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User research for a crisis-responsive service - Aarogya Setu

That good design has an immensely positive impact on the society at large is undebatable. Great designs can empower, inspire and illuminate people towards responsible action. In India, we saw the design community spring into action through various interventions and innovations during the global crisis of COVID-19. We saw how a design student’s innovation eased the strain on doctors wearing masks for prolonged hours by creating an ear-guard, and on the other hand, low-cost ventilators, negative pressure rooms and PPE kits have been designed to reduce the constant pressure on the healthcare sector and aid them in fighting against the pandemic.

To help the citizens with the latest information on COVID-19, equip them with best practices and find if they may have come in contact with a coronavirus infected person, in April, the Government of India launched the Aarogya Setu app.

The app is a GOI initiative designed and developed by the National Informatics Centre team in a public-private partnership. While the app was launched early April when India was experiencing a sudden Lockdown, phase 1.0 — a phase where stepping out of homes was permitted only to buy essentials or taking care of medical emergencies, the end of April was a ripe time to connect with the users as the app was changing at a break-neck speed to accommodate the dynamic national level updates. Also, getting people to register for the app in a country as big as India took time and with numbers increasing with passage of time, connecting with the users became all the more crucial.

We put our heads together to gather their feedback and get a deeper understanding into their usage behaviour — whether the app was triggering them enough to act according to the instructions shared, difficulties they may be facing with using the app, and their interpretations of the information shared. This was extremely important to ensure that an informational app created to help millions of citizens of India was actually meeting its objectives and fulfilling its purpose effectively.

UCC (User Connect Consultancy) along with Vidushi and Gaurav had the privilege to be an extended research partner to the core team of Aarogya Setu app and the rapid user research covered citizens Pan-India from varied walks of life including vulnerable people such as senior citizens, front-line workers and those living in containment/red zones. The power of user research shined through during this experience for us. Connecting with the ones whose lives can be positively impacted because of the app, understanding their perspectives and needs, and learning from their journeys was a powerful and humbling experience.

The time and scale of this project was unlike a conventional user research project where one typically gets 4–6 weeks to design, execute and arrive at insights and finally implement the new learning.

The pace and scale were faster and bigger because of the high stakes. Aarogya Setu is a case for designing for a global crisis which means it has to stay up-to-date during these uncertain, changing times and needs; be relevant and useful; and trigger bias towards action in every user.

Unlike a typical product, the enhancements have to be made with every important update and requirement identified. Quite often the updates happened overnight as the new WHO or ICMR guidelines or new leanings came in.

Imagine working on an app that’s been downloaded by 5 million people within the first three days of its launch making it one of the most downloaded, critical government apps in India. That’s the pace and scale we’re talking about.

We had a week to connect with the core team, roll out our screening survey, identify and recruit the right participants, schedule meetings with them, conduct interviews, synthesize the findings, turn them into insights and present the report to the core team. The sense of urgency meant that we could not afford to have any room for error, and we had to ensure that the pressure never got the better of us. Leveraging three tools helped us during this journey:

  • Communicating openly

  • Collaborating remotely

  • Exercising empathy

Working remotely meant that open communication had to work like glue to keep things tightly bound and in place. This did not mean that we set up calendar meetings to share updates or have agile calls; rather we ensured that we were accessible at any time for each of us to achieve our goals and objectives. This collective alignment led us to achieving uncompromised, valuable outcomes.

Collaborating remotely with a new team with just minutes on us to break ice and build confidence in them was invigorating. We came from the place of goodwill, which in turn, helped build innate trust and dependability with each other.

Technology became our aid in reaching out to people in different parts of the country. We covered the urban and the rural locations across the zones of the country; for e.g. Munger in Bihar and Mumbai in Maharasthra without spending more time and financial resources to travel to the participants’ locations.

Exercising empathy during all the stages of the collaboration helped us establish trust and autonomy with our partners and participants.

During the remote interviews, a few participants experienced technical glitches, so we made changes to the research methods and approach on the fly to adapt to the situation without compromising on the experience and the outcomes.

In one such case, a participant in Munger, Bihar did not have a strong, steady network, so he could not do a video call or share his screen with us. During another interview with a senior citizen, he felt overwhelmed as he could not figure a way to share his mobile screen. We adopted a step-by-step, think aloud technique immediately so that we could extract optimal value of the time with the participants.

The openness to exercising alternate approaches even if they were not in-sync with our original plan ensured that we met our goals within the identified timelines and quality standards.

Empathy emerges from a space of openness and dropping one’s assumptions. One of the most interesting things that emerged from the study was knowing how people from diverse geographies, age groups, professions (migrant workers to white-collar professionals); with varied levels of tech savviness read symbols, icons and terminologies. We realized that every icon, symbol and wording on the app had to be aligned with their mental models so that the communication designed and relayed in the app was comprehended the same way by anyone reading it — whether it was a white collar or a blue-collar worker, a person sitting in a metro city or a remote village and was consistent in a language of their choice.

As a lifelong advocate of Design Thinking and a part of the extremely creative and strong Design community, I feel that during these difficult, uncertain times, it’s most crucial to share responsibility and collaborate to turn our problems into opportunities — opportunities that usher in hope, positive change, and bring out the human in us. Let’s offer our support to help governments, businesses and people, in general, operate through the complexities, uncertainties and ambiguities that have shrouded us. Because Design is an extremely powerful, change-making tool.


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