Fixing the UX of Covid-19

Ward Andrews
By Ward Andrews
Cover Image for Fixing the UX of Covid-19

Since March 2020 there’s been a lot of talk about a “new normal.” Covid has changed how we work, socialize, and manage our everyday lives. We expect more from our digital experiences. Some things that could pass as usable pre-pandemic now feel barely functional.

So, why are most Covid-related user interfaces still lagging so far behind?

If there’s anything that Covid has taught us it’s that UX and UI is no longer a luxury - it’s a public health concern. A good user experience not only drives business results, but it can also help save lives.

Things that should be easy - booking a test or vaccine appointment, for instance - are clunky at best and downright infuriating at worst. There has to be a better way.

What prevents these health services from embracing basic UX and UI best practices? How can we make them better so we're more prepared when the next crisis hits?

Here are some of the problems we've seen in the UX of Covid-related services, the reasons behind those challenges, and what we can do to fix them.

Lack of UX Skills and Talent

The hard truth is that many of the agencies, organizations, and companies caught up in this pandemic regularly struggle to attract top talent. Cutting-edge designers, developers, and UX professionals want to work in iterative environments. By nature, they want to create change. Many of these organizations are stuck in bureaucratic mindsets and structures that resist change.

They're competing against well-funded private tech companies that offer big salaries and flexible work environments. There's also the reality of the "Great Resignation" where employees are in a position to demand a better work-life balance and a more efficient work environment. It's no surprise that public health organizations are lagging behind.

Potential Solutions

Covid has exposed this talent gap and the consequences it has for our essential public services. But it has also revealed that tech workers want to do work that helps the public good. Initiatives like U.S. Digital Response popped up to provide governments and nonprofit organizations pro bono technical expertise.

Other longstanding organizations like Code for America and the U.S. Digital Corps have been working for years to close the talent gap. We’ll need these efforts to continue if we want to be ready for whatever major crisis comes along next.

Lack of Incentive to Innovate

It’s hard to separate the lack of skills and talent from the lack of competitive drive. (Fortunately), pandemics don’t happen often enough for the private sector to invest resources in addressing them. Government agencies often don’t have the budget to build systems and processes at a moment's notice during an unforeseen event.

This leads to an environment where tools are created on the fly. They aren't optimized with the user in mind because there’s no other option available. Users will work through the barriers because they can't go anywhere else.

All over the U.S., people have compared finding a testing or vaccination appointment to scoring concert tickets. In some places, it felt easier to get a ticket to a Stones concert than it was to land a Covid-19 test.

Potential Solutions

Good UX talent and skills need to be embedded in our public health organizations. They need the resources and funding to develop solutions that can adapt to emergencies.

A culture of innovation doesn't always have to be driven by competition. It can be a deliberate choice driven by the passion of talented professionals who want to create effective solutions for the public good. But that choice needs to be backed up by the right incentives and resources to get the job done.

Lack of Experience

Now that we’ve had two years to think about Covid almost every day, it can be difficult to remember a time when this was new. No society in human history has rolled out a vaccine program as fast as we have in response to this pandemic.

The sheer scale and urgency of the problem put functionality ahead of comfort. A massive complex rollout impacting hundreds of millions of people will have problems. When you’re focused on getting it done you don’t have time to think about great UX.

In many ways, these are the right decisions. But great UX has become part of the standard requirements. It's no longer a nice-to-have. What good is a vaccine if people can’t navigate the process to help them get it?

Possible Solutions

The solution to preparing for the unknown is to create better standards. With solid UX principles baked into our public health institutions, all our tools will get better.

This means regular training and standards that all can agree upon. It also means prioritizing and investing in that training and those standards. Salesforce can’t be the solution to everything. Public health institutions need to use the lessons learned from this experience to think ahead to the tools that will work best in an emergency rather than duct tape what they have to make it work in a pinch.

What about the private sector?

One of the most disconcerting things we've seen is the Covid-related UX challenges in the private sector. Pharmacy and grocery store websites for testing and vaccines have often been as frustrating, or worse, than many public health alternatives.

