How designers can help mitigate the next pandemic

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Illustration by Shai Samana

Better product design can reduce the transmission of bacteria and viruses. Here’s how to design our way out of the next crisis.

9 min read

A hand gesturing a swipe without touching the screen in a groceries shopping app

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As a society, we rely on touch for almost everything we do. From our smartphones to how we use public transport.

However, touch can be dangerous.

It can spread viruses and bacteria onto many surfaces which we interact with, increasing the transmission rate, or R0 - pronounced “R-naught” - which for Covid-19 is estimated to be around 3.28.

Covid-19 is primarily transmitted through droplets being spread from person-to-person from the mouth or nose (e.g. a cough or a sneeze). The virus can survive on surfaces for around 72 hours.

Some measures like social-distancing and self-isolation can reduce transmission through changing our behaviours and minimising the number of infected people we come into contact with.

However, there are ways in which we as product designers can, and should, help to reduce transmission in the future and help minimise the impact of the next pandemic.

Since the inception of the touch screen, it has been the default interface for many interactions. However, even before Covid-19, we were beginning to break away from touch. Spoken interfaces are becoming more popular with Amazon, Google and Apple all having their own voice assistants, paving the way for a more vocal future.

While this is one area already explored in our reduction of touch, there are a number of other design changes we could make to mitigate the next pandemic. Here's a look into the UX of healthcare design and a few suggestions on what we can do as designers:

Minimising touches of shared devices

In everyday life, we have to interact with a number of shared products and devices. For example, when you get a package delivered you may have to electronically sign for it and hold a device from the postman.

What you probably haven’t considered is the 50 other people who have held that device before you today. You’d then continue with your day, open the parcel, make a cup of coffee, pick up some toast and eat it. Unknowingly, you could’ve been infected without even leaving the house.

As a caveat, most delivery companies are now implementing changes for contactless delivery, minimising the risk of transmission.

So how can we reduce some of these risks and avoid unnecessary spreading of bacteria and viruses in the future? Let’s explore some design ideas.

As designers, we need to think about how we can automate some of these necessary interactions.

Self-scan and automated checkouts

When going shopping, you might decide to use self-scan checkouts so as to avoid direct contact with anyone else. However, it’s likely that hundreds of people have been recently using that same touchscreen.

The fewer touches required on a touchscreen like this, the lower the likelihood you would come into contact with something untoward.

So how can we reduce touches? There are a number of things we could try.

Initially, we could make a truly contactless checkout experience. A customer could scan an item to begin the shop, and then use contactless payments to end the transaction and pay.

In some stores, this is already the case. However, some require you to press a button to end the transaction and then select which payment type you wish to use. If you’ve ever been into an Asda or Tesco on your lunch break, you’ve probably seen a majority of people doing the same thing:

  1. Picking up around four bits of food for lunch.

  2. Scanning them through as fast as possible.

  3. Mashing the end button about ten times.

  4. Paying with their phone or contactless.

In this common scenario, why would we as designers enforce touch as an interaction when it simply isn’t required and can cause harm?

Amazon already began working on a way to revolutionise the contactless shopping experience long before the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2017, they opened a trial Amazon Go store which allowed people to scan their phone when entering, pick up groceries and walk out.

No waiting in a checkout line with potentially sick people. No person touching every single one of your groceries to scan it in. Solutions such as this could help reduce transmission rates in their respective communities.

Public transport

Buses can be a significant place for transmission. First, this is due to their potential to trap and spread airborne diseases.

Secondly, most of the time you will have to hold the rails and handles if you cannot find a seat - and when you want to get off you have to press something.

In a congested environment with thousands of passengers a day, one person can spread a disease to a large number of people.

As designers, we need to think about how we can automate some of these necessary interactions. We can also reconsider maximum numbers allowed on transport to avoid heavy congestion, which denies commuters their right to adequately distance themselves from others.

For example, if you purchase a bus ticket to the city centre, then why would you have to press the ‘stop’ button when the bus gets close? Data from the bus’s ticketing system can already confirm that there is someone in the vehicle who needs to get off there. We can, therefore, automatically ring a stopping button for them.

This would not only help reduce transmission rates by removing the need to share the same buttons, but would also help less able-bodied people to get around.

Public bathrooms

A key message from the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been to frequently wash our hands for 20-30 seconds with soap, in order to help stop the spread of Covid-19.

However, there is a common user journey when someone washes their hands in a public bathroom:

  1. You turn on the faucet;

  2. Apply soap;

  3. Wash hands with soap under the water;

  4. Turn off the faucet.

Can you spot the issue with this flow? The person is touching the faucet with dirty hands, and after they have sufficiently cleaned their hands, they have to touch the dirty faucet again to turn it off.

This is such a fundamental issue that the WHO actually recommends turning off faucets with the towel you just dried your hands with, in their illustration of how to wash your hands.

The obvious way to avoid this issue is to implement automatic faucets, which turn on when they detect hands and turn off when the person moves away. These are somewhat common in select places but should be the default moving forward.

However, these aren’t without their issues. There are numerous designs of automated faucets, some that dispense soap automatically too - and this lack of standardisation can leave people confused. If we are to succeed with mass-implementation of automated faucets, we need to:

  1. Ensure sensors are adequate and turn off and on when expected;

  2. Provide visual feedback to people, for example, a light to indicate where the sensor is, and when it is activated;

  3. Maintain a warm, steady flow of water (as people tend to prefer washing with warm water rather than cold).

We need to ensure that when people attempt to maintain a high level of personal hygiene, the sanitation method is enabling them to do so.

