How to stay user-centered in the midst of a global pandemic | by Alissa Fleet | Oct, 2021


After a long career in UX design making consumer products more user-friendly, I had my first experience on a civic design project for the COVID-19 pandemic response.

This pandemic has pushed all of us in new directions. For me it has stretched what it means to be user-centered, what empathy means, and how design can help in an otherwise cataclysmic situation. Here is some of what I’ve learned designing technology systems for pandemic response sponsored by Schmidt Futures.

If you think you know what a “user” is, think again.

Typically in user experience, we create personas so that we know who we are designing for and who we are not. It is a power tool to get the UI focused and for getting a team aligned on what we are going to build next and what can wait.

During this pandemic, the user is a person who is going through something that the US has not seen before. They are facing the unknown and the possibility of calamity.

The tools we are creating are to help people figure out what is going on, where to get tested; to let them know when it is their turn to get vaccinated; how to find these places. There is no time to create personas. If there were, we would need:

  • A persona for those ones who are hard of hearing; who are blind; who need a phone number so that they can speak to a real person
  • A persona for the ones who are grieving
  • A persona for the ones feel that their world might be falling apart
  • A persona for the ones who are majorly on edge
  • A persona for the ones who are stepping up to be a hero in a new way

In designing user experiences for consumers, we write system requirements for the baseline technology we are designing for. We specify which browser, smart phone, and operating systems our website will work best on. In civic design we are designing for people who do not have the default operating system. They may not have any operating system at all and may be without access to a computer or smart phone. They may be experiencing housing instability and need to go to the library to check their email. They do not have an address to enter in to that field.

For public health we need to go wider still with who are we serving. This COVID-19 Communication Toolkit can help to get up to speed on what matters for health equity.

If you think you know what user empathy means, think again.

One of the audiences I design for is the call center agents. These are the ones who do the person-to-person help to the public in their time of need. The ones who reach out to those who test positive. Their call script goes something like this:

“We are here to help. We will tell you everything you need to know, so that you are well informed. And if you have fallen ill, and need an extra hand, we will help with that too. Tell me, what do you need? We’ll bring you medicine, groceries, get you to where you need to go. You may feel like you don’t have anyone, but we are here. I am going to be calling you soon, so make sure you pick up the phone so that we can talk with you.”

As a designer my job is to get to work on cleaning up the interface that this call center team has been using. At my first meeting with them, the first thing I notice is that the spirits of this group of dedicated people is incredibly high. I am ready to launch in to my usual needs analysis, “What do you need from your technology?” But then realize it is more appropriate to put down the UI for a minute and just say to them: “Thank You.” Some have missed the meeting entirely because they were on a call with someone and their cases always comes first. Seriously, thank you for the work that you do.

What I’m getting is that the spirits of the team are so high because they are offering person-to-person help all day long. They are responding to real need and they are obviously moved by the people they talk to. This is empathy.

User experience has grown out of a tradition where we advocate empathy, but in a lot of ways empathy has become rote. User research is sometimes atomized down to posting a design artifact on the internet, set an incentive for users, and remove the moderator altogether. Just let the test run. Watch the recordings later of people clicking through an obstacle course of screens. Wherever they baled out, note when the blood started boiling. The higher the temperature, the higher up the list of “we really should fix that.” This is not empathy. When you go all in with empathy, you are not a detached observer. You actually let yourself be affected and maybe even changed in the process.

In a chaotic situation, give people things that are reliable, predictable, and familiar.

To be working in a pandemic is to be working in an active trauma field. For practical purposes, all of your users are in a state of trauma. For this you may need a quick study on learning about trauma informed design.

Given this, in a situation with so many unknowns, we can make sure the basics are taken care of:

Make things work

  • Triage the biggest usability issues. There won’t be time to do everything; first focus on usability 101. Prioritize getting the most common use cases functional; clear up the most egregious error cases.

Design for content

  • Focus on words. Even though the message is a somber one, make it shine with clarity. When there are new procedures everyone is learning for the first time, being really clear matters.
  • In the first rev, there will be more unfiltered legalese and technical jargon than usually shows up in consumer-facing interfaces. Look for opportunities to clarify.
  • Text changes are often easier to implement and can provide big usability wins. Focus on how to be more guided through a flow and making sure there is clear guidance about “what to do” at each stage.

Introduce design elements that are familiar

  • As early as possible, standardize on the most basic layouts. Use big readable headlines. Increase the font sizes everywhere. Find ways to make content, headings, and labels more scannable.
  • Provide familiar formats and templates. Help people anchor in to something reliable and consistent in a new situation that is otherwise chaotic. Design standards help with this and help you move quickly.
  • Leverage the design tools from the US Web Design System. They have ready-made Sketch design kits and libraries for developing wireframes intended for public facing government sites. It includes standards for log in pages; usability focused data entry fields; guidelines for progressive disclosure that most COVID-19 sites have built from scratch. It includes standards for accessible writing guidelines.

What are your thoughts?

What have you been learning about designing your way through a pandemic? How do you think design practices needs to be adapted to better respond to these times? How might we re-infuse user research with the kind of empathy that serves the ones we are designing for? I would love to hear your thoughts.



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