September 15, 2020

How COVID-19 is Creating Phygital Experiences with Technology as the Interface Between People and Space

Forecasting Trends

By Aryanna Martin and Elliot Felix

Technology has always been an interface that allows us to plan for, interact with, and improve people and services in a space. In gathering information and discovering events, we can view an aggregated and curated view of information and user-generated content from different sources online. We can use geolocation technologies to figure out directions and navigate as people move from one place to another. We can conduct transactions or consultations while in a certain place through tools and technologies. At the end of these interactions, technology, yet again, becomes the avenue for people to provide feedback through the form of reviews and ratings so that others could be guided by other individual experience as they conduct their own information gathering and discovery.

COVID-19 has made technology an even more important interface between people and space, enabling them to have safer and satisfying experiences that are a hybrid of physical and digital – phygital. This might include reducing trips and touchpoints, monitoring usage and reducing uncertainty, managing operations, or enabling communications. In this article, we’ll outline the role of technology in phygital experiences, examples of technology fulfilling these roles, the benefits, and how user journeys have changed as a result.

The Role of Tech in Space

Technology plays different roles as the interface between spaces and both the users and service providers within them. In our webinar on Delivering Support Services Online, we categorized technology into four tiers: Informational, Transactional, Consultative, and Experiential.

  • Informational: Providing users with information that helps them make decisions and meet objectives. Any technology that conveys information such as service hours, staff availability, announcements, or services, whether through websites or location-based push notifications, will fall in this tier.
  • Transactional: Enabling users to complete a process or service. Technology used to book an appointment, check out a device, or make a payment is considered transactional.
  • Consultative: Assessment and advising on personal and academic matters. Any technology used to field queries and provide advice meets the consultative function of technology.
  • Experiential: Programming and events in group settings where users may be interacting. Any technology that serves as a digital extension to enhance live experiences in space fulfills the experiential function.

These four tiers are only one way to categorize the role of technology. The user journey from Research & Discovery to Using & Interacting to Evaluating & Contributing is another important way. The table below details how these four tiers of technology fit within the user journey.

The Informational role of technology fits within the Research & Discover phase, as users try to gather as much information about an experience, and within the Evaluate & Contribute phase, as users try to gather more information through other means when basic informational tools are not sufficient. The Transactional role of technology fits within the Use & Interact phase as users interact with the service through technology. The Consultative role of technology functions at the tail end of the Discovery & Research phase and the Evaluate & Contribute phase as users try to close the information loop and address specific concerns. The Experiential role of technology is within the Use & Interact phase as technology serves to enhance the interaction and experience.

The Benefits of Using Technology as an Interface Between People and Space

The use of technology to manage interactions in a physical space provides a variety of benefits for users and service providers alike. 


Technology acts as the interface between them and space


Technology acts as the means to managing and operating a space

  • Reduce physical touchpoints
  • Reduce time spent within a physical space
  • Reduce uncertainty regarding space availability
  • Manage occupancy
  • Gather information on health within a physical space
  • Promote and broadcast services within a physical

From a user perspective, technology serves as the interface for users to not only minimize, but also maximize activities within physical space. As an example, technology helps reduce physical touchpoints. Tools such as self-serve kiosks in the library and ordering applications for “grab-and-go” meals minimize interactions with staff while making the experience in space more seamless. 

Technology also aids in reducing time spent within a physical space. Instead of manually conducting a transaction or staying in a waiting room – the duration of which is highly dependent on the service turnaround time and the number of people in the area – queueing can be done online.

Another function of technology is the reduction of uncertainty regarding space availability. An example of this is getting a seat or meeting room in a library. Instead of walking in and manually checking which spaces are available, booking a seat/room through a reservation technology eases the uncertainty and ensures that a space gets allotted before physically being in the location.

Northeastern Snell Library’s Online Seat Reservation Portal

Meanwhile from the perspective of a service providers , technology is mainly used to manage and operate a space. For example, technology is used to manage occupancy in an enclosed space. Occupancy tools and reservation systems ensure that the space meets or does not exceed the target number of people that was set.

