Life after lockdown: Meeting new digital expectations
With vaccines making progress around the world and with infections dropping, COVID-19 lockdowns are expected to soon ease. Yet as official restrictions and guidelines change, says Huw Owen, head of EMEA and APJ at Couchbase, the new stay-at-home lifestyles we’ve cultivated won’t disappear so quickly.
Perhaps inevitably, more time spent at home has resulted in more time spent online. According to Ofcom’s annual Online Nation report, the UK’s internet use surged to record levels in April 2020, with adults spending more than a quarter of their waking hours online. According to some estimates, if internet use remains at these levels through 2021, the global population will spend almost 12 trillion hours online this year.
From social media to streaming services, technology has been the ‘saving grace’ that has kept us going through the crisis. Recent research from Opinium backs this up. Of the services that Brits have been most grateful for during the first lockdown, more than half (55%) cited social networks and messaging services, with 43% most grateful for video streaming services. In fact, at least 32% of us have signed up to new digital services, bought new technology products, or re-watched old events digitally during the lockdown.
Even as lockdown measures begin to lift, it’s unrealistic to expect these online habits to simply disappear. It’s more likely that we’ll be spending much of our time online for the foreseeable future. Our expectations for a sophisticated, smooth experience from the online services we consume are therefore at an all-time high, and so is the amount of pressure being placed on organisations to meet them.
Raising the stakes
With the bar set so high, many organisations have found it difficult to cope. More than a third of UK consumers suffered from a poor experience while trying to access digital entertainment during the lockdown, while 28% of us have missed out on a bargain or gift we wanted to buy online, whether due to a poor experience, products selling out, or stores closing. While few organisations could have predicted a sudden spike in demand for their services, customer frustrations such as these indicate that many organisations were nonetheless unprepared for it.
Even in ‘normal’ times, organisations that couldn’t offer a sophisticated online experience risked losing out to their more digital-savvy rivals. In an environment where customers eschew ‘physical’ activities in favour of online ones, any margin for error that may have existed has since disappeared entirely. When we consider that the shift towards online activity could be a permanent one, it’s likely that many organisations will fail to adapt.
It all starts with data
An inability to harness data effectively is among the main reasons that organisations might struggle to meet demands for sophisticated digital experiences. Perhaps surprisingly, many organisations continue to overlook the importance of a solid data strategy. As much as 80% of IT decision makers have had to scale back their plans for new Internet of Things (IoT) or mobile applications due to data issues.
In many cases, these setbacks result from issues like reliance on legacy technology, which limits how agile organisations can be in adapting to new requirements, along with cloud vendor lock-in, which limits organisations’ ability to move their data freely between different environments. All of these issues have data at their core, which suggests that having the right data foundation in place will go a long way towards easing some of the pressure to meet customer’s digital expectations.
BT TV’s experience offers an example of how transformative the right data strategy can be in this regard. While demand for the digital entertainment services it provides is sky-high in the current situation, it has been well placed to meet this demand due to an overhaul of its data strategy well before the crisis. BT TV recognised that the huge volume of behind-the-scenes transactions it had to deal with when customers chose what to watch was putting a great deal of strain on its database, raising the risk of a poor viewing experience.
By opting for a flexible, scalable NoSQL database, BT TV was able to provide a consistent, personalised experience for customers, across multiple devices. Following months of lockdown, this is the standard that customers have come to expect. Unless more organisations follow in BT TV’s footsteps and make evaluating their underlying data architecture a priority, they run the risk of failing to meet it.
Make or break
It’s hard to predict how the COVID-19 crisis will end, or the scale of its impact on society afterwards. That being said, it seems very likely to leave a mark on customer behaviour patterns, which we can expect to remain skewed toward digital experiences over ‘physical’ ones for some time. You only have to look at the number of retailers that have been stripped bare, with only their online brands remaining to see we could even be at the start of a permanent shift.
With this in mind, if the ability to unlock the value of data and deliver a high standard of digital experience was important before, it’s mission-critical now. Those organisations that can equip themselves to be as innovative as possible with the data they hold will be the winners in this new environment. Those that fail to do so risk losing ground to their more digitally-capable rivals, or at worst, going out of business entirely.
The author is Huw Owen, head of EMEA and APJ at Couchbase.