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Product Design during a National Emergency

It’s currently week 3 into a National Emergency with COVID-19 and we have been taking some time to adjust, but also contemplating what this might mean for the future of product design.

Posted on 6th April 2020 in Product Design

You, like us, are likely settling into week 3 of staying home; fighting with your kids for internet bandwidth as they stream Peppa Pig, raiding the fridge at any time of the day and struggling to find something original to watch on TV.

Our working world as we know it, has been flipped on its head.  All meetings are conducted over video conference, we’re picking up the phone more to quickly chat with colleagues, emails are finally being used to capture actions rather than conversations!  There is no long commute to get to the office, sitting in traffic and essentially wasting time every day.  We’re being more flexible with our work/life balance, juggling conference calls with childcare, almost forgetting that 9-5 routine we used to have.

Of course, we miss the social aspects of being in an office, grabbing a coffee with a colleague, heading out for lunch with a friend who works nearby or sneaking in a pint or two before catching the train home in the evening.  But on the flipside, we’re spending more quality time with our immediate families, we’re eating home-cooked meals every night, we’re making time to go out for that walk or exercise every day, the sky is quieter without planes flying overhead and we can hear the birds in the trees over the hum of the local road for the first time.  All of these are no doubt positives to come out of a very negative situation.

So what does the future hold and what can we expect post lockdown? Here are some of our predictions for the world of product design:

Quality over Quantity

With supply chains being put under immense strain to deliver products to stores globally, whilst a high percentage of the workforce is either ill or socially isolating, we can expect to see reduced options available for products.  Whereas once it was possible to source multiple products of a similar or same function, there could be a real push towards sourcing a single product that offers the best in terms of both quality and value.

This means that competition will be high between brands to ensure their product is the one stocked, which should drive forward a real focus on product quality instead.  We believe quality never needs to be compromised, no matter what price you plan on retailing at.

Increased focus on environmental sustainability

It has been widely documented that levels of pollution have significantly dropped in built-up areas between the present day and 12 months prior, which just goes to show that we, as a human race, can make a real difference to climate change.

Questions should be asked of all the major polluting industries; do we really NEED to continue what we’re doing or can we make a real change towards greener energies and less polluting manufacturing methods?  This will be driven primarily by consumer demand – if we, as consumers, stop purchasing material goods under this umbrella of disposable fashion, then the demand for the manufacturers will shift too.

Consumers hold the key to change, not the manufacturers, they are simply supplying a service to a specific demand.  It is our job as designers, to guide the client to the most sustainable and environmentally friendly product solution.  Whether that is stipulating the use of recycled materials or designing the product so that it can be disassembled at the end of its usable life, we are here to guide you on that journey.

The death of high street retail

This will not happen because of COVID-19, as its demise has been predicted for years already, but this should be the final nail in the coffin.  Bricks and mortar retail cannot survive during a period of social isolation and lockdown, even those stores who do have an online presence will be scrambling to shift over their business operations to online as we speak.  Even if high street retailers can weather the storm, they will be a very different place in the future, most likely more focused on experiencing the products rather than specifically selling them.

Online purchasing is a very different experience to high street retail.  Firstly you can have a much higher volume of both products and brands in an online store, but referencing our first prediction above, we believe that online options will also become reduced, instead focusing on best-sellers with a readily available and steady supply chain.

Secondly, the way products are merchandised online is very different.  A successful online retailer will provide the customer with all the information they need to make a purchasing decision, including detailed descriptions, quality images, lifestyle photography and dimensional drawings.  Some even go as far as 3D visuals which the customer can interact with.  We are also currently experimenting with creating Augmented Reality (AR) versions for our customers, which enable the customer to go one step further and visualise what that particular product will look like in the destined environment.

All this means that the product and desired function need to speak for themselves.  Good design does not need much explaining at all and will appeal to the majority of people.  Poor design will quickly fall by the wayside.

Increased focus on design for healthcare

Everyone has no doubt seen the amazing efforts made by UK businesses and manufacturers to produce tens of thousands of ventilators for use in the NHS over the coming months.  Some companies, like Dyson, have even gone one step further and developed a brand new ventilator with plans to produce 15,000 in the coming month or so.  If COVID-19 has taught us one thing, it is that our NHS is one of, if not the most, valuable service our country has to offer, something that we should be ashamed to say has not been the top of everyone’s agenda until now.

We predict that this situation will spark a radical change in the support of our NHS, with more budget and resources being allocated by the government to support bringing our hospitals up to scratch in terms of technology and support.  This will in turn spark more businesses and brands vying to find solutions to healthcare problems, with the cash finally available to see them come to fruition.

Social distancing is here to stay

Some people may be under the impression that within a matter of weeks, this will all have blown over and we can return to normal life as it was in 2019.  Unfortunately, that does not appear to be feasible.  Scientists are apparently 12-18 months away from a vaccination for COVID-19, which means that during that period there will continue to be a high risk of infection, which in turn will mean social distancing will need to continue for at least that period of time.

Even if, after 18 months, we can start to socialise closely again, many people will have adjusted to and become accustomed to separating themselves from those not from their household.  Handshakes and hugs could become a thing of the past, replaced instead with some entirely different greeting method.  New public architecture will likely need to account for some level of social distancing in their design, for example much wider corridors so people can pass with at least 2m distance.  Going to work in an office could become a distant memory as those who can will continue to work from home, with all the benefits that brings, with the backing of their employees who can save thousands in office rental and associated costs.

We also predict that there will be a surge in personal wearable products that enable the user to easily, and discreetly, know whether they are within 2m of someone else.  Imagine if your Apple Watch could discreetly vibrate and notify you whenever someone not from your approved household list came close to you.  Where there are obstacles, there are always product opportunities that can make a difference to someone’s life.

Overall, we are very aware of the major threat to people’s health over the coming months, but we are also cautiously optimistic about what the future may hold.  Difficult times like these often spark the greatest leaps in engineering and technology, so we could be on the cusp of the fifth industrial revolution.  So if you, like us, see opportunity amongst all this madness, then we would love to chat.

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