Technology can also be used to gather inherent information on health such as CO2 levels and body temperature, which can be abstracted from more explicit information sources such as occupancy. These sensors allow service providers to determine whether a certain occupancy level poses health hazards to individuals within a space.

Lastly, technology also assists in promoting and broadcasting services. Aside from the typical systems and networks that coordinate and allow content to be displayed on multiple screens in a space, nudges on a chatbot or push notifications on a mobile device are also examples of how technology can broaden awareness of services and offerings.

Most of these technologies are standalone but emerging trends point towards the aggregation of multiple solutions to provide a holistic and integrated service portfolio. Instead of meeting needs on just one part of the user journey, informational, transactional, consultative, and experiential solutions are integrated in one platform to cover all aspects of the user journey, making it easier for institutions to incorporate them within their IT and facilities infrastructure.

How COVID Impacts Interactions in the Physical Space

Exposure to COVID-19 is dependent on the characteristics of place like its air quality and movement but also how people (and how many people) use that place, such as their movements in space and the duration of time spent in that space. The virus spreads exponentially when people are in close proximity to each other for long periods of time, with protective face coverings decreasing the possibility of transmission if everyone is compliant.

Policies on reducing transmission are still focused on containment and management of occupancy in space. Current guidelines and policies bring about three important realities in this day: 1) space is now considered a scarce resource since everyone takes up more of it; 2) active and close monitoring of space is crucial in reducing virus spread and; 3) the need for technology as an interface between people and space is vital to use a space and keep it operating. 

1. Space is now considered a scarce resource

Distancing guidelines have concrete implications especially in gathering spaces such as restaurants, libraries, and event spaces as service providers have to space out tables and chairs to 6 feet, thereby limiting occupancy. Outdoor gatherings are preferred, with furniture being merged with open fields and sidewalks, leaving indoor spaces vacant or used for other operational purposes.

2. Active and close monitoring of space is crucial

CDC Guidelines have also advised service providers to thoroughly and regularly clean and disinfect facilities and high-touch surfaces and provide adequate soap and sanitizer to users and guests. Limiting the use of shared serving utensils, handles, buttons, and other items was also advised, making active and close monitoring of space essential.

3. Technology as the interface between people and space is now more vital

To keep operations going and prevent businesses and establishments from completely shutting down, technology has been deemed the solution to manage interactions between people and space and between people themselves.

Wall-mounted hand-sanitizer in the elevator, NYU Shanghai


How the Usage of Technology and Physical Space Has Changed Due to COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a shift in individual and societal priorities, thereby changing the dynamics of our interactions with people and space. This shift brought about an unprecedented emphasis on the use of certain technologies to align with the guidelines related to physical distancing and the minimization of the spread. Some of these technologies have been available for quite some time already but have either 1) never really warranted an extreme need for or; 2) have always been considered as secondary options due to organizational priorities or costs associated with them. 

Also, more than the technology itself, certain behaviors around usage have also changed as part of individual and organizational safety precautions. The following five items illustrate how the use of technology has changed and been impacted because of the pandemic. While there will be more impacts that will be identified as the situation persists, these changes serve to reduce risk, uncertainty, and physical touchpoints while monitoring occupancy and health of the different users of space.

1. The user journey has been reversed or shortened

Due to new practices being upheld on social and physical distancing, the user journey around experiences that heavily rely on physical interactions within a particular space have either been reversed or shortened.In a university setting, a student looking to use resources from the university library may start by searching online for resources and checking which library in his/her campus a certain resource can be accessed. He/She then proceeds to the location to check a resource out, potentially consults with a librarian or subject specialist, and opts to stay in the library or within university grounds to work. Once he/she is done with the resource, he/she returns it back to the library service point.

