A responsive kind of design

XXVII.4 July - August 2020
Page: 56
Digital Citation

How can designers fight the coronavirus?

Nikhil Welankar

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Most of us had never imagined that countries would have to declare lockdowns to protect their citizens from the coronavirus outbreak. In its wake, government authorities, health departments, doctors, nurses, security services, police, scientists, food suppliers, medical suppliers, nonprofit organizations, and industry leaders across the world are uniting and working tirelessly. And the rest of humanity is wholeheartedly thankful. At the same time, some innovative minds are exploring cost-effective masks, robot helpers for isolation wards, and space-effective ventilators to solve contextual problems. This made me wonder: How can designers fight the coronavirus?

We designers are problem solvers. We apply design thinking to solve problems, to improve the daily lives of consumers, and to help businesses achieve their goals. How can we now apply our skills to deal with this pandemic?

As a part of the design thinking process, we use various user research methods to understand pain points, needs, and wish lists. Can we apply user research methods to understand misconceptions and perceptions about coronavirus? To understand symptoms? Or how about to understand patients' experiences with medical services or the struggles of corona warriors? Such research can provide inputs to help improve the overall support ecosystem. Remote user research methods such as digital surveys, remote usability testing, virtual focus group sessions, digital diary studies, and telephone interviews can all be applied. Methods such as competitive analysis in the corporate world help us understand the weaknesses and strengths of the competitors; similar methods can be applied to study how other countries and organizations have dealt with the situation, which can help improve our own processes and frameworks moving forward. Considering the world's socio-cultural-economic diversity, contextual understanding of the problem is also critical. Human-centered design is the key to providing relevant solutions.

Once our research is completed, we identify the exact problem and understand the gaps with regard to an existing ecosystem. We can clearly define problems, mental models, misconceptions, and needs through various analysis methods. This definition is important in order to ideate the solution.

Once the problem is identified, we create high-level concepts to explore possible solutions. The solution can be a product, a service, a process, or a framework. Designers can envision a lot of physical or digital solutions to help Covid-19 patients and the support staff. They can also play a great role in spreading health awareness, especially in the world of social media, where rumors can be more viral than authentic scientific information.

Once the ideation is completed, we create a quick and tangible model of the envisioned solution. This early-stage prototype helps in validating our direction before spending a lot of effort in building the solution. We test our prototype with the end users to get their feedback. Designers can also create prototypes to explore various cost-effective, space-effective, and contextual product/service ideas in order to deal with the Covid-19 situation. These products can be in the form of mobile apps, physical kiosks, health check-up kits, or even a service framework to improve patients' overall medical experience.

Looking at the rapid spread of Covid-19, we certainly don't have time in hand to apply the classical design-thinking process. We need to identify key challenges quickly and address them through creative solutions as soon as possible. In the remaining part of this article, I would like to highlight some of the challenges and possible solutions, as per my limited understanding.

back to top  Key Challenges and Possible Solutions

Lack of awareness about Covid-19 is one of the most pressing challenges observed across the world. When the outbreak in China was first reported, people from other countries thought it might just be a local issue in China. That left room for Covid-19 to spread—until it was too late. By the time citizens and local authorities realized its severity, it was already taking a toll. Still, a large part of some populations are not fully aware of the coronavirus. How can designers solve this challenge?

There are many ways this can be addressed. Designers can use all possible mediums—print, audio, video, animation, mobile apps, games, and social media—to spread awareness in an engaging way. Designers can redesign authentic information channels such as those provided by the WHO and the UN, as well as government websites and mobile apps, in order to make them stand out. Social media strategists can run WhatsApp groups, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, and text- and voice-message-based services to spread information. Recently, a telecom service provider started providing coronavirus information instead of a ringtone when a caller makes a call. We can also design offline channels, such as a coronavirus awareness poster hung at a local grocery store or a coronavirus-awareness brochure printed on a grocery bag.


In the semi-urban and rural areas of India lacking a strong Internet presence, TV and regional language radio are the effective mediums. Designers, artists, writers, poets, singers, musicians, dancers, and storytellers can play an important role. Storytelling is the most effective approach, and the coronavirus story should be told in the form of a traditional folk art specific to the region. For example, for centuries in Maharashtra, traditional musical forms such as kirtan and powada have been effectively applied to spread social awareness. In Gujarat, katha and pravachan are the popular forms to raise such awareness.

