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How should service design react to COVID-19?

Service designers have had to react quickly to the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, but despite the pressure it's a time to still get the basics right according to Dean Vipond, Lead Designer on the NHS website.

It’s a strange time to be working in service design, interaction design or product development right now. We have probably had to work faster and think more clearly than we ever had to before. This stuff is life and death, and everything needs delivering yesterday. But, it’s important that the people designing services don’t let the situation get to them – getting the basics right is more important than ever.

A service designer working from home

Blinded by fear

I’ve recently had a number of conversations with people working on extremely important services. It’s easy for the pressure to build, with the fear that a mistake you make now might have a butterfly effect on people’s lives. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that you’re not cut out for such momentous decision-making. You’re just a designer or a developer, a product manager, or whatever. It’s probably not what most of us expected to be doing when we chose (or fell into) this game.

So here are just a few tips that I will be bearing in mind over the coming weeks and months.

Make it usable and accessible

Working at speed is no excuse for cutting corners with the usability or accessibility of a project. You may be digitally literate, with an up-to-date phone and good broadband, but many people aren’t. Some people who would normally access services in person, may now be turning to digital methods for the first time, if they cannot leave their homes. You need to understand the different ways people access digital content and services – what technology they use, and how confident they are. Don’t take chances with anything ‘new’ – rely on the accessible, researched components and patterns others have already made.

Don’t compromise your approach

Do user research. However little time you have, there is still time to get insights from people, whether it’s a response to a quick prototype or some opinions from potential users on the intent of a project. You can still take the steps to ensure your decision-making is informed by research, and I recommend reading service design expert Lou Downe’s recent article on design in a crisis. 

Make it responsive

Don’t make assumptions about the devices your users will be using. Might your thing be used by healthcare staff? If so, they’re probably all on desktop machines, so you don’t need to design mobile-first, right? You might even have some stats about that. 

Even then, you can’t make guesses about screen resolutions or how staff need to use the service in their day-to-day. My colleague Matt Nixon recently told me he’s observed healthcare staff often having two screens open at once (on half-width), as they need information from two different systems. Some staff might have poor eyesight and need to increase the font size. Making your thing responsive covers you for things you might have never even considered.

Don't let The Fear grip you

As I mentioned earlier, the coronavirus situation is unprecedented. We have not had to respond in this way before, and that brings a weight with it. But you can’t let that eat you up or you will become paralysed. If you are following good practice, if you are sharing your work and thinking with the right people (colleagues, policy people, clinicians), and you are doing user research, then you are doing your job properly. 

The stakes may feel higher, but you are still using user centered design to affect a desired outcome. Whether that’s presenting information to healthcare staff to help them make decisions or guiding poorly people to the right type of care and advice, these things should not be scary - if you are following good practice.

“That’s easy for you to say…”

I don’t mean to make it sound like any of this is easy. It most certainly isn’t, and I speak from experience on that. It is very often difficult to untangle our work from the unprecedented scale of change in our personal lives that we must also adjust to. 

I mentioned this in a Twitter thread recently about how weird everything is now. We’re all terrified of a whole host of different things outside of work right now, but the potential life-or-death implications of our design work should not be one of those.

But if you are finding it scary and if it is weighing you down, talk to someone! Now is not the time to bury things and hope the fear goes away. Send me a DM on Twitter @DeanVipond if you’re having a tough time and working on some challenging stuff. I’ll help as best I can.

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Dean Vipond, lead designer on the NHS website, talks about how adapting GOV.UK’s code saved valuable resources during the recent redesign


Last edited: 13 October 2021 8:27 am