Since I started working in digital in 1993, I’ve had five kids and I learned that they are your absolute best observatory for what’s happening with technology. Watch what they’re doing and think about it. It’ll tell you a lot of what you need to know or at least suggest avenues of enquiry.
And it’s not just your kids. It could be your sibling too.
I was in the English countryside with my family to weather the lockdown, when I began to contribute to our COVID-19 research about what to expect next. Though I hadn’t left my house for several days, I knew I needn’t go outside nor use the internet to start to look for clues about what was happening.
I could just look around me.
In the middle of a workday, I passed by my 29-year old daughter’s room and there she was in a party outfit dancing in front of her laptop with eight others doing the same on her screen—virtual birthday card creation.
A few days later, it occurred to me that my septuagenarian sister, once a bit of a technophobe, was now all over Zoom. Suddenly another daughter is a regular in online yoga classes with participants from all over the country.
Those observations got me thinking: What’s going on here?
Developing a hypothesis
The way I began my COVID-19 research is how I begin many of my projects. A lot of my thinking is sparked by observations close to home. You start with a conversation, you reflect on what you see in your personal life, and you begin to extrapolate from that.
Suddenly my 70-year old sister is all over Zoom — what the hell happened there? What does that mean? Does it — could it — mean something bigger?
I start hunting around to see where this will go — other people confirm the clues in conversations or you see it happening on the internet.
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The process also involves a constant redefinition of your terms for reference — asking new questions and discussing again and again until eventually you lose track of where the idea came from.
Pushing a hypothesis with conversations
After an initial pass at the thinking, I’ll start having conversations. For the COVID research, I talked with Lisa de Bonis, managing director at Accenture Interactive. On a Saturday morning, we began to throw ideas out and synthesize them.
We eventually landed on one: confidence mattered.
Later on, Mark Kiernan in the Interactive marketing team, quipped that this was actually a cost. The sense of commitment that a person has to have to a transaction is enormously important. The risk factors multiply at a time like COVID. Think about a person who wants to book a vacation. Especially at a time when there were so many unknowns, how can you do that? Maybe you wait. I know I’m not booking a holiday for my family just yet.
And not knowing has a cost. That’s the cost of confidence.
If you’re just paying attention, there are trigger points across the day. For example, during lockdown, the amount we spend on vehicle fuel nose-dived. Follow that line of thought. If many people are spending less on transport, how will we feel about cars coming out of this?
That’s one of the ways I get to the questions and one of the keys is conducting thought experiments to reveal questions that need to be answered. Turn them over and over. Inside out. That then leads to the research.
Verify a hypothesis with research
All of that thinking was put through the wringer with rigorous research and eventually resulted in COVID 19: 5 new human truths that experiences need to address. We found five major human implications to expect from people’s behaviour now and next, which are likely to shape a New Human Experience.
The early cost-of-confidence thinking eventually became one of the five predictions:
“An explicit message of COVID-19 is that other people/places can carry an invisible threat. Deciding on what to do — especially in relation to large decisions, such as holidays and where to live or work — is becoming a more anxious process. Many purchases are being postponed. All of this will make risk less tolerable and the familiar more valuable.
The erosion of confidence will make trust way more important than ever before. This will necessitate a “trust multiplier” — action that, to be effective, rebuilds trust quickly and credibly. Focus will be on confidence-building through every channel. Justifiable optimism will sell well. All of this may change the nature of what we regard as premium products and services.”
And you’ll see echoes of other bits of our initial thinking in the other four predictions:
- The virtual century: Digital adoption will accelerate and it will be required to remove obstacles to going virtual for any sort of experience. Anything that can be done virtually will be.
- Every business is a health business: Health experiences will be in demand and vice versa: Health should be considered in every experience. Every business will need to understand how it can be part of a new health ecosystem that will dominate citizen thinking.
- Cocooning: Everyone being told to self-isolate means a return to home as the epicenter of life and experience. There will be a rise in home spending — on the home itself and on things made at home, as people will stay more local.
- The reinvention of authority: Dependence on experts and strong government recommendation — plus executive powers to start resolving the pandemic backed by citizen compliance — lends real weight to a central authority, which in many markets has been eroded recently. If governments get their handling of the crisis broadly right, expect top-down control to be back in fashion.
Moving into the never normal
One of my favorite moments doing the COVID research has been the debate about what do you call the phase after “next.” We have the “now,” “the next” and the thing after that. “The new normal?”
But in nine months, it’s not going to be normal. If it’s not “normal” then, is it “another normal”?
So we face a triple uncertainty. How and when do we emerge from the pandemic? How and when do we exit from the recession? How will human behavior change and how much of it will be permanent? What has happened so far will affect what’s next.
Any sense of normality won’t settle in for a long while, and words are really important here. Words are anchors that frame our conversations. Someone (I don’t know who) in our broad team across Accenture coined the phrase “never normal,” and that felt right as a way to frame the next five years. This is not about pessimism but long-term hope and short-term realism about what our clients and we face.
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