COVID-19: Change is Afoot

Right now, we’re living in an unprecedented time of global uncertainty due to COVID-19. The virus is an outside force, a new entrant shifting human behaviour across the globe.  Global quarantine and social distancing measures are keeping people indoors, fundamentally changing the ways in which they interact with each other and the world around them. 

Remote conferencing (both personally and professionally) has become widespread, shopping behaviour has left entire product categories in the dust, automated and contactless experiences are now in demand across sectors. And these trends are the obvious tip of the iceberg. The common thread? Interactions of all kinds are now taking place online. Sure, some of them have been online for decades, but others are relatively new to digital worlds. The virus has been a catalyst for seismic changes in the digital landscape, not due to a sudden wave of technological advancement but due to a radical shift in human behaviour. 

To understand the reasons behind this shift in human behaviour, we must first understand humans. But how?

Tackling a Human-Centred Problem

Let’s begin by exploring the scientific discipline of anthropology. 

Anthropology is the study of human societies and cultures, both past and present. It investigates how cultures come into existence as well as how they develop and evolve over time. Ultimately, it deconstructs us humanoids, exploring the exact problem statement currently being posed by COVID-19:

“How are humans currently interacting with each other and the world around them?”

The answer, unsurprisingly, is layered.

There are a handful of established fields within anthropology, each exploring this question from a unique perspective. Socio-cultural anthropology studies patterns of human behaviour and cultural meaning. Linguistic anthropology studies how language influences social life. Biological anthropology studies the biological developments of humans and archaeological anthropology, or archaeology as it’s more commonly referred to, studies the human past through material remains. 

These fields emerged over 100 years ago, working to piece humans together in a way that makes sense; in a way that allows researchers to draw invaluable conclusions about our past, present and at times, our future. 

But a relatively new field within anthropology came onto the scene in 2012 and it may hold the answer to the above question. We already have some idea of how humans are interacting during this pandemic, but this new field may help us understand why.

How Digital Anthropology Can Help

The field of digital anthropology is in its infancy. It only really took off post-2012 when Media Researcher Heather Horst and Anthropologist Daniel Miller released the first edition of their book aptly titled Digital Anthropology. Aggregating insights from a number of global research initiatives studying the impact of digital on humans, the book aims to answer the rather ambitious question ‘What does it mean to be human?’ in the context of digital.

It unpacks how humans interact in digital worlds and how that behaviour changes over time due to technological advancement, globalisation and other outside forces (e.g. COVID-19). It also explores how these behaviour changes quickly take root and become commonplace. 

While most cynics argue that digital worlds deteriorate our humanity due to the immaterial, supposed inauthentic nature of digital, Horst and Miller argue the opposite. Digital worlds actually extend our humanity; extend our definition of what it means to be human. 

Digital worlds are not any less authentic than nondigital worlds – they’re just another arena we interact in. The only reason we fetishize predigital culture as a ‘site of retained authenticity’ is because it’s what we’re used to. Humans have evolved over 5,000 years, in the absence of digital. We’re still adjusting to it; still making sense of how it fits into our lives. But that fact alone doesn’t make digital worlds any less authentic than nondigital worlds. As we’re seeing during COVID-19, digital is allowing us to express our humanity in new and different ways not previously available to us, perhaps making us appear vastly more human than before. 

You may be a bit wary of this notion, so I’ll rely on an insightful anthropological study to substantiate my point. 

In 2011, Communications Professor Mirca Madianou and Daniel Miller initiated a study about transnational families. The study followed middle-aged, Filipina domestic workers residing in London and how they kept in contact with their children back in the Philippines. These Filipina domestics were predominantly deeply suspicious of digital technology, only purchasing their first computer or learning to type a couple of years prior. However, when it came to keeping in contact with their geographically distanced children, they adamantly relied on video-enabled communicative technologies. They didn’t do so for reasons of vision, or ideology, or ability but for reasons of necessity. They depended almost entirely upon digital to remain in contact with their children – to effectively remain mothers. Madianou and Miller argued that digital didn’t make these mothers less human, it just extended their definition of what being human meant. Without digital, the backbone of these mothers’ identities would deteriorate entirely.

During COVID-19, we’re seeing similar behaviour on a mass scale. Most people aren’t currently using digital for reasons of vision, or ideology, or ability but for reasons of necessity. They need to keep in touch with their loved ones. They need a stable income. They need access to essentials. They need to maintain a good mental health. These intrinsic motivations have been the same since the dawn of time, since humans began evolving 5,000 years ago. COVID-19 hasn’t shifted these motivations. Rather, it’s shifted the ways in which we pursue them. And right now, digital is the arena in which we’re pursuing them most heavily.

With this invigorated focus on necessity, established digital behaviours are changing and new ones are cropping up altogether. Entire industries at the mercy of disposable income are collapsing as a result and the ramifications will be long-lasting. With fear of subsequent outbreaks and further economic downturn, the changing digital behaviour of customers is a trend we can expect to continue into the foreseeable future.  

As Experience Designers, it’s our job to stay on top of this shift in behaviour. We may already understand the basics of why it’s happening, but we must work to map where it’s headed. Only then can we continue to design experiences that accommodate this shift in behaviour and drive people toward their intrinsic motivations.

It’s pivotal, now more than ever, to put ourselves in a Digital Anthropologist’s shoes. Ask the questions:

  • What does it mean to be human?
  • How are people behaving in digital worlds, not for reasons of vision, or ideology or ability, but for reasons of necessity?
  • How do we design experiences that allow people to seamlessly pursue their intrinsic motivations during this time of change, uncertainty and fear?

The answers may surprise you.

What You Can Do Today

Whether you’re a one-man or one-woman show, a small business or a large corporation, COVID-19 is presenting you with a unique opportunity to more deeply understand the people who are interacting with your business – your customers. Their behaviour is radically changing, particularly in digital worlds. Key interactions across sectors are being uprooted and reimagined entirely.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by this fact, but there are simple steps you can take today to stay informed and stay ahead of the curve. Stay on top of burgeoning digital trends, see how your competitors are re-positioning themselves in the market, send out a survey to your customers, pick up the phone for some 1-to-1 feedback. Do what you have to do to keep people at the heart of what you do. Be a Digital Anthropologist.

Business as usual isn’t going to cut it. Your customers are locked inside. And day by day, they’re changing. 

Talk to us, as we all prepare to enter a brave new world.

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