Soon after the initial rollout of leading COVID-19 vaccines in the United States, there was a great deal of official and unofficial discussion about what new rules should be with regards to mask usage and business conduct guidelines.
In particular, government leaders as well as news outlets have been eager to talk about how small businesses need to be supported. Despite their concern, it seems that there is only so much that agencies such as the Small Business Administration can do. As allegations of fraud and potential bureaucratic inefficiency plague governmental stimulus, small businesses continue to sort out their own problems brought on by the pandemic.
The negative effects of quarantine measures on businesses of many different types were immense, and small businesses were hit especially hard.
Restaurants could continue to operate but had to follow strict safety guidelines and could only serve food via takeout or delivery.
Other types of small businesses were often forced to close entirely for long stretches of time, unless they provided what had been deemed essential products or services.
While strict quarantine measures have been mostly lifted in all fifty states at the time of publishing, we can assume that many small businesses are still experiencing difficulties as foot traffic has been slow to return to pre-quarantine numbers.
At the height of quarantine restrictions, one of the biggest challenges for many small business owners was successfully creating an effective online presence that could help bolster revenue.
During this time, one tech-minded designer took it upon herself to directly assist small businesses by aiding in their transition to the digital space.
Xintong Liu’s Design Mastery
User Interface and User Experience Designer Xintong Liu uses designs to tell the story of each brand she works with, and she has worked with some of the largest tech brands in existence, including Apple and Microsoft.
Her experiences as a female immigrant working in tech have shown her just how important it is to help junior designers, minority-owned businesses, and nonprofits.
That drive to support underrepresented groups and individuals was exactly what motivated her to aid businesses during the pandemic.
Elaborating on the source of motivation behind her pro bono work, Liu talked about why she felt compelled to help these businesses any way she could:
“I’ve always had an interest and passion for supporting underrepresented communities. I believe that design is a powerful tool to introduce new voices into the digital world. Also, these communities tend to be more vulnerable in an emergency situation. COVID was definitely a difficult time.”
It’s not surprising that small, family-owned businesses often have difficulty creating a substantial online presence, let alone an online presence that engages potential customers and makes it easy for them to interact with a brand and learn more about them.
To put in perspective the design deficit between local businesses and design leaders like Liu who often work for large tech companies, let’s try a short exercise.
Right now, try to find websites for small businesses near you: restaurants, thrift stores, family-owned hardware stores, etc.
Based on our experience with this exercise, the best outcome is finding a simple website that only provides some basic details about the business. Oftentimes, their info goes months (or even years) without updates.
In the case of many other small businesses, there is no website at all, just a simple Google listing that includes its address and hours.
Meanwhile, Liu has been working at the forefront of user-centric design, making her skill set incredibly valuable to businesses that, as Liu put it, need to have their voices heard in the digital arena.
There’s no denying just how important a digital presence is for any business operating today.
“In the era of ‘everything is remote and virtual,’ a user-friendly digital presence not only helps small businesses maintain connections with broader customers, but also expands their business in additional ways.”
COVID-19 and its immediate effects made this perfectly clear to small business owners, and Liu knew right away that she wanted to help any way she could.
“It was really hard for me to witness small businesses struggling in the face of COVID-19. As a design leader, I stepped out during the pandemic, supporting minority-owned small businesses using my design skills.”
If you’re wondering what that process actually looked like in action, that’s exactly what we’ll be talking about next.
The process of bringing an inherently untechnical small business into a digital world dominated by tech skills and tools is often daunting. But with the right combination of patience and planning, building an online presence for a small business can help ensure that the business is prepared to field online inquiries for years to come.
Working with small businesses
While Liu typically performs her design work within an established corporate structure of some kind, when she worked with small businesses, she more or less led the charge by utilizing a similar workflow.
“I first connected with my clients and then started by empathizing with the users. During this phase, I usually had an initial consultation with the business owner or stakeholders to understand the problem. Ideas started popping up in my head. After getting feedback from the client, I made further iterations, alterations, and refinements.”
In other words, there’s a great deal of planning and research that precedes actual hands-on design work and testing.
This is because, while there are certainly guiding design principles that can potentially be applied across multiple projects, the needs of each business and their users can differ greatly.
Understanding those users and what they want to get from interactions with a business’s online presence is key to making effective design choices.
This information can even influence aesthetic design choices as well.
Liu also wanted to note that, because small businesses very often don’t have extensive resources and/or time to manage their digital presence, she made a point of making their design solutions very easy both to update and maintain.
To put it another way, making the backend of these digital solutions easier to deal with helped ensure that these wouldn’t be only temporary solutions, but that they could be refreshed as needed and continue to function effectively in the long-term.
Liu’s work with one particular business in her community serves as a great example of her skills in action. But before examining this example, it’s important to make clear what the desired results for these collaborations were.
Thankfully, Liu was kind enough to detail her goals going into these projects:
“My overall goal for these volunteer leadership projects was to help minority-owned businesses and organizations tell their stories and improve the user experience of their digital platforms. My design philosophies helped small businesses attract new customers, capture attention, and reduce the churn rate. Eventually, this translates to sales for these businesses. This is exactly what they need to survive.”
Helping small businesses grapple with the need for a compelling digital presence is one stage, but then it also becomes about finding practical, and often economical, ways to create that presence, which will hopefully go on to compete effectively in competitive online spaces.
Also, it’s not that small businesses need to create an online presence that imitates the online presence of big businesses in the same market sector.
One of the major opportunities for these local businesses is to highlight the things that make small businesses special, which often include personalized service and unique products and services.
The Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery
Liu talked to us in detail about her experience working directly with The Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery, which is a gallery in Seattle that focuses on exhibitions for marginalized communities and communities of color.
Art galleries, of course, were not considered essential businesses, and so were heavily restricted in their operations, making virtual events a very appealing option.
But The Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery wasn’t in a position to offer these kinds of events, as Liu explains:
“When the owner, Jake Prendez, came to me, his website was barely functional and not responsive at all. But after I helped them improve their website user experience and redesign their user interface, he was able to host virtual workshops and virtual exhibitions for his gallery during the pandemic and attract more visitors globally than ever before. His gallery also became one of the fast-growing art galleries in the Seattle Area.”
This is an excellent example of just how beneficial it can be for small businesses of any kind to not only venture out into the virtual space but to actually embrace what these digital spaces are capable of when making use of intelligent design.
Liu’s experiences with The Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery also encapsulate why she wanted to help small businesses in this way.
Not only does enhanced design help these businesses survive, but it can also help them to thrive, sharing important stories in the process, stories that are all too often muffled or completely buried in broader cultural arenas.
Of course, as the vaccine rollout continues and as the economy sits precariously between two very different outcomes, there’s no guarantee that small businesses are safe and secure in this new post-COVID era.
But even so, helping these businesses move successfully into a future that will be intensely digital gives them the best possible chance to continue offering valuable and unique products and services to their immediate communities and beyond.