Designing at the Speed of Coronavirus

Our pandemic challenges need human-centric solutions fast.

This pandemic challenges us to develop new solutions at lightspeed as we try to stay ahead of a tsunami of cases threatening to drown our healthcare and civic capabilities to respond. In our crisis response mode, we seek big and transformative solutions — manufacture more respirators, more test kits, build hospitals. Many of our challenges require a mix of time, money and organizational capability to deliver. Things like these have clear solutions and ready to go plans to be executed with haste.

But, as we have all seen, so many of our challenges are new, novel and in need of new ideas and solutions. Innovation is needed and for many if not most (maybe all) these challenges it is human-centric solutions delivered through the design and with a healthy dose of entrepreneurial hustle and creative confidence that promise to deliver faster and more on-target results. Design on large with design thinking, system design, and service design being parts of that has a critical role to play.

Consider the challenges with creating an at-home coronavirus testing kit in the recent HBR article below. Currently, healthcare workers are testing people one-by-one at hospitals, clinics and the new drive-thru stations. This is not only slow and inefficient wasting critical time we need to better target efforts and treat people but it also puts others — including the healthcare teams — at risk of infection. An at-home test kit would speed up testing while allowing healthcare teams to focus more on treatment. But, as the article shares, you can’t just send a kit and think it will work. They identify 3 key assumptions around people’s behavior — will they use it and trust it rather than just going directly to a clinic in the belief that this going will get them better results quicker? Will they use it correctly considering we are asking them to do something new (a nasal swab)? Finally, will they wait for the required 48–72 hours in self-isolation until they get the results and not get anxious and go to the clinic (which, again, we don’t want)? These are human-centric challenges that depend on understanding behavior, motivators, predicting where people will get confused or worried and having clear insights.

It would be easy to think in crisis mode it’s best to ship and hope for the best. After all, introducing design takes time we don’t have. But it is too important to get it right not to do it. Thankfully, design thinking can work at speed and designers have for decades been applying principles of empathy, collaborative co-creation, prototyping and testing and storytelling to crisis challenges and have delivered better, more targeted and scalable results in sprinted days (or day) rather than months or weeks at best.

One-on-one interviewing or in-context interviews under quarantine are more challenging for sure but designers have been doing virtual ethnography for a long time now and more virtual tools are out there to help us do it. Expert interviews with experts in telemedicine, clinicians, at-home health works and other product manufacturers who have a parallel experience in getting people to do new actions (all of whom you would imagine might be important and readably reachable for the example in the article) in order to create a few clear design principles are a call away. And prototyping instructions with quick paper sketches or a film-it-and-post-it low-quality instructional video and then testing them with people is part of our design day-to-day.

The difference today is that time is scarce. We don’t have the weeks to months. There are no luxurious and drawn out ‘what if” conversations on the sofa or time to make that every so beautiful journey map with prize-worthy illustrations of users. We must work at the speed of the disease and for any designers who have been in a small but scaling startup, you have a beginner’s taste of what this means. It means design sprint speed decisions and discipline, prototypes from concept to in someone’s hands in 30 minutes. It means violent pivots to get on a productive line of sights with egos placed aside. It’s working with constraints, creating clear challenge statements, amplified creativity, being resourceful, breakneck framing and reframing, and having a ruthless bias towards action. This is where design meets agile ways of working and entrepreneurial mojo.

Designers will need to step up, make sure they are heard and deliver real results that help healthcare, first responders, civic leaders, communities, and businesses tackle the flood of challenges that are coming (are here) in more responsive ways and with solutions that work for people on the front line and those most at risk.

If this pandemic is a war let me frame the role of designers in a way personal to me. During the Battle of Britain, Nazi planes bombed cities across England in an attempt to overwhelm British morale and will to continue the fight against fascism. Standing in their way were precious few British fighter pilots in their nimble Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes who would go from dogfight to dogfight without sleep or rest. These are those that Prime Minister Churchill said so much was owed by so many to so few. This success was made in great part possible by England’s ability to build these lethal planes quickly mostly out of Coventry which became the most bombed city in England. In those factories, works built and resupplied England with the solution that was needed to face seemingly unending bombing raids. My grandmother, Rita Elliott, went every night from being bombed to the factory every day to build the Merlin engines that powered the Spitfire pilots into battle. Our pilots are the nurses, doctors, orderly and other first responders on the front line of this pandemic. Designers are people like my grandmother building spitfire solutions for our victory. So be my grandmother and design the powerful solutions our pandemic fighters need now.

The Article: Thanks to Neeti Sanyal (a designer) and Shantanu Nundy (a doctor) for this great example. Read How to Make At-Home Coronavirus Testing Work, Harvard Business Review, March 24, 2020