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Designing digital services during the Coronavirus pandemic - some advice

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez March 23, 2020
Both the public and private sector are scrambling to provide services during the Coronavirus global health emergency. But we still need to be careful.

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(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

Over the past week or so it has been interesting to observe how both the public and private sector alike have mobilised to build necessary digital services for people during the worsening Coronavirus pandemic. Services have been spun up in a matter of *hours* to provide people the information and resources that they need, as people are asked to stay at home in isolation and as society begins to function in an entirely different way for the foreseeable future. 

However, whilst I have seen some incredible resources being spun up, I have also watched, with concern, some technology services created that would have been deemed simply unsafe in a pre-Coronavirus world. I realise that people are trying to help and get stuck in, but equally we need to be mindful of the impact that these services may have over the coming weeks and months, particularly on those that are more vulnerable and at higher risk. 

This got me thinking about some guiding principles - or advice - that teams and organisations should be considering whilst they’re designing during a crisis. I know these same people are likely to already be overworked, stressed and trying their best, so this isn’t meant to be a judgemental dig at them. It’s just I think if we can collectively try and get this conversation going, then we can all work towards some better outcomes. 

Having collected some thoughts from some very helpful people on Twitter (thank you!!) and elsewhere, this is the current (and evolving) list I’ve put together. I’ll happily update as more information comes to me and more stuff springs to mind.

  1. Don’t panic build - needs will evolve

I realise this is easier said than done, given the current situation. However, the pandemic is evolving and what we knew a month ago, we likely didn’t know now. That will continue to be the case for a while. Recognise that what you’re building today, might not be suitable in two weeks time. It is still very much about user needs, but user needs are changing quickly! 

Be careful and thoughtful with what you design. Collaborate across silos with people that are likely thinking about solving similar problems and understand that whatever you’re building will likely need to evolve. 

This is why organisations should be investing in teams, not an app or a preconceived outcome. If you have good people in place that understand what principles they should be working with at the core, they can be flexible and adapt as the needs and landscape changes. 

  1. You’re designing for everyone, but one size also won’t fit all

This is central to the reason why this is such a challenge for digital design teams during the Coronavirus pandemic. On the one hand we are talking about ‘health’, so this is about everyone in society as a collective. On the other hand, the impact will have specific use cases that aren’t one size fits all. 

For example, think about the need for a national campaign that delivers advice on ‘social distancing’, what’s okay to do and what isn’t. And then think about the services that need to be delivered for people out of work because of Coronavirus - the impact will be different for key workers, the self-employed, employees, employers etc. 

In other words, there is a huge amount of nuance in all of this. That being said, there are still things you can do to help guide design. Take advantage of existing case studies in the open that have clear evidence of what works and what doesn’t. Seek out experts that could be included in your team. Start small, test, iterate and be prepared to destroy what you built regularly and start again (with learnings). Build with flexibility in mind. Do your research, constantly. 

  1. Clear communication and language is essential

More than ever, given the complexity of health information and the amount of disinformation out there, having clear language and communication at the centre of what you do is essential. 

It’s very easy to start adopting new buzzwords that have gained widespread use in recent weeks, without thinking about the need to explain them clearly. A post was doing the rounds on Twitter today which highlighted this very point - instead of ‘social distancing’, we should be explaining that this means: ‘stay at home apart from a food shop once a week’ (or something along those lines). You get the point, be clear and explain exactly what you mean. 

  1. Work in the open

This is something that should be encouraged regardless of a pandemic, but now should be being actively enforced. This isn’t just about publishing your code in the open, but also sharing your thinking behind the design and what assumptions you are making (there are likely to be many given the unknowns and the timescales in place!). 

Working in the open will encourage people to peer review and for feedback to be given. Not only that, but it will allow teams to stand a better chance of not duplicating work being done elsewhere. Rather work together, collaboratively and in full view of the public. Criticism is a good thing, it can force positive change. 

  1. Go where the public already is

Use data to understand where the public are likely to find what they need. I saw recently that most Google search terms use ‘Coronavirus’, rather than ‘COVID-19’ for example. So why build a service where everything is described as COVID-19? Equally, it’s sensible for governments to put information on their existing platforms (e.g. GOV.UK), rather than build new websites dedicated to Coronavirus information. The government in the UK is sending out information via text, letters and on the phone because that’s where people are likely to receive it. Think about this, carefully. 

  1. The digital divide has become very important

Experts have been talking about the ‘digital divide’ for years, claiming that digital by default principles fully ignore parts of society that aren’t connected to the internet. The counter argument has always been: get someone round to help you! Or, go to the cafe or library to use a computer! This is clearly not great advice now that governments are mandating that people stay at home and practice social distancing, not to mention that cafes and libraries are being closed. 

Recognise that your digital service will not reach everyone in this time of crisis and figure out what that will mean for those users. 

  1. Make use of existing platforms

This ties into some of the points above, but teams should really be making use of existing platforms and tools out there. Don’t build something when it already exists because you think this is a ‘unique’ situation. For example, the UK government in recent years built GOV.UK Notify as a platform, which allows anyone to be able to use it as a service to send text messages, emails and letters to users. Can you imagine how useful that is going to be? 

Think about what’s already out there, and as Tom Loosemore said to me, “re-use, borrow, steal”. 

  1. Start small and iterate

You’re not going to build a service that solves all the problems, or even all of one problem, for people impacted by the Coronavirus. That being said, you can maybe build something helpful and useful for people dealing with their new reality. The key is to recognise that you don’t likely know what that looks like yet. Start small, research as you go, iterate and collaborate. This is advice I’d hope people were following anyway - regardless of a pandemic - but we know that not to be true. It’s even more important now to understand that. 

Also, please don’t build something that probably wouldn’t have gained public/regulatory/legislative approval pre-Coronavirus, just because people are now panicking. It sets a precedent and will cause problems down the line. Build things that are safe, secure and thoughtful. 

  1. Build with compassion and empathy

These are incredibly testing and unprecedented times for everyone. Most people are just trying their best. Use some of the principles above as best you can, but also try and be flexible to know that people are under extreme pressure to get things done. I’m not really sure what the key bit of practical advice for this point is other than recognise the importance of compassion and empathy during this time whilst you’re designing. 

My take


Thank you again to everyone that offered me guidance on this topic. There are too many of you to mention, but you know who you are and your thoughts are always appreciated. And to those teams designing and building services to help people during this pandemic, thank you too! Keep changing, learning and sharing.

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