Crises bring communities together. When the global COVID-19 pandemic started spreading across the world, forcing country after country to go into lockdown, Lou Downe, director of design for land and planning at the UK government, decided to act. Convinced that now more than ever we needed to pool resources and share our collective ideas, Downe didn’t hesitate to organize and host a public call on Zoom to talk about how we design services in crisis scenarios.

“This year I published a book called Good Services, based on the 15 principles of good service design,” Downe, who led design at the UK’s pioneering Government Digital Service, explains their motivation. “Whilst these principles are hugely relevant to services undergoing a crisis, a new set of needs is emerging when an entire nation, and the world, are plunged into a survival situation.”

Cover page for Lou Downe's 'Good Services: How to design services that work.'
Lou Downe wrote Good Services because they found that after almost two decades of ‘service design’ as an industry, most of the services we use every day are still terrible.

Designing around user needs is critical

Creating services for an unprecedented crisis obviously poses a major challenge, but Downe believes the mistakes services make aren’t all that new.

“We get things wrong in a crisis for the same age-old reason we get them wrong any other time,” they point out. “We presume we know best, and we don’t listen to users and design around their needs.”

However, while we’re so busy trying to create something quickly, in a crisis making services that work for users is actually more critical than at any other time.

“Design is vital in a crisis,” Downe stresses. “Without it we make mistakes, risk lives, and ultimately, waste valuable time building things that don’t work — time that we don’t have. Making the voice of design — and user needs — heard at a time when everyone around us is sacrificing speed for haste can be difficult, though. I wanted to give a voice to all of the shared knowledge we were building as a community into designing services that can help users cope with crisis situations like the one we’re going through now.”

The first Design for Crisis call, organized and hosted by Lou Downe.

The global design community comes together

The call, which took place on March 23, 2020, was attended by more than 200 participants from 25 countries with the purpose to create a set of principles we can use to design new services — or improve existing ones — that better support users and respond more quickly to crisis situations.

“It was fantastic,” Downe remembers. “So many people tried to join that we maxed out my Zoom account one minute into the call! The contributions were incredible. This is the real power of the global design community — to come together for the collective good and share their knowledge and expertise. I’ve just edited what was written and spoken about.”

Contributors collaborated on public notes to define best practices. The topics discussed followed the stages that a user would go through in this current situation: helping them understand what’s happening, what they need to do, how to take action and survive, and helping an organization respond quickly to support their changing needs. Participants stressed how critical it was to communicate clearly, transparently, and honestly what impact a given crisis would have on people’s lives. They also stated the importance of avoiding overwhelming people during this time, as they are most likely to access a service when they are feeling scared, stressed, and/or confused.

Finally, participants discussed the most important things to get right, if you had just 24 hours to build a service. These included staying focused on the task and not reaching for technology first (a simple image may be more effective to share than a new app or website), keeping it simple and not reinventing the wheel, and being empathetic and practicing diversity and inclusion to ensure the message reaches the widest demographic possible.

4 charts simulate the effect of unenforced to extensive social distancing on flattening the curve.
The phrase ‘flattening the curve’ only recently entered our vocabulary, but it was visualizations like The Washington Post’s, which show how various degrees of social distancing slow the spread of COVID-19, that really got the message across.

10 key principles for designing in a crisis

Downe then edited the notes into 10 principles for design in a crisis. It’s an open document that everyone is welcome to continue contributing to.

The 10 principles, also summarized in Downe’s blog post, are:

  1. Do no harm: Do not take actions that actively put your staff or users in harm’s way.
  2. Speak the truth: Be open and honest, using only verified facts from trustworthy sources.
  3. Be clear and actionable: Give your users clear, actionable instructions on what to do.
  4. Go to where people are: Understand where your users are accessing information and how they are able to access your service.
  5. Prioritize the most vulnerable: Make sure that people who are most at risk, or most in need, can use your service.
  6. Give power back: Provide people with the tools to enable them to support themselves.
  7. Encourage the right behaviors from users and staff: Help your users and staff to work in a way that benefits themselves and those around them.
  8. Respond to change quickly: Respond to the changing crisis, and your users’ changing needs, quickly.
  9. Scale responsibly: Make sure you’re able to meet demand by planning affordances in the way you scale.
  10. Remove barriers to ask for help: Make it easy for your users to ask you for help, when, where, and how they need it.

Check out the open document for more details, do’s and don’ts, as well as good and bad examples for each principle, and feel free to help develop them yourself. More calls will follow to refine and add to these principles.

One of the contributors is Matt Edgar, associate director of design and user research at NHS Digital [the NHS is the British National Health Service], who pointed out that seeing the whole user experience is vital:

“We’ve built and are maintaining an emerging journey map for our citizen-facing services across three main user groups — general population, people at high risk, and people/households with symptoms. With so many things going on in different health organisations it’s key to have visibility of what other services our users are being offered.”

The do's and don'ts of design language in times of crisis advocate for clarity, specificity and concreteness over novel, unspecific and unclear terms.
This image went viral on social media. During the COVID-19 crisis, vague messages have far less impact than concrete, specific messages. Image credit Reddit.

Quick tips to get started

So how do you get started implementing the principles and design a service for a crisis situation?

“First, do your research,” Downe recommends. “Even if it’s quick, test and learn like you would any other time. Second, reuse stuff that’s out there. Don’t waste time solving a problem someone else has already solved. Follow the 15 principles of good service design, the design for crisis principles, use the Coronavirus Tech Handbook by Newspeak House, and GOV.UK’s design system (if you’re in the public service in the UK) — and most importantly, test and learn from what you’re doing.”
For more on designing services that work, check out Lou Downe’s book Good Services.