Today, in a COVID world, when university facilities are closed or provide limited access, resources can mostly be accessed online, with the exception of some resources. The journey will still start the same way – with the student searching for a book and checking how to access it. Accessing the resource may either be checking an online copy or getting to the library to pick up the resource. The return may look like going to a stand-alone dropoff box or simply “closing the browser” to close the loop. Speaking with a librarian or subject specialist is optional and may need to be deliberately scheduled on a separate time instead of a spontaneous interaction within a physical space.

At this time, transactions and interactions are preferred to have happened within a remote/online setting and require little to no jump to the physical space, thus pushing organizations to up their technological capacity to serve current needs.

2. Investments on cleaning technologies, signages, and other digital operational tools are increasing while also contributing to institutions’ overhead expenses in an already budget-constrained scenario

The reduction in social interaction and activity brought about by the pandemic has placed institutions who rely on it in a budget-constrained situation. Companies and higher education institutions have had to restructure their organizations to streamline processes and redefine priorities. Yet, on top of this, these organizations have to also put forward investments on cleaning technologies, additional signage and communications detailing physical distancing measures, and on digital platforms to continue their operations. The reduction of physical activity saw these additional overhead expenses on technology as the only means for organizations to thrive.

3. Sharing spaces and equipment brings greater risk and requires additional effort in cleaning and coordination

Sharing has always been a solution to reach a larger audience through the maximization of existing resources. Before the pandemic, the sharing economy was on the rise. Not only do small items such as books shared among peers but high value properties such as homes, cars, and offices were also shared by individuals who have no previous social connections at all. In higher education, books, devices, tools, and equipment are available for common use by students, faculty, staff, and researchers.With the pandemic, the concept of sharing is being reconsidered. Sharing common spaces and small items is critical in the spread of the virus. As such, anything that is shared requires special handling and cleaning. Borrowing books may require a longer turnaround time for sanitation (typically a 72 hour quarantine between check-outs), if not available only online . Access to tools and equipment may be limited or on a case-by-case basis to allow for any thorough sanitization.

4. Feedback metrics on cleanliness and safety have emerged to assess the experience with the service

With the pandemic, perceptions around any experience have thoroughly changed. Good user experience is typically centered around delight and ease of use. However, with the pandemic, feedback metrics on cleanliness and safety became the priority; for example, Airbnb added an “enhanced clean” designation after training hosts in the protocols and products. Services are judged based on their policies on cleaning and disinfection, availability of contactless transaction options, wearing of masks or gloves by frontliners, seamless handoffs, and availability of sealed and untampered products. Non-compliance to any of these metrics raises doubts among users of the service.

5. For most, the workplace is now more than ever wherever digital technology is

Before the pandemic, remote work and working from home were considered options or perks that companies offer to their employees. Today, both are seen as the norm, with working in the office as the option that is now a distant possibility. The workspace is now where technology enables it – as long as there is power and strong internet connection, that is where the workplace is. The definitions of the ‘office’ and its distinctions with other spaces have radically changed in the past months, a dissolution that was made possible by digital technology.

Examples of Phygital Experiences Solutions 

To address the changes in interactions with people and space brought about by COVID-19, the use of certain technologies and tools have emerged for a variety of purposes. 


Providing users with information that helps them make decisions and meet objectives.


Enabling users to complete a process or service.

  • Location-based push messages and notifications
  • Spacefinder tools
  • Occupancy measurement tools
  • Cashless & touchless transaction tools
  • Crowd management tools
  • Virtual booking and reservation tools
  • Managing contactless book transactions

Assessment and advising on personal and academic matters.


Programming and events in group settings where users may be interacting.

  • Online advising & scheduling tools
  • Platforms for virtual office hours 
  • Virtual library stacks
  • Virtual computer labs
  • Virtual simulation labs
  • Digital collaboration tools
  • Mobile and shared power and network
  • Outdoor facilities
  • Tools for touchless entry



Providing users with information that helps them make decisions and meet objectives.

