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When the COVID-19 crisis engulfed the United States in March, going to the grocery store became more like going into battle. Customers pushed and shoved through the aisles to reach the final package of toilet paper, the final bottle of hand soap or disinfectant. The chaos was real, and so was the level of stress and concern felt among shoppers and employees.

This is where Joelle Halle, a user experience designer at Kroger Technology & Digital, is stepping in to help. Halle, a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter, and her team have been navigating the COVID-19 crisis behind the scenes at Kroger, delivering digital experience solutions to keep customers and employees safe, such as contactless payment solutions, grocery pickup and even shopping reservations at some store locations.

Kroger Technology & Digital is a division of the Kroger Co., the largest supermarket by revenue and the second largest general retailer in the United States. KTD designs and delivers digital products and services for four audiences: customers, store associates, supply chain associates and merchandising associates. Halle works in the Customer Experience Pillar on the In-Store Experience Team. Her team owns mobile app features that help augment the in-store shopping experience for Kroger customers.

Halle shared her experiences over the past few months in a recent interview with the Brandcenter.

What is life like working at Kroger headquarters during the COVID-19 crisis?

If you can, paint us a picture of what your days have been like. On a normal day, we usually ask, “How might we _____?” at least 10 times. Then, we … answer all those questions. For me specifically, my process is about uncovering opportunities through collaboration.

I rely heavily on consumer data (provided by Kroger’s data analytics company) and my own user research efforts (interviews, surveys, co-creation sessions, usability testing, etc.) to identify customer opportunities. I collaborate closely with Product Management to align customer and business/market opportunities and I work closely with Engineering to align customer and tech opportunities.

Then, with all of the above in mind, I sketch, prototype, test and repeat before landing on a solution that’s ready to deliver to customers.

Every new experience we release has analytics tied to it, so we use that data to close the loop and continue improving things iteratively.

The COVID-19 day to day is a different story, but our product-led process has helped all of [Kroger Technology & Digital] deliver meaningful work across the entire enterprise at lightning-fast speeds over the past several months. I’m sure crisis-related work began across the company long before March, but on my team, it seems like we flipped a switch on March 12. Almost everyone in my office (in downtown Cincinnati) started working remotely around that time, and everyone is now working from home until further notice. My team feels like my family, so it’s weird only seeing them on my computer. Still, we’re using our entire toolbox to keep things going remotely.

Do you and your team have a new short-term goal due to COVID-19? What is your focus right now, how has your work changed?

Road maps have changed and priorities have shifted. My team is working on answering, “How might we help customers and associates maintain social distancing while shopping in store?” Thankfully, we’ve been able to leverage a lot of in-flight work to implement solutions quickly. I am grateful to be on a team that can have this much impact right now; we’re all working overtime to help more people get groceries safely.

What type of scenarios do you have to predict for the user and how do you identify pain points to this specific pandemic?

Right now, going grocery shopping is a risk. Our focus has had to shift from removing friction to mitigating risk for our customers and employees. Pain points are much deeper right now, and empathy is more vital than ever.

Have you had time for user testing? If yes, how has that helped or changed your work?

We always have to make time for testing. Thankfully, we have access to remote user testing software. My team usually opts to go in the store to talk to real customers (since we’re the In-Store Experience team) so we’ve had to get creative with how we set up remote tests.

How has traffic changed since COVID-19? Do you feel people are using the Kroger app more?

Traffic is definitely up. Our stores are overloaded, so many people are placing pickup, delivery and ship orders on our website and mobile app. We’ve seen a lot of growth across all our modalities and things don’t seem to be slowing down.

How did your experience at the Brandcenter help you in this job during this time?

The past several months have been utter chaos, but the Brandcenter teaches you how to think clearly when everything around you is chaotic. You have to tune out all the noise to uncover the core problem and consider the entire system when coming up with a solution.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Say thank you to the people working at your grocery store! The work I’m doing is nothing compared to what they are doing.

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