Why the COVID-19 Era Is a Big Opportunity for Product Designers

​​​​​​​We can help make products that assist urgent isolation efforts and will also benefit society when we come out of this crisis.
rubens cantuni
Rubens Cantuni
Expert Columnist
April 12, 2020
Updated: August 11, 2020
rubens cantuni
Rubens Cantuni
Expert Columnist
April 12, 2020
Updated: August 11, 2020

As I’m writing this, I’m at the end of my first month under full lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak in Lombardy, Italy. As of now, we still lead the world in deaths related to the virus and this life — drastically changed and totally weird — seems like the new normal, at least for a while.

While this pandemic is, of course, a disastrous situation for many people, companies and entire industries, it can also be a big opportunity to push toward a more digitalized society, where many processes become easier, faster and safer.

I have been working from home for the past six weeks, and many of the things that seemed impossible to execute without being face to face inside an office are now working perfectly fine in a remote setting. But many products, now catering to the needs of these remote users, can still be made better (can you honestly say that Zoom is the best possible solution for video calls?), and many others can be made from scratch. Slack, Zoom and Dropbox work for everyone, but they serve very generic needs for anyone working at home from a desk. There are thousands of more specific needs that are just waiting for the perfect tool to be performed more efficiently in a remote setting. And many of the tools people use already could be transformed for remote collaboration. Just think of how the classic office software to write documents and create spreadsheets changed in the last several years. Google Docs and Office 365 introduced the idea of collaboration through a cloud-based service, and Figma — to give a less generic example — is leading the way in this direction for digital product design.

There are also opportunities for innovation beyond our office jobs. There are basic needs, like buying groceries, that are being completely transformed in terms of fulfillment. Unfortunately, many small businesses are dying because of this pandemic, and many of them could be saved (or at least avoid total extinction) with digitalization. I’m seeing examples here in Italy where digital product designers are coming up with ideas and delivering them in record time. Here are a couple.

 

BUYING GROCERIES ONLINE

Situation: Many more people tried to order groceries online (+31 percent in the last month in Italy).

Problem 1: This caused big supermarkets’ websites and even Amazon Prime Now to constantly crash every night when new delivery slots were added.

Problem 2: Delivery slots sold out to a lucky few in literally seconds every time new ones were added.

Problem 3: Even the ones who can place an order see deliveries delayed because of the overwhelming demand and the inability of big chains to scale up their capacity.

Problem 4: Small neighborhood shops don’t have e-commerce sites and are losing most of their sales because people are either afraid of going in public spaces or just find more convenience in going to one place that has everything (a supermarket).

Solution: An independent team of designers and developers developed a website (io porto a casa, which means “I take home”) and then another team made an app (Compro da casa, or “I buy from home”), to collect the small shops that can arrange deliveries. They organized them by what kind of goods they sell and made them searchable based on ZIP code. Plus, users can suggest new shops they discover.

 

GOING TO THE SUPERMARKET

Situation: People who can’t order online have to go to the supermarket and wait in line, as only a few people at a time can enter.

Problem: Some places might have very long lines while others have almost no line.

Solution: Within a few days of the lockdown, a couple of websites (fila indiana, meaning “single file”) were made to track the length of the line and estimate the waiting time in nearby supermarkets.

 

These are just a couple of examples, but many more were born in these days of distress in Italy. Many of these were the result of an online hackathon held from the 27th to the 29th of March, called “Hack for Italy.”

These services are made to help people and businesses in this difficult moment, but many of these will still be useful when the emergency is over. One famous example of this phenomenon is the popular Japanese/Korean messaging app Line. Line was born during the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami as a way to facilitate disrupted communication. Now it’s one of the most popular messaging apps worldwide and an undisputed champion in Japan, where it represents the main means of communication among Japanese people of all ages. It includes a payment function, as well as countless other services.

In Italy, we’re not frontrunners on digitalization. Steps have been taken in the past few years, but there are plenty of bureaucratic processes that are absurdly convoluted and undigitized. This crisis will surely accelerate our progress. One example: To get a prescription for a medication, Italians have to physically visit their family doctor’s office, which provides them with a piece of paper (yes, an actual printout on a sheet of paper) to bring to the pharmacy. This was happening until a couple of weeks ago, when magically, due to the COVID-19 emergency situation, prescriptions could be requested and given via email or even Whatsapp. Why couldn’t we do this earlier? Having a proper digitized system in the first place would have been absolutely possible. When I was living in California, I was lucky and privileged enough to have access to very good healthcare coverage, and I was able to do lots of things through my provider’s app. Things like scheduling appointments, checking results of blood tests, and messaging my family doctor and specialists with ease. A more digitalized society is possible, and it’s the way to go.

On the coronavirus battlefront, we’ve seen how China used a smartphone app to track the spread of the virus (lots of questions about privacy arise here, but that’s another topic) and now most countries are considering doing something similar, including Italy. China has the considerable advantage of widespread digital payment adoption (at least in cities, where the infection spreads more easily). During my travels to China, I’m the only person I’ve seen still using cash (not because of choice — WeChat Pay and AliPay do not work with foreign credit cards at the moment). Touchless payments (by proximity with NFC, by face-recognition or by scanning QR codes) are used for basically everything, from shops to public transportation to street performers working for tips. This greatly reduces the possibility of transmission, and governmental guidelines around the world are now inviting the population to opt for this method of payment.

There is now and there will always be a huge need for digital products. This moment is a chance for digital product designers (and developers) — and the companies operating in this industry — to contribute to society’s urgent isolation efforts, in the first place, and then to consider the ways these recalibrations and products will provide value to users outside this crisis.

Those of us working in this space are in the most privileged position right now: We can work from our homes, but potentially expand our business and influence in the long run. Let’s focus first on giving back.

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