Reforming HCD for Contact Tracing Technologies

This blog is written by Kiko and Divya who collaborated as a team based on the similar interest in the theme contact tracing technologies. In our previous blogs, we focused on the challenges involved when designing contact tracing applications. Challenges like the influence of psychological factors and ethical aspects were discovered for our chosen crisis which is a contact tracing app for Covid-19. Then as a team we brainstormed our idea on how to design contact tracing technologies on Miro board. Based on the challenges identified in the contact tracing technologies, we came up with the idea on reforming human-centered design to handle the challenges posed by the crisis context. 

The challenges relating to privacy and potential misuse were emphasised with relation to covid-19 proximity tracking application as an example. In addition, lack of inclusion of economically or technologically disadvantaged groups during the design were identified as potential challenges. In case of any contact tracing technologies it is also critical to abide to the guidelines released by the government or international public health organisations.

Outcomes and Learnings from the Previous Research

What can HCD learn from other approaches in crisis context?

During the previous sessions, our discussions opened up topics about reflections and critics on Human-centered Design (HCD) as a dominant tool on today’s design scene. However, its deficiencies start to reveal in dealing with the crisis context. How HCD can evolve to address complex issues in today’s crisis? What can HCD learn from other approaches? 

We started with examining the shortcomings of HCD when dealing with crisis context, which includes ‘no systematic inclusion of equality or justice’, ‘focus on short-term applications’, and ‘focus on the target user neglecting the bigger ecosystem’.  Then we draw on inspirations from lectures and literatures about the ‘Humanity-centered design approach’, ‘Trust-driven design’ and ‘Responsible design’, to see how these alternatives could contribute to transforming the traditional HCD in relation to crisis management.

Expanding the scope of stakeholders

The previous stakeholders mapping we mainly focused on the human factors of the pandemic. However, we neglected another important factor, the non-human entities, such as nature and animals. Especially to a virus like COVID-19, which was transmitted between wild animals and humans, it requires us to expand the scope and definition of ‘stakeholders’, from a traditional ‘human-centered’ angle to a more non-anthropocentric one. Also inspired by WHO’s  ‘One Health’ approach mentioned by Suvi in her research, as humans, animals and nature share the same ecosystems we live in, efforts by just one sector cannot prevent or eliminate the problem.

Mapping the key stakeholders of the pandemic

By looking at a bigger context, it provided us an opportunity to look more into the research about the virus itself and its origins, or learn to live with the virus in a long term, as we’re seeking for the solutions to the pandemic. And to reflect on what we can do beyond the contact tracing.

Seeking the opportunities from the contestations between different ecologies

To address the complex and interconnected problems from the contact tracing technologies emerged largely in COVID-19, we employed Nitin and Anh-Ton’s ‘Framework of ecologies that influence contestations in Participatory Design’ as a methodology to map out the overall ecology of this crisis domain.

During our ecology mapping the concern on how to prevent the abuse or misuse of gathered data was raised. The opportunity that we see to control this concern is by being transparent with the users on data collected and its purpose. Also, empowering the users to be the health defenders and eliciting the potential misuse case can help handle this concern. When we incorporate these practices, it leads in satisfying one of the challenges of earning trust from the users. 

We also mapped a challenge of what could be the value that contact tracing applications could create to the users. We discerned that engaging the users to think of their health on a regular basis as perceived value of the technologies. Moreover, the challenge on how to engage the large scale use can be handled when users understand the value of health as a priority. Next, the challenge on evaluating the afterlife of contact tracing can be addressed by being transparent about the data collection and explaining the users when and how the data is utilised.

Future Research Plan

To proceed with the project, the following are the research goals that will be further investigated as well as the corresponding possible research method.

  • Goals: Understand the interrelationship between the human factors and non-human factors. 
  • Method: Interview with epidemiologist and health care experts about the virus; interview with social scientists about how the pandemics affect human society.
  • Goals: Review the existing CT methods, both digital and in-person ones.
  • Method: Compare the values and trade-offs of the current CT apps, both successful ones and failed or cancels ones; Examine previous CT methods in pandemics conducted by healthcare workers.
  • Goals: Seek the opportunities from the existing CT methods, through our reframed human-centered design approach.
  • Method: Evaluate the pain points of the current CT methods by conducting user tests through the whole product cycle, from the ‘Awareness’ stage to the ‘Afterlife’ of the CT product. 

Emerging Outcomes and Potential Challenges

Emerging design concepts will be key flows of a CT system that features the following design criterias:

  • Building trust and empowering individuals
  • Convey the values for users
  • Be transparent about data-collection
  • Be proactive about data protection

Overall the research outcomes and concepts will provide new perspectives and inspirations for developing the next CT product, which will address the needs of the users in a bigger ecological context and the ethical part of the technologies. However, we are still facing some potential challenges:

  • We are still not sure what value zooming out and mapping out the bigger ecological context will bring to the design phase of the contact tracing system. 
  • It’s tricky to ‘translate’ the ethical based design criterias or guidelines into solid design features. We will need collaborations between designers and technologists.

Refer our Miro board to get an overview of the concept.


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

Andrew Crocker, Kurt Opsahl, and Bennett Cyphers. The Challenge of Proximity Apps For COVID-19 Contact Tracing, Blog Post, Electronic Frontier Foundation. April 10, 2020. 

Ashkan Soltani, Ryan Calo, and Carl Bergstrom. Contact-tracing apps are not a solution to the COVID-19 crisis. Blog Post. Brookings. April 27, 2020. 

L.M. Cysneiros and J.C.S.P. Leite, “Non-functional Requirements Orienting the Development of Socially Responsible Software”, BPMDS 2020, pp.335-342, 2020.

R. Benjamins, A. Barbado, D. Sierra, “Responsible AI Design in Practice”, 2019.

Sawhney, N., and Tran, A., 2020. Ecologies of Contestation in Participatory Design. In Proceedings of the 16th Participatory Design Conference (PDC 2020), Manizales, Columbia. ACM.

Oliver, N., et al. (2020). Mobile phone data and COVID-19: Missing an opportunity?

Cristina Zaga. EUvsVirus: Ideating to Tackle the Covid-19 Crisis is not just about Tech, Blog Post, Medium, April 29, 2020.



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