Experience  Example
Receiving information as you navigate Modo Communicate provides highly targeted and personalized mobile messages and notifications to students, faculty, and staff.
Locating space virtually Due to changing policies on available spaces on campus, spacefinder tools similar to those offered by the University of Cambridge and University of Minnesota can help students, faculty, and staff to find which spaces are open for working. 
Measuring occupancy For organizations and institutions to continuously measure occupancy, tools such as Occuspace, Safecount by Irisys, Innerspace, and Spacewell can be used to ensure social distancing and occupancy restrictions are being met. 
SafeCount by Irisys Meeting Room Panel



Enabling users to complete a process or service.

Experience  Example
Enabling cashless & touchless payment transactions Toast Pay at Table feature, GooglePay, ApplePay, and the Starbucks Payment App all enable payments without needing to physically swipe a card through an establishment’s machine or be in physical contact with a cashier.
Managing crowds in establishments To reopen with minimal occupancy, museums such as the Oakland Museum of California, zoos such as the Atlanta Zoo, and conservatories such as the Phipps Conservatory are offering timed tickets. Timed ticketing POS such as Korona and Etix has also emerged to assist establishments in managing guests. 
Booking and reserving spaces virtually  In order to know the number of available seats and ensure that people get a seat in their space of choice, tools such as LibCal for libraries and Spacewell for the workplace have emerged to assist institutions in managing different needs for space. 
Managing contactless book transactions To provide access to physical copies of books and journal articles, libraries have offered options such as contactless ‘curbside’ pickup options (Cornell University Library), book dropoffs (New York Public Library), and drive-throughs (Lakewood Public Library and Wilton Library).



Assessment and advising on personal and academic matters.

Experience  Example
Scheduling and conducting online advising sessions To continuously engage students even while remote, Upswing allows students to interact with a real-time virtual assistant to get one-on-one support on tutoring, coaching, and other student-related affairs.
Conducting virtual office hours Universities such as UC Berkeley and Tufts University are hosting viewing parties and virtual office hours for lectures. MIT-Boston University law clinic also continued to virtually provide legal services to student entrepreneurs and researchers.
Browsing books virtually  Students can browse library stacks and other media resources through platforms such as VitalSource and RedShelf



Programming and events in group settings where users may be interacting.

Experience  Example
Accessing software programs virtually


For students and faculty to still be able to access sophisticated software programs that are typically available in computer labs on campus, virtual labs offered by universities such as NYU and Rutgers University and NYU could be useful for users to continue their work.
Conducting simulations and demonstrations remotely To continue demonstrations, simulations, and other interactive learning experiences, Washington State University and University of Denver curated a list of resources that students and faculty can use to support teaching and learning.
Collaborating with teams To enable collaboration and work even with distance, organizations are using tools such as Microsoft Teams, Google Suite, Zoom, and MURAL
Working Outdoors  Technologies such as shared batteries (Temple), VPNs, and mobile hotspots (Washington State, University of Missouri) are flourishing to support outdoor work.
Meeting Outdoors To adhere to social distancing guidelines for shared spaces, some restaurants have expanded outdoor seating into the streets. Meanwhile, institutions such as Rice University and Tulane University are creating temporary structures for socially distanced classes.
Reducing contact on high-touch surfaces In order to minimize contact with high-touch surfaces, technologies such as OpenPath and Proxy for contactless entries, Fantini for faucets, and OMNY for turnstiles are surfacing.
MURAL Steering Committee UX Workshop


The unexpected occurrence of the pandemic did not only move people into understanding how seemingly small individual decisions impact society but it also allowed organizations to rethink and reevaluate how their services are being offered. When choices are limited and when safety and wellbeing are of utmost importance, organizational change happens at a much faster pace as there is little time to ponder on decisions that have to be made.

In the coming months, there will be new and unexpected uses of technology that could emerge. Some organizations may become completely reliant on technology in keeping its operations going while some may use it to supplement any physical operations. Others may find ways to continue physical operations without the use of any technology at all. Technology will continue as a critical interface between people and the spaces they use. The role it plays and how it supports or changes the user journey may vary, but  whatever direction an organization chooses to go, the goal is to understand not only what is best for the organization but, most importantly, the community that it ultimately serves. 

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