Why some products won and others lost the battle for users in the COVID days

While most professionals are talking about ‘skill-building’ during the pandemic days, I believe one of the biggest learning opportunities these days is that we get to 'see' the world change.

We’ve all seen the world change over the years. If you’re from small town India and born a few decades back,

  • There weren’t so many cars on the road in your childhood. Now there are.
  • The internet was a novelty, now it’s an essential.
  • P2P communication used to primarily happen over a call, now it happens over messages

But all this happened over a period of multiple years. Humans just aren’t wired to naturally observe change at that timescale. We did experience the changed world, but never the change itself. Even though they say the world changes fast, it is still pretty slow from a human perception point of view.  

Enter March 2020. The world changed completely in a span of weeks.

For someone who makes digital products, this is a golden opportunity to observe how the world changes and how products fit into the changing world.

Thanks to the pandemic, we’re observing how

  • The world around us changes completely in weeks
  • The mental models that worked in the old world are still in our minds as we try to adapt to the new world
  • The new models bring with them known patterns of need and behaviors
  • Products that cater to these get adopted

A technique in the field of UX research is helpful to observe such shifts. Let’s look at a couple of examples, specifically within the workflow of design teams.

Example 1: Whiteboarding

Whiteboarding is a very common activity at the workplace, and was one of the first thing we had to find a new tool for when we started working from home. We ended up choosing ‘Whimsical + Slack’. Let’s see why:

Here’s an oversimplified diagram that shows

  • mental model of the activity (Whiteboarding) (the top part) and
  • how the ‘product’ (a whiteboard) fits into the model. (the bottom part)
Mental Model (a tool used by UX designers) used to analyze the whiteboarding process

If you’re new to thinking about mental models, spend some time thinking about it. Every ‘user need’ is fulfilled by the product or the context in which that product is used.

When we started working from home, we carried home with us the same mental model of the activity. However, the old product (physical whiteboard) and the old context (office) just didn’t exist, so we had to search for a new solution.We first tried doing it with whimsical, google meet and slack.

On the surface, this feels like it wouldallow us to achieve the goal. However, we soon realized that something was missing. Even before we explicitly expressed what was missing, we subconsciously started searching for that missing thing in the digital products we knew about.

The missing thing was – we couldn’t make quick suggestions to the person making the whiteboard – equivalent of pointing to something on the physical board and telling them to change it.

In the mental model diagram, this is how it can be represented:

A gap found in the mental model of white boarding

As you can see, there was a ‘pillar’ that wasn’t addressed by any of these tools. That was until we discovered Slack’s premium version with a call feature that allows drawing on the presenter’s screen:

With the ability to draw on the screen, the participants of the whiteboarding session could easily point out things without actively ‘working on’ the whiteboarding.

Mental model of whiteboarding with the flow completed using whimsical and slack

Thanks to this feature, Slack won the battle for the spot of the preferred tool over Google Meet.

Once you start seeing the world this way, it becomes a natural way of thinking, allowing us to understand users’ needs at a tiny feature level even if they aren’t explicitly expressing it.

Example 2: Internal communication

Let’s look at another example in this same period

Sometimes, all the functionalities are doable with existing tools but there are no meaningful flows through these functionality. the gap is in the connectability rather than the functionality. Here’s an example:

In a typical boutique design studio like ours, there tend to be junior designers whose work is reviewed by a senior designer multiple times a day. In the office, it was happening with the following mental model:

Mental model of the design review process in a boutique UX Design studio like Mediyum

The product was the office space itself, which had the ‘features’ that allowed us to work this way. 

When we moved online, we thought that achieving this would be easy with a mashup of tools we were already familiar with: Whatsapp, google meets and email. However, as you can see, this didn’t work very well:

Problem faced when the design review process in our studio was disrupted due to working from home

The notepad had a serious limitation – its notes couldn’t be connected to a workstream. This meant that the user couldn’t complete a flow through these products to our goals in other words, the lack of this was leading to inefficiencies.

We ended up using something completely out of the way here: Jira.

How using JIRA streamlined our UX Design review process

Thanks to Jira’s issue tracking feature, we were able to do all this in a single connected flow and even better: asynchronously

Jira Finally won the battle of our tool of choice for the UX design review process

Some lessons learnt

  • In spaces as competitive as productivity, non-fulfilment of even a single pillar of the mental model can lead to users switching from one tool to the other.
  • As designers of tools, we need to be very sensitive to each and every pillar of the user’s mental model if we want to build products that will fit well in their lives.


What did you learn about usage of products during these days? Do you think of these changes in some other way? I’d love to know. Email me at mediyumcreative@gmail.com


Further Reading