggling and coping with limited resources to save lives everywhere from Wuhan and Tehran to Lombardy and New York. Health care workers around the world are and will be the heroes of the COVID-19 crisis. As a UX designer, all I can do is stay at home and avoid human contacts.

However, after the immediate crisis is over (whenever that is), we need solutions that could protect us from epidemics in the future, and there’s a role for UX professionals in it. One thing is for sure: we must start taking hygiene seriously.

Until now, designers have been considering usability and ease of use, proficiency and accessibility. Maybe we have been also dealing with things like ergonomics, information security, or privacy issues. But how many of us have really thought of hygiene factors and avoiding viruses and bacteria? Looking at the world during the COVID-19 crisis, I would guess not many.

The rise of self-service

During the last 10-15 years, companies and organizations have streamlined their services with all kinds of self-service solutions for consumers. There are self-service checkouts in grocery stores, self-service check-ins in hotels, health centers and gyms, self-service ordering at fast food restaurants, self-service bag drops in airports. You name it.

At first look, one might think these self-service solutions help us avoid diseases - the less human contacts there are, the less would be the chances for viruses spreading. However and unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that. Most of the self-service solutions are being used with touch screens, keypads, buttons and payment terminals. Most of these are hard or impossible to use with gloves on.

According to a study published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, SARS-CoV-2 virus can live on surfaces between several hours and several days. The study found that the virus is viable for up to 72 hours on plastics, 48 hours on stainless steel and 24 hours on cardboard. Now, I’m recalling certain self-service fast food restaurants before the lockdown: If they couldn’t even manage to keep the tables tidy, they most likely didn’t disinfect their food ordering touch screens every five minutes.

Pinching and swiping

About 10 years ago, the world fell in love with touch screens. Using a touch screen felt natural as they enabled us to interact directly with what is displayed, rather than using a mouse or other such devices we had used before. (For the record: Public mouses and keyboards are not very clean either.)

For us designers, touch UI’s allowed using new kinds of interactions, such as swiping or pinching, but the basis of graphical user interfaces remained: the use of icons and visual representations to display all elements and related user controls on the screen.

Since the first iPhone was presented in 2007, artificial intelligence and other technical developments have taken major steps that would provide us alternatives. For the last five or so years, we have been tracking whether some new touchless UI paradigms such as voice UI’s and non-touch gesture controls are really gaining traction.

What to expect?

Technology provides solutions, but sometimes it takes crises like this to really cause a pull to use them. COVID-19 will probably accelerate the development of touchless interfaces for example in the medical field and in public ATMs and kiosks. And where public touch screens are absolutely necessary, antibacterial touch screen technologies should be utilized to minimize the growth of bacteria and viruses.

As a familiar technology to many, Near Field Communication (NFC) solutions can help us avoid touching public surfaces - they already do when we make small payments or get on to public transportation. The vast majority of people carry a personal smartphone wherever they go, so why wouldn’t we use them with an NFC sensor instead of typing our personal information into check-in kiosks and such? Also QR codes can be used to identify and interact with users’ own devices: Entering Coop Norway’s first unmanned store is just one example of this. We will see more and more solutions where the personal smartphone will become an input device for the publicly used solution. It would not only be safer, but also a quicker and more pleasant way of dealing with self-service solutions.

Even after the current pandemic is won, the need for these kinds of touchless self-services will remain especially in places like pharmacies and health care facilities. We at Idean will gladly take part in designing those. So, if your company uses public user interfaces, let’s work together to provide touchless alternatives for your users. Or if your company has technological solutions that would help in this, let’s work together to ensure it’s delivered with a smooth user experience.

Tomi Tontti is a Lead UX Designer and Coach at Idean Finland, who has been crafting digital experiences since year 2000. Despite of his love for touch screens, he has been wearing gloves in public spaces lately.

Photo “vr:n lippuautomaatti” by Antti T. Nissinen, used under CC BY

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