How designers can help mitigate the next pandemic

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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.

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