Rethinking interactions in a touchless world

A restaurant storefront with QR code posters fixed to the door

COVID-19 didn’t start the drive towards a more automated, touchless future, but it certainly hastened it. In the US, QR codes and NFC were often viewed as a nice-to-have or novelty. Now, you’d be hard-pressed to walk down a street full of businesses and not see QR codes on storefront windows offering core business interactions as new, contactless experiences.

It’s early-days, though, and solutions of varying sophistication are popping up all over the place. I thought I’d document some of the traditionally physical and person-to-person interactions we’ve observed getting the touchless treatment, and highlight some of the emerging hallmarks of good, contactless interaction design (Spoiler: general interaction design guidelines still apply).

Let’s get started.

# Check-ins and wait-lists

A tablet at a restaurant prompting customers to check in by entering a name and phone number

What’s the first thing you encounter when you walk into a hotel, restaurant, or office? It’s likely a check-in flow. Do you have a reservation? Who are you here to see? How many are in your party? These interactions often involve talking to a receptionist and using a pen on paper or a shared tablet.

This interaction can be relatively easy to automate. In fact, pre-COVID, tablets were appearing in all sorts of businesses, from restaurants to corporate offices, that allowed check-in without the need for human interaction. While the concept is sound, customers are now hesitant to touch a surface shared with countless others.

Now, these tablets are beginning to use QR codes that can be scanned by a kiosk, allowing people to sign in from their own device. Unfortunately, many solutions require an app and oftentimes an account or exchange of personal information to use them. We’ll get into why this is bad a bit later.

# Curbside pickup

Curbside pickup isn’t new, but it has certainly expanded during the pandemic. Put simply, a customer should be able to order and pay electronically, get notified when their order is available, and provide some notification for the order to be delivered to their vehicle.

Buckets with posts and signs in a retailer's parking lot instructing customers to call when they arrive

It’s now common to see reserved parking spaces and signage with instructions to call a number with the order ID and parking space or tap a button in an app to type the information in. As we wrote previously, these experiences require unnecessary overhead, burden customers by requesting redundant information, and tie up phone lines, resulting in lost orders and revenue.

Some solutions use geofencing to track when customers leave for the location and arrive, but this too has issues, as they require customers to have an app and allow access to fine-grained location information. Besides battery and privacy concerns, this can be confusing. Do customers open the app and let you know when they’re leaving? Do they have to keep the app open? Who else can access their location information? The goal is to make it easy for customers, not instill uncertainty and doubt.

A QR code on a fuel pump at a gas station offering a link to install an app for payment instead of using the keypad

We’re all familiar with handling physical menus (the condition of which can vary wildly, from pristine to yikes) and talking to servers throughout a meal, from ordering to asking for refills to paying the check. It’s easy to think of menus and service as specific to restaurants and retail, but the high-level concepts apply more broadly. Basically, any interaction that allows people to select options and pay for goods or services is being rethought. Think stadiums, theme parks, theaters, and so on.

Restaurants are now placing QR codes on tables that point to their webpages or install a 3rd party app to enable a virtual menu and ordering system. A restaurant webpage isn’t likely to be interactive or allow for selection, so human interaction is still required. Apps provide interactive menus and POS functionality, but require a download, account creation, and the overhead that comes along with it.

# Requests and issue reporting

Where do people go when they need something or want to report a facility issue? Before, even in large companies with ticketing systems, it was often easiest to just tap someone on the shoulder. This particular interaction was already pretty bad (imagine being the someone whose shoulder is constantly getting tapped), and now it comes with a health risk.

Besides requiring social distancing or using Slack/email/voice, the interaction is still problematic in terms of efficiency, just as it was pre-COVID. Ideally, people would make requests and report issues in a contextual way with their own devices without the need to navigate a ticketing system or go find someone to help. Need something or see something? Scan or tap this sign to let us know!

# Surveys and feedback

A sign in a doorway asking for customer feedback with a QR code

How do we know how we’re doing and how we can improve? One of the best ways is to simply ask. Customer and employee feedback is invaluable, and it’s typically gathered via paper forms, shared tablets, or other physical interactions (E.g. the Happy or Not kiosks you encounter at airport restrooms).

Contactless ways of gathering feedback via email and text already exist, of course, but those require personal information and also lack context, typically showing up when it’s convenient for us, not when it’s relevant to them. Ideally we would collect feedback in the moment, and do so in a safe way.

Some basic solutions have begun to show up, like QR codes that point to Google forms. While you may get the data you need, you’ll still need to figure out how to format and import that information into your workflow.

# So, what makes a good, touchless interaction?

A QR code and NFC tag are mounted to a wall, prompting visitors to interact via their phone to make requests

People are used to face-to-face interactions when they need something. Introducing technology into the equation is inevitably going to complicate things, especially at first. So what should we consider to minimize the impact, increase safety and comfort, and ease folks into this new world?

# Low friction

Requiring apps and accounts is a burden. Unless you’re confident that a large percentage of your customers already have your app installed (and actually like it vs. installing it begrudgingly), avoid requiring an app installation. Similarly, unless absolutely necessary, do not require account creation or sign-in. Oftentimes the information you need to serve and communicate with your customers can be achieved without the extra hurdles.

# Intuitive

Most people are not used to pulling out their phone to accomplish traditionally touch-heavy tasks, let alone using it to scan QR codes and tap NFC tags. Despite most modern devices supporting these functions natively, we must educate customers. Clear signage and instruction works wonders here. But the experience doesn’t end there, does it? We also need to be mindful to offer data entry that is accessible, easy to navigate on a phone, and that doesn’t collect unnecessary information we can collect contextually and automatically.

# Fast

Talking to someone typically has instant feedback and gratification. With a touchless experience, it’s difficult to know who or what is on the receiving end of the communication, so it’s important to set expectations and deliver on them. Is this going to contact staff inside? Do we expect that this might take a few minutes? Tell people up front and eliminate confusion.

# Long-Term design

It’s tempting to slap something together as a temporary stop-gap until a vaccine is discovered, but that’s doing a disservice to your customers and to your business. Many, if not all, of the interactions we’ve discussed have benefits that go beyond limiting the spread of the virus. Done right, touchless interactions deliver better experiences because they streamline interactions and enable staff to focus on more important things while respecting your customers’ time and privacy.

# Automated

Consider whether the interaction can be accomplished without any data input at all (E.g. requesting a bellhop or flight attendant, reporting a bathroom in need of attention, or marking a desk as occupied), and make the interaction as simple as possible. We’ll explore this topic in more detail in an upcoming article.

# Wrapping up

As you can see, there’s a lot of work to do, but these are problems that can and will be solved. It’s amazing to see the ingenuity and creativity on display. While there is much to refine, it’s clear that in just a short time we’ve already begun to adjust to this new, contactless world, and these experiences will only get better.

If you have some thoughts on how contactless, touchless interactions are evolving, I'd love to hear about them in our comments section for this post.