COVID-19: The Ultimate Design Thinking Use Case

We are coming to grips with COVID-19, but it has caught us off guard. As most of the world’s population is under some form of lockdown, we find ourselves in the middle of an unprecedented social experiment with many people working remotely and entire families staying home.

A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. For years, we have been warned of the possibility by hundreds of health experts, and in 2015, Bill Gates talked about how unprepared we are in his TED talk. He grimly warned: “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war.” We are now faced with a challenge that has no parallel in peacetime this century.

While most people manage to “keep calm and carry on,” friction and frustration are inevitable living under such a crisis. But duress lays fertile ground for innovation, and during times such as these, eager designers and creatives can’t help but see opportunities for improvement.

If we approached COVID-19 as a design problem, could we find innovative ways to apply design thinking and human-centered design principles to help soothe everyday frustrations and mitigate the most pressing issues? Drawing parallels between the problems of the global pandemic and those of product and service design, the similarities are obvious.

The Design Thinking Process Applied to COVID-19

A global pandemic puts enormous stress on governments and healthcare services. Suddenly, there is a scramble to circulate the correct information and roll out products and services to deal with the crisis. These challenges bring together a blend of product design, experience design, and service design problems that are desperate for a solution, and design thinking can help.

Design thinking is a methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It combines what’s desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It’s useful in tackling loosely defined, complex problems by understanding human needs.

Design thinking is unique compared with other forms of problem-solving methods in that it’s a non-linear process focused on delivering outcomes, rather than being focused on a precise problem definition. The design thinking process consists of five stages: empathise, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Each step needs to be given appropriate resources and the proper duration to create an end product that reliably meets user needs.

Information Clarity, Consistency, and Distribution

The flow of information is essential to curbing a pandemic. While the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading, it took authorities several weeks to consolidate their messaging and make it consistent. With advanced technology, the distribution of information isn’t the problem. It’s transmitting the right information to the right people at the right time.

In times of crisis, there is an acute need for standardised, consistent, and effective information design. Principle four from the Nielsen Norman Group’s 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design states: “Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing.”

To contain the outbreak, the UK government quickly moved to design clear, consistent messaging, taking advantage of the rule of three: “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” It was widely distributed via the internet and media. People received texts, got emails, and saw posters on the street, all of which has proved to be very effective.

Consistent government messages appeared across the internet and streets in the UK.

Unfortunately, not all governments are created equal, and too little came too late from too many. Particularly when lives are at stake, clear and consistent instructions from healthcare services and authorities need to be out sooner rather than later.

In an ideal scenario, an emergency “design commission” with an army of volunteer designers and content strategists could spring into action to rapidly craft and test various designs. Taking the design thinking phases of empathise, define, and ideate, this rapid response team of designers could assist authorities with formulating the right kind of messaging.

During the final phase of design thinking: implementation, governments could text millions of people with new rules around social distancing with the help of mobile operators. Getting information out rapidly over a variety of channels would ensure people receive the right kind of information promptly.

More than 60 million people received coronavirus text alerts from the UK government during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Psychology of Panic Buying

Experts say hoarding essential supplies despite reassurances from experts that shortages of everyday household goods are unlikely is motivated by a natural human reaction to stress and uncertainty.

When crises occur, people quite naturally want to regain control. We tend to run with the herd, thinking: “If everyone else is buying toilet paper, hand sanitisers, and pasta, I should probably do the same.”

How can stores prevent or at least get ahead of this kind of behavior? Reflecting on the principles of UX design, it’s about “knowing your user.” Becoming keenly aware of previous events, patterns, and behaviors that lead to the raiding of aisles in supermarkets and pharmacies could mitigate the problem.

Aligning the panic-shopping phenomenon with the user interface heuristic “visibility of system status,” clear signage throughout the shopping experience could curtail the rush to stock up on essentials. Governments could raise awareness through the media and send uniform signage to grocery stores to calm nerves and inform shoppers that there is plenty to go around.

If there is a principle that is sacred to UX designers, it’s know your user. After all, how can we design something for people without in-depth, detailed knowledge of them?

Don Norman, co-founder and Principal Emeritus of Nielsen Norman Group

Product and Service Design in the Age of COVID-19

Self-diagnosis at home, monitoring those who are infected, widespread testing, and contact tracing are just a few design problems that need solving. Dealing with emergent mental health issues, panic buying, and social distancing caused by lockdowns is another. Endless design problems with unique challenges present themselves during global crises, and exciting design opportunities abound.

