From Technology-centered to Human-centered

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Contact tracing technologies has reached it peak times amid the pandemic. From last weeks’ lectures and readings, we compared different models of contact tracing technologies – centralized and decentralized models; both of them have benefits and trade-offs regarding the effectiveness towards controlling the spreading of the diseases and data privacy protection. In centralized model, once the person is sick, the government knows immediately everyone who had met this person; while in decentralized model, information about the encounters is stored only on the user’s phone and even officials can’t access it without the user’s explicit permission (Reaktor and Futurice 2020). 

Among all the apps that appears rising to the situation, Ketju Finnish contact-tracing app that presented by Karri-Pekka Laakso, Lead Interaction Designer from Reakto, in collaboration with Vaasa Central Hospital, was built on a hybrid model of decentralized and centralized system, in which people can voluntarily release information to authorities if they are infected. Utilizing the Bluetooth technology instead of geolocation data, it strives to achieve a common ground between the usefulness and personal privacy.

However, from the discussion during the lecture we know, due to the emergency state, the develop team haven’t got chance to conduct a very comprehensive user research or user test. This got me question about, at the end of the day, how many people would actually opt in to download the app and start to use it – a novel app that appears to have some potential concerns of personal privacy. This was evidenced by statistics of a released contact-tracing app from government of Singapore – fewer than 20% mobile users have downloaded it and it is hard to achieve impactful results if most people would never give it a chance (Berke and Larson 2020).

Looking back at the discussions we had, most of them were quite technology-centered, we estimated which kind of system, model or physical token will work best. But at the end of the day, people are the ones to be tracked, they walk around and spread the disease, they want to help to care for others and end this global health crisis, but they also have doubts and concerns… Inspired by the Shalini Unnikrishnan’s TED speech on ‘Why we need to turn our response to crisis inside out’, I think we should shift our strategy from technology-centered approach to people-centered approach.

So, apart from asking questions about what kind of technology we ought to adopt, or what particular form it should embed, we could also ask questions like:

  • Why would people be willing to use this app/token? And how to engage people to use it and empower them?
  • What kind of concerns people would have when using them? 
  • Are they aware of what kind of data they are giving out? Or do they actually care?
  • On designing the app/token, how to build the trust  and constantly convey the idea of privacy protection to user, through every step of the user flow?

To address these problems, more comprehensive human-centered user research, interviews and observations (as people may say and act differently), throughout different stages of the whole user journey, from ‘Awareness’ phase to ‘After use’, should be conducted, since ‘Expiration’ (Crocker et al 2020), building time limits of accessing the personal data, also should be considered into the applications. 

Overall, as more and more research pointed out that a system that successfully leverages user’s self-reported data in combination with official test results could prove most useful and data-preserving (Laakso 2020, Berke and Larson 2020), engaging people in the center of the approach when designing the contact-tracing systems is as important and examining feasible technologies.


Alex Berke and Kent Larson. 2020. Contact Tracing Technologies: Methods and trade-offs. City Science group. MIT Media Lab.

Andrew Crocker, Kurt Opsahl, and Bennett Cyphers. 2020. The Challenge of Proximity Apps For COVID-19 Contact Tracing, Blog Post. Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Reaktor and Futurice. 2020. Ketju.

Shalini Unnikrishnan. 2016. We need to turn our response to crisis inside out. Video. TED.

Laakso, K.-P., and Honkela, A. 2020. Contact Tracing for COVID-19: Role of Interaction Design & Data Science.

Nagwa Konda, Kholoud Mansour, Lydia Tanner, Jennie Thomas. 2019. Human-centred design and humanitarian innovation. Designing solutions with people affected by disaster. DEPP Innovation Labs


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