Energise or Exhaust?
Designing our online future
Head of Strategic Innovation
It took one month of “lockdown” for me to realise how totally dependent we are on connectivity. Before the pandemic, broadband was a utility: now it has become a means of survival, as fundamental as food and shelter. That technology should save us from the unpredictability of nature and the torture of isolation is not a novel concept. We’ve been living an increasing amount of our lives online in recent years. But with the onset of the COVID pandemic we have all suddenly been thrown into a massive experiment — our entire lives are now exclusively online.
The challenge of adapting to a completely digital life
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that much of daily life, such as education, play, and cultural events have been enhanced virtually, and provide as much a dopamine high, if not more, than the real thing. However, an exclusively digital life is not without its problems.
Video conferencing is a great example of this, becoming the only lifeline for meetings, dinner parties, workshops, weddings and everything in between. And while it has somewhat satisfied the craving to talk to others and connect with others, “Zoom fatigue” has been overwhelming. This is at least partly because we normally rely on subconscious clues from non-verbal displays, such as body language and facial expressions. Decoding people from imperfect pixelated images and poor-quality audio is just plain exhausting. It is tempting to think that this sudden leap to virtual space is a natural evolution for humans, given our fluency in technology. But Zoom fatigue proves that, as the whole world moves online, the brain has not adapted, and it may not for many centuries.
While Zoom may not be perfect, it is a powerful analogy to use when thinking about the future of digital transformation. Because, tempting as it may be, it is not possible to seamlessly move offline activities and services into a virtual space. Online disruptors have understood this for a while now, creating completely new modes of interaction in sectors such as banking, entertainment, and beauty. They have thrived by abandoning real-world paradigms and limitations, but also crucially by understanding the effect of digital environments on human behaviour. As this global digital migration experiment deepens, the disruption mindset will become imperative because what we consume, and the way we consume has changed for the foreseeable future.
According to ethicist James Williams, "moving a huge proportion of our attention onto screens has forced us to live 100 percent of our time in a new mode of ‘deep distraction’”. The 24/7 immersion in a fire hose of news information, social chatter and entertainment has left us bereft of focus, exhausted and with very little room for memory storage. Digital is definitely a more hostile environment for brands to thrive, and begs the question: do we do enough today in the way we design experiences to calm the digital psyche or aggravate it?
Creating sustainable meaning in digital chaos
The best brands in the world are meticulous about the unique signals they convey with every interaction. Tiny details, including the feel of a particular paper, the curve of a font, the tone of a rep’s voice, or the click of a car door, all matter. They all add up to help us form deep memories and positive associations. But somewhere along the way, companies have been so focused on web builds, and the utility of their products and services, that they have ignored the fine details of brand building. We can see this play out through the plethora of brands using the same fonts, colour scheme, Insta-inspired photography style and page formats; it’s no wonder they struggle to stick. They have forgotten that every tiny detail of the digital experience communicates meaning, from the sound of the clicks, the feel of the virtual space, the movement of the animations, to the tone of the helpful chatbot. And that creating brand power in digital requires the same level of obsession about visual and textual signals, if not more, as when branding in real life.
The Zoom experience shows us that digital environments are not our natural habitat. Without real people or products to touch, smell, feel and hear in front of us physically, our brains do not have sufficient cues to decode or remember them. Brands will need to think how they can design experiences that compensate for this lack of instinctive interpretation.
Let’s use this crisis is a great opportunity to revaluate our creativity in the virtual world, and ask ourselves: Are our ideas coherent and powerful enough to carve a distinct space in consumers’ minds? Are they viscerally immersive enough to stop the mind from racing to the next click? Do the interactions we design energise or exhaust?
Established brands may have to work less at this, as they have been anchored already in the collective consciousness of real life, but new or less popular brands making an entrance into digital will, if they are to stand out and avoid being lost in the infinite data stream.