Keeping your head, when designing during a crisis

It’s a strange time to be working in service design, interaction design, or product development right now. If you’re working on a public service, or in health and care, or for charities, you’re probably having to work faster, and think more clearly, than you’ve ever had to before. This stuff is life and death, and everything needs delivering yesterday.

CD booklet featuring the song title ‘Blinded by Fear’
CD booklet featuring the song title ‘Blinded by Fear’
Blinded by fear

I’ve had a number of conversations this week with people working on extremely important services. It’s easy for the pressure to build, and the fear that a mistake you make now, might have a butterfly effect on people’s lives. You might feel like 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 many of us expected to be doing, when we chose (or fell into) this game.

So here are just a few tips to bear in mind over the coming weeks and months.

Don’t compromise your approach

The success of services designed and built at speed, is dependent on the fact they have a user-centred foundation. Understand the problem, and agree it with your team. Make sure stakeholders understand this too. 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, 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. Lou Downe’s article on service design in a crisis should be shared with all of your colleagues.

Make it responsive

Don’t make assumptions about what devices your users will be using. Might your thing be used by healthcare staff? 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 not have considered.

Don’t take chances with the tech

This isn’t the time to get precious about your favourite design and development tools. Use progressive enhancement as your philosophy. Your service might have to be accessed on old devices, in hospitals with outdated tech, or unsupported operating systems. HTML+CSS is your best bet to ensure that the service can be accessed in unlikely scenarios you haven’t even considered. Do you want to take that risk at a time like this? Me neither. Save the React squabbles for another time. Make it accessible and robust from day 1. Use the tools and components already at your disposal, and rely on the work others have done, to make them usable by everyone, to get you further more quickly.

Don’t let The Fear grip you

A man sat in an aeroplane passenger seat, with his hand next to a switch labeled ‘Wings stay on’ and ‘Wings fall off’
A man sat in an aeroplane passenger seat, with his hand next to a switch labeled ‘Wings stay on’ and ‘Wings fall off’

As I mentioned earlier, the Coronavirus situation is unprecedented for many of us. We’ve 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, you are doing your job right. The stakes may feel higher, but you are still using user centred design, to effect a desired outcome. Whether that’s presenting information to healthcare staff to help them make decisions, helping worried members of the public understand what help is available to them, or guiding poorly people to the right type of care or advice, these things should not be scary, if you are following good practice.

Use your skills and your research to scan for consequences. Trust yourself, and your colleagues. But don’t think that one false move is going to result in the worst possible outcome. The thing you are responsible for is likely to be an important part of a much bigger system. Focus on your thing, and the context in which it will be used.

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. And it’s impossible to untangle your work, from the unprecedented scale of change in our personal lives we must also adjust to. I mention this is in a Twitter thread about how bloody weird everything now is. We’re all terrified about a dozen different things outside work right now, at any one time, 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’s 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 if you’re having a tough time, and working on some challenging stuff. I’ll help as best I can.

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