Fusing advanced technology with design thinking, designers have an opportunity to bring forth many innovative products and services.

Design Thinking in Healthcare: Test, Trace, and Treat

In the battle to contain the contagion, employing the test, trace, and treat approach is unavoidable. Widespread testing and contact tracing are needed to identify and alert people who have come into contact with a person infected with the coronavirus.

Putting into practice the user-centered design process, designers could brainstorm new ideas with the “how might we” method. It would require us to accept that we don’t currently know the answer and foster a collaborative approach to solving it. IDEO calls it “challenge mapping,” which is very similar to the 5 Whys method for problem-solving (developed at Toyota in the 1930s).

For example, currently, home test kits are not reliable for testing for novel coronavirus infection. But the steps in the design thinking process could be applied to make them ready for the next one.

Under empathising and defining, we can understand the problem; with ideation and prototyping,we can explore the most cost-effective way to make them; and with testing and implementation, we can refine and deliver an effective solution. In this way, millions of home test kits could be designed, prototyped, and tested.

Mobile apps and big data are ideal partners for contact tracing. When people develop symptoms, how can they know if it’s COVID-19? An AI-powered COVID-19 symptom checker app could “listen” to coughs and breathing, as well as measure body temperature and heart rate via an external wristband. Comparing results with large sets of previous data, it would come up with a diagnosis. Once the symptoms are confirmed, the app can then advise users on an appropriate course of action.

Looking at social distancing, apps could be designed that alert people if they’re getting too close to someone. It could be wearable tech, such as a chest camera, that would send an audible alert to their mobile device (or their earphones).

Designing Better Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

When stepping out of home isolation, protection is on everyone’s mind. During lockdowns, people still need to get essential supplies, pick up medication, and get some exercise.

As designers approach the new norms and apply design thinking to personal protection, a window of opportunity opens up for design innovation. We can empathise, define, ideate, prototype, test, and implement. For example, designers could envision washable gloves made of comfortable material that offer sufficient protection and would become part of our daily protective wear.

For those with a smartwatch, using haptic vibration, apps could sound an alert as the wearer is about to touch their face. Fashionable face masks that are easy to manage yet block airborne viruses could be designed.

Fashion face masks (AusAir).

The lack of personal protective equipment for medical professionals is prompting design innovation at an unprecedented scale. In any healthcare system, there are not only the patients to consider but their families, the doctors, nurses, and other support personnel. A holistic system including all its components needs to be considered in order to see where design can help.

Contactless Everything Is King

Naturally, people fear contact with anything when a tap on a screen or keypad can cause a fatal infection. Touch-based UIs are not favored, and paying with cash isn’t permitted in many grocery stores. Out are ATMs, supermarket keypads, and vending machines; in are contactless transportation passes and payment terminals where people can use contactless cards, ApplePay, and Google Pay.

And then there is radar tech like Google’s Project Soli for contactless interactions.

Project Soli is developing a new interaction sensor using radar technology. The sensor tracks sub-millimeter motions at high speed and accuracy. It fits onto a chip, can be produced at scale, and built into small devices and everyday objects. Soli is a miniature radar that understands human motions at various scales: from the tap of a finger to body movements.

Google’s Project Soli, “an interactive hemisphere that can sense and understand movements.

Contactless payment terminals are already here, but soon, using radar-powered motion sensors, contactless UIs should be possible for everything from ATMs to vending machines. Interacting may be slower with these UIs, but “contactless-modes” will be safer to use. When there is no longer a need, systems can switch back to touch-based interactions.

Shopping for essentials in contactless stores would be a boon during global pandemics. Computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning systems can enable checkout-free shopping experiences. 

Closing Thoughts

The rapid spread of the coronavirus and the disorganised and erratic response of many governments demonstrates how unprepared we are in dealing with a global pandemic. No one looked at the COVID-19 outbreak as a design problem, but the crisis offers a chance to question the wisdom of old habits and to explore out-of-the-box thinking. Applying the design thinking process, designers and design thinkers can play a vital role in diagnosing the most pressing issues and come up with solutions.

Agitation and upheaval has altered history with wars, plagues, and chaos, sometimes leading to positive growth. We can look for a silver lining in the current calamity: COVID-19 is forcing the world to rethink its outmoded routines and power a remarkable pace of design innovation. Many design breakthroughs of the current crisis will be short-lived, but many will have staying power because they solve big problems. It’s up to designers to get to work.

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