Two weeks into the shelter-in-place order, while working from home and finding my new purpose in life as a sourdough bread baker, I had an epiphany: This is what designing for extremes really means.
For designers, the concept is familiar. We aim to identify the outliers—the extreme users (or non-users)—for each project and make the experience work for them. But COVID-19 is an extreme we didn’t see coming, although hindsight reveals how well design can help us prepare.
When we design for extreme users, we assume that solving for the most extreme needs will improve everyone’s experience. I’d argue the same could be said for extreme scenarios:
Designing for “unprecedented times” makes an experience stronger for every user at any point in time.
Perhaps it’s too soon to begin reflecting, but as a design researcher, it’s in my nature. Life has changed for all of us, especially for the niche group that works in design within the grocery/retail industry. Suddenly, our work is urgent (cue the “I’m essential” song from TikTok.) While our digital office can work from home, our in-store Partners don’t have that luxury. It’s our job to anticipate problems and come up with solutions that support our users and our business.
Just how extreme was extreme?
H-E-B provides essential goods and services to communities across Texas, and those goods and services were even more in-demand as other businesses closed. While we had pressure-tested our app for an influx of users earlier in the year, we hadn’t prepared for such an influx to our Curbside and Delivery services. The number of people who saw their low-contact benefits suddenly doubled. Adding in a surge of demand for staples and other surprising products, like toilet paper, we found ourselves in an extreme situation.
These new customers—some of whom were completely new to the very idea of grocery pickup or delivery—surfaced new gaps and flaws. Time slots were booked for as far out as we offered them, forcing customers to order based on what they thought they might need in two weeks—which is an eternity when you consider how most people plan these days. Orders with substitute or out-of-stock items rose sharply. The pressure on our store Partners to deliver on these orders while maintaining proper safety protocol added to our perfect storm of problems.
We hadn’t yet created an online experience that allowed for in-the-moment, in-store-style decisions. Customers had very little control over their order after it was placed. You couldn’t decide which store to go to based on how busy it was, because we had designed an experience that made it hard to view time slots across multiple stores. You also couldn’t say, “I just want whatever milk you have… I don’t care which brand.”
Our teams jumped on the extremes we felt, tackling solutions for low-inventory items and full time slots, while others focused on even more extreme what-ifs. One design team ran a sprint focused on how H-E-B could respond if our physical stores closed or if factories and distributors had to limit production. How could we still provide Texans with quality food?
We turned the roadmap upside down
Some of these gaps in the experience were known, but pre-COVID, the issues hadn’t seemed as urgent or as appealing as other features we prioritized. Removing items from an order didn’t seem important when a majority of our customers were placing orders the same day as their pick-up or delivery. But when our interdisciplinary team of product managers, designers, researchers, and engineers got together to brainstorm on how to help Texans more confidently get the items they needed, modifying an order suddenly seemed like a must-have. It’s key to our customers’ peace of mind—and key to saving our call center from fielding a high volume of calls from customers trying to adjust their orders.
As the economy reached new extremes, we had new issues to solve. Record unemployment meant enabling SNAP for Curbside and Delivery was now critical. This change isn’t an easy one—it requires government cooperation and has long been on our roadmap. Asking our customers to decide between staying safe or using their benefits in-store wasn’t a decision we wanted them to make, and we organized to create a solution we could fast-track with the proper government approvals. And, when things are “normal,” this SNAP integration means all our customers can shop the same way and take advantage of the conveniences we offer.
A new way to research (and what to do when you can’t)
As a design researcher, my value was thrown into question. We didn’t have time for rigorous analysis. We weren’t able to get prototypes in people’s hands to see how our designs felt. We had to create entirely new ways to conduct research so that we could balance our intuition while still getting our customers’ mindsets and priorities.
How I approached my job was turned upside down. Pre-pandemic, half of our research was conducted in-person, either in stores or at our office. We quickly pivoted to running all research on usertesting.com, using live moderated and unmoderated interviews, with some teams running tests overnight so we wouldn’t miss a beat. We did some Zoom calls with friends and family (shout out to Jessie’s grandma). We stretched beyond our normal methods to make sure we got this critical input however we could.
While I miss that face-to-face connection with our customers, challenging ourselves to figure out how to run activities online might be a silver lining. I’d humbly say our Whimsical boards with stimuli and card-sorting activities rival the quality of their in-person counterparts.
It wasn’t just how we approached our roles—our entire org structure needed to adapt as well. While we had previously structured our teams around problem areas, our customer’s problems changed overnight. We had to adjust to how our customers were shopping now, for example pausing our in-store digital initiatives to put more design power behind the tools our store Partners use to improve our Curbside/Delivery processes.
H-E-B is used to being there when Texas has a disaster, but a sustained and statewide crisis was new—and a new opportunity to see how critical digital is to that response.
And on to the next extreme….
As someone who graduated from college into the 2008 recession, I’ve always been drawn to how companies have used the unknown as a chance to experiment and position themselves ahead of the competition. My partner and I have spent time thinking about what we want our life to be like coming out of this phase of our lives: What experiments do we want to take into our new life? Is the way life was before the way we really want it to be?
As things evolve and we reach something like a new normal, the pace of our work will level out. But how can we make sure we don’t just return to “normal”? How do we ensure everything we learned over the last six months doesn’t just go in the messy, cobwebbed archives of our brains? I’m challenging our teams to make extreme scenarios a regular part of our work.
It’s more than just identifying edge cases—it means thinking about those edge cases in the context of our society and their impact on customers’ lives. When we want to identify new opportunities or kick off a new project, what’s the worst, wildest case scenario? That thinking will make sure our customers don’t miss a beat—and neither does H-E-B.
Sarah Dunn is a Senior Design Researcher. You can connect with her on Linkedin.
For years, customers using SNAP benefits had to pay in store—but when COVID struck, we wanted customers to be able to use their benefits however they felt safest.
When COVID drove massive traffic to H-E-B’s online experience, we realized our work for the big game had been the perfect scrimmage.