Designing Virtual Experience to Solve the Real World Problem

Good UX design always seeks to eliminate problems, making an experience better for a product’s or service’s users. Many companies say UX when they really mean influence users to take an action or make it difficult to cancel a service without incurring fees, but I digress. 

Every day since mid-March of 2020, we’ve all been reminded of just how not normal things have gotten. Even the previously unremarkable experiences of getting a beer with friends highlighted the incredible difference of the world when compared with 2019. 

For much of the last (well, let’s see, it’s October 2021, so March of 2020 was, wow, seven years ago), so anyway, for much of the last seven years, the real world has been a problem to solve. We did so by meeting with friends and coworkers online, with texts, video chats, and video games.

These tools are not new, nor are these uses. In 2019, Owen Williams wrote the video game Fortnite isn’t a game; it’s a place. I’m not a gamer, but Williams’s case is compelling. 

Instead of the traditional team buildings, companies switched to virtual team building with online games. The virtual escape room concept was one of my favorite creative reworks of existing technology, an example of design to solve a real problem, going outside.

Seeing people devolve and use these adapted tools within companies is honestly exciting to me for a few reasons: 

  1. The tools are not new.
  2. The experiences are relatively accessible. 
  3. No one confuses these with a replacement for real life.

The tools are not new

Whenever a founder wants to build new tech from scratch, I push back because in 90% of cases, existing tools can outperform any technology built in a reasonable timeframe. I have friends who may have landed a founder in therapy due to these types of discussions. 

Rather than creating from scratch, adapting existing conferencing tools, and using them creatively is efficient. Yes, a lot of things are developed, 3d environments, video game controls, and much more. But if you don’t understand the difference between building a video game for a Playstation and building a game console with new hardware and underlying firmware, I’m not sure we can speak civilly. 

The experiences are relatively accessible.

Accessibility is a big thing to me as a designer, and it’s important to those who cannot access something due to a disability or other limitation. Give a listen to this 99PI podcast about curb cuts for more context. 

I understand that not everyone can see, hear or access the internet. But within a company that is likely to engage in this type of team building, I’m willing to bet that home internet access is universal for the employees involved. 

The physical disabilities are somewhat addressed by functions like live closed captions built into Zoom. These types of accessibility functions are the things most likely to be left out of fully custom software tools.

No one confuses these with a replacement for real life.

The least important of my points, we are not in a “new normal”; we are in a painful period of time that shall pass. Some things, like remote work, and perhaps broad access to telehealth, may stay. But we are temporarily solving a problem. 

These are not tools that seek to replace; but they will perhaps help is get past this moment in time. The real world will come back, and we can get beers with friends and colleagues again. 

Photo by Vadim Bogulov on Unsplash


User Experience & Security: A balancing Act

As designers, we all want to offer our users a better experience. But things that allow for proper security often denigrate the UX. For example, having to enter a password is an obstacle to users’ goals. And 2-factor authentication is a pain in the neck. But having a bank account or even a social media account hacked are objectively worth making people suffer the slings and arrows of passwords.

In most cases, excellent short term UX, isn’t worth risking a catastrophic experience failure from poor security. For example, in a pandemic, everyone is worried about health and safety, so we put masks on to protect others. And covid19 has finally made QR codes useful, but those QR codes offer a degree of risk.

QR codes have long been an example of a godawful user experience being used on things like billboards, and TV commercials for an ad agency wow factor, a way of showing how cool a client was. QR codes were pointless because they were used in places where they were hard to scan, and at a time where people didn’t have the technology to fully use the codes.

But now, most people have mobile phones capable of opening a QR code, and we have a reason to use them: restaurants. Specifically as we walk into a restaurant wearing a mask to protect those around us, it’s best to avoid passing around menus from person to person. So the QR code has a place.

Now for the balancing act. According to a report in Internet News Flash

“Windows run commands can be embedded within QR codes (and other forms of 2D barcodes). On the phone, QR codes can start phone calls, send text messages, or trigger an app’s actions. Apple Pay may even begin to let users use a QR code to send payments shortly. “

This opens a good deal of security risk, for consumers. As QR codes can be replaced with a sticker that could install malware or sent a payment. For the most part, smartphones like recent versions of android and iOS show a preview of the actions a QR code would trigger. But consumers have to stay mindful to avoid being the one to trigger the hack.

Internet News Flash mentions a restaurant that has decided to use designed QR codes with a company logo to help staff recognize if a QR code is tampered with by a bad actor. In contrast, other businesses are sticking with laminated menus to be sanitized frequently.

Photo by Mitya Ivanov on Unsplash


Coffee: The UX Lesson

I look for the user experience lessons in the way people use and consume everyday things. As one of the most consumed beverages worldwide, coffee shows the diversity of ways people may use what is in essence, the same thing. Among my friends and colleagues, I see five ways coffee is consumed.

  1. A utility
  2. A break
  3. A luxury
  4. A craft
  5. Incidentally coffee

Coffee as a Utility

K-Cups, instant coffee, or coffee that is not known for a delightful taste where caffeine is the primary goal, is what I consider coffee as a utility. Most adults in the U.S. probably have consumed coffee this way, but for some, it’s the only way coffee is used.

I recall speaking with a barista at La Reunion Coffee. The barista, Mike, I believe was his name, competed in the World Barista Championship. He pointed out that most coffee drinkers do notice a difference between great and tolerable coffee but that they may not care.

In other words, someone who drinks coffee every morning because that is what they do, can appreciate luxury but won’t go out of the way to look for it, as any coffee meets the need they have.

Coffee as a Break

One of my dear friends drinks one, yes one single cup of coffee a day. For him, it’s a break. He drinks his coffee and reads a book for about a half hour. Pre Covid19, he would leave his home or office and sit with his book, his cup, and check out.

The coffee was not unrelated to the experience, but it wasn’t primary. It was a meditation, and he called it an exercise in stepping away. He didn’t need the caffeine; often, he drank decaf. He was practicing self-care, and equally self-restraint. The coffee facilitated a work life, home life, and mental health balance.

Coffee as a luxury

For some people, they love having the best cup of coffee they can get. The experience they want is quality.

A break in the day, or the utility of caffeine or having a meeting, maybe part of the luxury, but it’s not the value driver, to use an MBA term. Here coffee is like a Louis Vuitton handbag without the status symbol. Tasting and savoring, something that you know is the gold standard for bean juice.

Some of the experience may well come from being served instead of making the best cup of joe one may have, but I’ve moved that to the craft section.

Coffee as a Craft

I used to office with someone who owned every coffee gadget under the sun. She would buy high-end coffee beans, and grind them herself, she had 9 ways of brewing coffee, and she seemed to love making coffee, the way people love baking or woodworking. She would watch the YouTube coffee king James Hoffmann review new ways to make coffee.

For her the craft was the driving force behind her coffee consumption. The goal of quality was more than the quality, more than the luxury, the break or the caffeine.

Incidentally Coffee

We’ve all had a coffee shop meeting. The coffee is less important than the date, the friend, or the business. The location, the sitting, the wifi, that is what matters, the coffee, regardless of quality, is a tax paid to the business for giving you a place to sit.

Why Think About it?

Coffee is a big part of many people’s lives. Civilization was built on Coffee and Alcohol is a valid line of thinking. But the way we all consume the beverage is varied. A feature for some is a value driver for others.

When it comes to building products, you must consider how many ways a product can be used. Coffee, for the most part, is consumed as a drink. But it’s also consumed for many reasons. The perfect coffee cup isn’t just the quality of the coffee as rated by a taste test. When we design, that is worth remembering.

Thanks to Mason Pelt for discussing this with me, and for the header image.