Door handles

Door handles can be a significant vector for disease transmission, with research suggesting they can spread some viruses and bacteria as efficiently as touching another person’s hand.

We already have designs in place for mitigating this risk, such as in automatic sliding doors which don’t require any physical contact to open. However, these options aren’t always viable, such as in the cases of fire doors and places without electricity. We therefore need to consider a method in which we can safely use all doors without spreading disease.

We need to collectively agree on a redesign which involves minimal to no touches, while being as accessible - if not more - for people who need extra support, like someone in a wheelchair.

Designing a different schedule

Design relates to every interaction we have with the world. You work a five-day week because it was designed that way, you wake up at 6 a.m. to get to the tube on time because that’s the way the tube schedule was designed.

So as people design everything in our day-to-day lives - it may be time to redesign some of the things we take as standard.

Where we work

We are living in a new era for work. Companies who would have never even considered remote working have now been forced to not just dip their toe in the water, but cannonball in to keep their businesses alive. It is estimated that at least one-third of the US population has now transitioned to remote working.

Once lockdowns are lifted, though, this will now raise the question of who goes back to “normal” work?

If a person can do their entire job, or at least most of it, from home - then why is it a requirement for them to wake up early, which can damage their health? Research from Alvarez and Ayas concluded that “sleep should not be considered a luxury, but an important component of a healthful lifestyle”. Why should people also commute long distances - which can also damage their health - to perform the same actions in an office?

At the same time, it’s important to note that some research from Wendy Spinks and Kondrat (et al.) suggests that exclusively working remotely could have a negative influence on a person’s mental health due to feelings of isolation and stress. This does not mean it should be avoided, but perhaps we need to redesign the working week so that we can strike a balance between working from home when convenient and possible, and collaborating together when necessary to gain vital social interactions.

If people can commute less often, not only would the opportunity for them to come into contact with an infectious person diminish, but there would also be benefits for the environment, with reduced carbon emissions.

When we work

Picture yourself on the train around 8:30 a.m., packed with other commuters trying to get to work by 9 a.m. A few months ago, this wouldn’t seem very far-fetched.

Now though this would seem dystopian - and it would be a hotspot for transmission of viruses and bacteria.

However, imagine being on a train with only a few other people in the carriage. This way, you can safely social distance yourself and get to work without worry or risk. You arrive at 9 a.m., maybe some coworkers arrive at 10 a.m., and others arrive at 11 a.m.

Staggering working times could significantly reduce overcrowding on public transport, which could, in turn, slow the transmission of viruses.

This could not only apply to work, but also to schools. It has been shown that students may perform academically better with spread out start times, in addition to benefiting from the smaller crowds on their way to school.

Another technique which could be employed in both work and schools is team segregation, which the Singaporean government is already proposing to some companies. Picture this:

Team A consists of Maddy and Lee, while Team B consists of Stephen and Amy. These teams never switch members in the short-term (e.g. Amy always works in the same physical vicinity as Stephen, while neither come into contact with Lee or Maddy). This could be a way in which organisations design the work structure to avoid cross-team contamination.

This obviously brings about questions around productivity and inter-team morale, which will require a more thorough investigation. Nevertheless, remote collaboration is continuously improving, and it seems likely that we’ll be able to alleviate these downsides somewhat.

Designing the way people shop

We’ve already discussed how self-scan checkouts could be better designed to avoid unnecessary touch, but we can do a lot more with the shopping experience.

Firstly, when you enter a store you could pass an automated hand-sanitiser. Without having to touch anything, you could quickly sanitise your hands and ensure anything unfavourable is efficiently destroyed - while also guaranteeing the contents inside the store are covered in fewer viruses and bacteria. The same could be available as you leave the store, so any germs that you acquired while picking up items are removed.

Secondly, as has been evident from many different stories implementing this change in the UK, there could be one-way systems around stores. Imagine IKEA’s projected arrows but in your local supermarket.

A one-way system allows customers to know nobody will be coming the other way and forcing them to be within an unsafe distance. It also means that if a customer sees another person stop ahead, they can maintain a safe distance behind them and wait for the aisle to free-up again.

In addition, aisles could be made wider where possible, allowing a safe distance to be maintained between two shoppers on opposite sides of the aisle. However, it should be noted that while one-way shopping has been suggested by retailers, not everyone is on board with it - as many stories of shoppers ignoring the system continue to surface online.

Finally, as designers, we should be considering what materials we are making touch-based parts of the shopping experience, like trolleys and baskets. For example, if we could find a balance of affordable but antimicrobial materials, there may be less of a chance that microbes could survive on a surface. If microbes survive for a shorter period of time, they have less chance of being transferred to another person.

Arrows marking a one-way system in a supermarket to encourage social distancing.

Designing our way out of another crisis

In a crisis, everyone plays their part.

During this pandemic, doctors, nurses and other hospital staff have been saving lives. In parallel, transportation workers, supermarket staff, delivery couriers and many other essential workers, have all been enabling countries to maintain some level of normality.

It’s time for designers to step up and make an impact.

The ideas brought up in this article are all quite straightforward: fewer taps on a self-scan screen, arriving at work a little later than some people, putting some stickers on the floor in supermarket aisles.

But these small things can amount to huge impacts.

If such minor things are implemented across a large enough scale, we could see a number of lives saved that would have otherwise unnecessarily been lost.