MIT researchers have shown that fake news spreads faster than the truth [1]. This becomes a major roadblock when it comes to false information about Covid-19. Rumors and false information can create panic, especially when there is an unprecedented situation like Covid-19. Social media companies have been working hard to remove fake information but it is not an easy task. Fortunately, anyone can help: Citizens can report fake information themselves. On the other hand, media houses have become more cautious to avoid spreading fake information due to this transparent ecosystem. But more focused and organized efforts are required. Government and private stakeholders need to collaboratively work on a twofold framework, first to remove the fake information and second to propagate authentic information. It would be worth exploring whether an automated framework based on artificial intelligence and data science could remove fake information at a massive scale. Researchers, design thinkers, product designers, AI experts, and data scientists can collaborate to build such product-service-based frameworks. Such frameworks will be effective, especially in large, socioculturally diverse countries such as India, China, and the U.S.


Personal and social hygiene are the important factors in keeping the coronavirus at bay. But this is challenging in densely populated countries. Hygiene protocols need to be propagated through advertising campaigns, celebrity endorsement, and demonstrations. Recently, celebrities from the Indian film and sports worlds published videos of them washing their hands. It created a deep impact, as people adore these figures. And there are many ways in which hygiene protocols can be propagated and rewarded. Incentives and discounts, for instance, can encourage people: The cleanest suburb or apartment/society can get a prize or discount on its water or electricity bill, creating healthy competition. A gamified mobile app can be designed for conducting a hygiene-based competition, with a score card for, say, apartment complexes or neighborhoods to keep the momentum. Educational documentaries, short films, advertisements, animated stories, newspaper cartoons, and games can help in spreading hygiene awareness. Recently, a few private companies in India designed a Sanitizing Tunnel, through which people can pass while they are out buying groceries. Such contextual solutions need to be explored further.

In many cases, senior citizens live alone in apartments, as their children are far away in another city or country. With housekeeping staff unavailable due to the lockdown, senior citizens are not able to cook their meals and also at times unable to step out for groceries due to health issues. This challenge urgently needs to be tackled. Contextual solutions include senior citizen help groups formed by local societies and township bodies that deliver necessary food, medicine, and groceries. WhatsApp groups have formed to help senior citizens with medical emergencies. These seniors may not be that tech savvy or may not have smartphones to be able to respond digitally. A simple call- or text-based helpline service could be a user-friendly option. Text or voice instructions in a regional language can help users who don't have English proficiency. A local registry of lonely senior citizens, along with frequent connections with them, can be a very helpful means of support. Such responsibility can be shouldered by the local residents, where one family can make calls to 10 senior citizens in one week to check on their well-being. More such contextual solutions need to be explored.

Designers can play a vital role by exploring contextual, relevant, and effective design solutions.

When an entire city, state, or country is under lockdown due to the pandemic, mental health problems are bound to rise. Recently, a few people committed suicide out of fear of getting infected by the coronavirus [2]. When you lock down or put restrictions on a large population, managing mental health becomes an imperative. Such mandatory loneliness or togetherness may result in an outbreak of frustration, depression, and anger. Designers can conceptualize digital channels to facilitate remote counseling sessions, helpline support, remote yoga and meditation sessions, remote group activities, and motivational games.

In short, as all professionals—especially medical and security staff—are working tirelessly, designers can play a vital role by exploring contextual, relevant, and effective design solutions. Designers can apply various research methods to understand needs, pain points, and gaps in the current system in order to improve it. Technologies such as mobile apps, social media, artificial intelligence, IoT, 3D printing, AR, and VR can empower designers in exploring the next generation of solutions to solve grassroots problems. Designers can explore contextual and localized solutions that consider the socio-cultural-lingual diversity of the world.

Finally, I would like to reiterate the philosophy of common humanity. All the countries are one family. Let's fight against Covid-19 together to restore peace, health, and happiness in the world.

back to top  References

1. Dizikes, P. Study: On Twitter, alse news travels faster than true stories. MIT News. Mar. 8, 2018; http://news.mit.edu/2018/study-twitter-false-news-travels-faster-true-stories-0308

2. Raju, S., Tyagi, U., and Khan, T. Three more corona suicides in west UP. Hindustan Times. Apr. 2, 2020; https://www.hindustantimes.com/lucknow/three-more-corona-suicides-in-west-up/story-UMD1lLH6Nj9JRaiNuE74eN.html

back to top  Author

Nikhil Welankar is an Experience Director with over 18 years of global industry experience. He has conducted more than 250 user interviews and more than 150 usability tests for 70-plus UX design projects. He has also authored five research papers and conducted upwards of 50 UX awareness sessions. [email protected]

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