At-home testing kits have a lot of steps outlined in IKEA-like instructions that can lead to error-prone results. These tests miss a key part of good UX - clear validation that you’ve done something correctly.

How do these companies get away with breaking the most basic rules of usability?

Some of these problems are the same as those listed above. Many private sector healthcare companies struggle to attract the same kind of UX talent that tech companies are able to draw. They're also responding quickly to a changing environment, and they don’t really have an incentive to make user needs the primary focus when the demand is so high they know people will keep coming back.

Possible Solutions

We’ve seen through the years that many organizations struggle with building a strong and mature UX-centric organization. Never is that more apparent than when a company has a crisis on its hands. That’s when the worst habits and biggest deficiencies in your UX culture will come forward.

That’s also when having the best culture and practices can help you stand out from the competition. Imagine the positive publicity and customer satisfaction of being the only one in your industry that offered a great user experience. That’s not something that you can ramp up in an instant. You have to train and cultivate it every day so you’re ready when the opportunity arises.

We Can Build On Our UX Strengths

Not everything during this pandemic has been a UX disappointment. There have been some bright spots. Some of these good examples can help guide us toward what we want more of in the future so we're better prepared for the next emergency. One of the best things we’ve seen come out of the Covid pandemic is data visualization.

The New York Times has been building its capabilities in this space for years, if not decades, and it showed. Its customizable data dashboard (subscription required) helps the average person track and understand numbers like new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Public health institutions like Johns Hopkins University have done a good job of keeping us up-to-date as well. Nonprofit organizations like Our World in Data visualize this data based on where you live or how you want to dissect the information.

Far from being resources only for professionals or specialists in the field, these tools have a user-friendly touch that opens access to the general public. With more people interested in touching this data and changing their view of it, there’s a lot of growth opportunity in this space.

Apps for Vaccination Status

There appears to be an emerging market for apps that help validate vaccination status or test results. This will likely extend beyond the pandemic as more of our lives move to our phones. is one of the private efforts that uses solid UX principles to plug the holes in other poor experiences. Not only can users prove their vaccination status digitally through an app, but they’ll also create and send you a waterproof wallet-sized physical vaccination card. Imagine if the CDC had thought to do that from the start.

Clear, the private company that is already known for expedited lines at airport security, integrated a Health Pass feature that allows users to manage their test and vaccination information from their phone.

These tools have possible long-term uses that could change how we manage our personal health information going forward.

Finally! A Real Use for QR Codes

One of the biggest transformations we’ve seen from the pandemic has been the changes to the service industry. While shortages of employees have made some service experiences worse, the adoption of QR codes to enable touchless ordering and other services has felt like a revolution.

Before March 2020, QR codes were odd little additions to print ads and the occasional TV ad that a fraction of an audience would bother to scan. A recent survey by Statista found that almost 11 million households in the U.S. used a QR code in 2020, an increase of more than a million from 2018.

QR codes and similar tools that allow users to self-serve are likely to only increase post-pandemic and could serve a central role in solutions going forward.

Good UX Can Save Lives

The days of good UX being a nice-to-have are over. The pandemic has shown us that UX can at times literally save lives. It can provide data in a format that’s easier to understand and use. It can help people efficiently access the health services they need. It can give us all reliable ways to navigate a complex real-world situation that’s constantly evolving.

While good UX can’t fix everything, it’s apparent now more than ever that bad UX can really wreak havoc. Unreliable data from tests impacts the reporting that we use to make big decisions. Public entities risk being seen as unreliable, inefficient and even untrustworthy the further their digital UX falls behind what the average user has come to expect.

UX is about solving problems. What more important problems do we have to solve than the health of our global population? At its best, good UX can make a foreign and confusing environment easier to navigate. As bad as it may have been this time around, it’s a helpful wake-up call. It's time that we realize the importance of UX and invest in not only the tools we need now, but for the future problems we can’t yet see.

Ready to Invest in Your UX Future?

We can help. We’ve worked with countless organizations across all sectors, including healthcare, to help them build their UX competencies and mature as an organization and we can help you do the same. Let’s talk.