Planning and designing for the inevitable

Authors: Pallabi Roy Singh
Posted: Wed, August 26, 2020 - 12:08:58

If there is one big lesson from Covid-19, it is that we live in a world of risk. Disasters and epidemics and pandemics are part and parcel of the fabric of our existence—although that recognition makes them no less tragic when they occur. The Covid-19 catastrophe can be traced back to the actions of only a handful of people, yet it is something that attests to humankind’s vulnerability before powerful individuals. In fact, the chaos that Covid-19 has brought to the world has been more devastating than that of any other previously occurring catastrophe. However, it cannot be the end; there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Humanity is still there and thriving. Viewed as such, Covid-19 will prove to be as much a testimony to human durability as it will be to human vulnerability.

Having said that, I strongly believe that disaster preparedness and emergency management are the need of the hour. And, as user experience professionals, it is probably the right and the best time for us to start designing and building products that can help the world avoid the pitfalls of a catastrophe—or at least manage our way out of one. So, let's gear up and get ourselves out.

The widespread ownership of smart mobile devices means that disaster communication has reached a new level in terms of ease, speed, and quantity of information sharing. Mobile applications have become ubiquitous, and people are well versed in using them. If we look at the various mobile applications for disaster management today, there are already quite a few. These applications broadly fall into different categories, such as alert generation, emergency preparedness, guide mapping to nearby help centers, simulation-based impact modeling and risk assessment, crisis mapping, geo-tagged situational information and crowdsourcing, volunteer tracking and management, and family tracing and reunification. And these are really good applications! So, before we begin to design and develop an application to combat disasters, we must see how we can adopt a best-of-breed approach and come up with a solution for general users who can easily find support in an emergency.

Best practices for designing a disaster-management application

Designing a disaster-management application can seem like a very promising proposal, but there are some challenges. For example, the user base of a disaster-management application is strong and diverse, so the design must suit the needs of different groups. However, if we adhere to the following best practices we can ensure that the design of the application is relevant and useful for all groups of users:

  • The research strategy, as an overarching view of research needs and priorities, forms the basis of a research plan. Therefore, devising a research strategy should be the first step in the design process. Studies have shown that the development of a disaster-management application is often geared toward showcasing technological innovation rather than meeting user requirements. Therefore, before proceeding further, we should review our research objectives and questions with a few hazard and disaster researchers and emergency-management practitioners because they are better equipped to shed light on the diverse needs of users dealing with a disaster or emergency. In other words, understanding user psychology in response to disasters is a fundamental prerequisite for designing an application. It will help us in coming up with a better approach to our research and in prioritizing the features to be included in the application.

  • While designing a disaster-management application, we must ensure that it successfully complies with the heuristics. If we remember to follow Jakob Nielsen's 10 general principles for interaction design, we are sure to come up with an aesthetically pleasing, minimalist design—one that provides a lot of flexibility to users and has the benefit of recognition over recall. We must keep in mind that the user base of a disaster-management application will be large and varied; it will be used by all groups of people in case of an emergency, from educated to uneducated, from young to old. So the simpler the design the better. Simple designs also reduce the workload on the server, which can improve load times even more.

  • Ensure that the application is easy to use and easy to understand for everyone—it can save lives when it matters the most. It is an established fact that in order to provide a truly comfortable user experience, applications should offer some language support, which may involve some form of content localization. However, the prospect of having to manage and support a number of languages is too daunting, especially without the budgets or expertise to embrace localization. The key here is to invite altruism. Volunteers sometimes decide to contribute some of their time to localize content. So, volunteer-based collaborative translation or crowdsourcing can play a big role in simplifying the content for the native users of a disaster-management application.

  • Color coding of UI elements plays a critical role in a disaster-management application because it helps the users see and easily interpret the alert levels. For example, if we are designing a pre-disaster warning application, we can use color-coded images on the interactive map of the locations affected by or under the threat of any kind of disaster. Similarly, we can use color codes in the application to generate alerts, alarms, or notifications according to different alert levels.


    Alert Level



    Information only

    Disaster identified

    Monitoring and watching

    For information only; no impact expected



    Disaster impending

    Warning, monitoring, and watching

    Preparedness phase



    Disaster threat imminent

    Preparedness phase



    Response and action phase



    All clear

    Cancellation of warning

  • The use of intuitive icons can play a big role in improving the usability of a disaster-management application. While it might not be possible to design an icon entirely from scratch, it should still be possible to choose an icon that encompasses both sign-like and symbol-like properties. The wide spectrum of users of a disaster-management application require universally recognizable (symbol-like) icons that also represent what they purport to represent (sign-like). Therefore, we should use icons in our designs that are obvious and intuitive across a range of cultures and experiences, but at the same time so basic as to be innately recognized.

  • Including FAQs and interactive learning materials in a disaster-management application could prove useful in preparing users for unforeseen eventualities. It will establish the resourcefulness of the application. For example, we can post a list of frequently asked questions selected based on our research data, a list of guidelines and an information glossary, visualizations and maps of real-time data, and video tutorials and illustrations to guide users in crisis situations.

  • Use of advanced communication technology is important to ensure proactive and strategic communication in real time. For example, advanced SOS, emergency signaling capability, and live video capture will help to ensure a two-way communication mechanism to address the needs of users in a crisis. From the design perspective, the placement of the UI controls related to these features is critical; they should be placed in the application window such that they are easily findable.

Studies have proven that there is huge potential for online and mobile emergency solutions to be used by a broad range of users. However, they also highlight the need for advertising these apps and educating people about them, as well as the need for ensuring users of the privacy and security of these solutions. If we can ensure that all these principles are in place in our designs, I believe we will be well prepared to fight any crisis like Covid-19 in the future.

Posted in: Covid-19 on Wed, August 26, 2020 - 12:08:58

Pallabi Roy Singh

Pallabi Roy Singh is a UX researcher, usability analyst, and content strategist at Cadence Design Systems, where she leads numerous design projects for desktop applications. Before joining Cadence, she had worked in TCS and Ericsson. Her articles and research papers have been published in many national and international journals. [email protected]
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