How UX designers can encourage social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic

Some thoughts about how nudging and emotional design can help.


Dina Zuko

3 years ago | 6 min read

During these last couple of weeks, life here in Gothenburg, Sweden has changed completely. Those who can, are working from home, so am I. The streets are pretty much empty and there is no pasta or toilet paper in the grocery stores. It is a bit strange and scary.

These last few days people have started to lose their jobs, they are getting laid off. People working at farries, night clubs, hotels.

The restaurant business is struggling. That is scary and that makes me think if we could do things differently? For must of us, catching the coronavirus is not a death sentence.

Could we act more rationally and help those who are at risk, but at the same time supporting our local businesses? Can UX designers help present information in a way that encourages people to social distancing without invoking fear?

The experts tell us that we need to flatten the curve so that the healthcare system can cope and help those who need intensive care. Harry Stevens at the Washington Post has written an amazing article explaining why extensive distancing needs to be implemented.

He has also made simulations showing how the spreading of the coronavirus looks for four scenarios.

As a UX designer, I am convinced that we can use nudging and emotional design to flatten the curve. Let me start by explaining what nudging is. Nudge is a concept that was popularized in 2008 by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

The authors define nudge as:

A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.

To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.

According to them, there is no such thing as a neutral design. Everyone that has the power to create or rearrange objects, words, etc, that users, customers, patients come in contact with is a choice architect.

And, this person, government, corporation influences the way people make decisions. For example, nudging can be used to encourage people to save for retirement, recycle, drive more safely, etc. Or, distance them from each other.

Besides nudging, we do not want people to be experience fear. In my article The unconscious, emotions, and our decision-making process I wrote about basic emotions and how to “talk to them”.

There a few definitions of basic emotions but they do not differ that much from one another so I will use Robert Plutchik eight, which he grouped into four pairs of opposites: joy-sadness, anger-fear, trust-distrust, surprise-anticipation. Read the article to get a deeper understanding.

The information presented to us by the news channels is quite scary. The news is talking to our unconscious using fear, and that makes us panic and make a lot of irrational decisions. We can not help it, fear and other basic emotions are unconscious and uncontrollable, and more like a reaction than a deliberate action.

I would say that we want to envoke trust instead, send the message that “Things are under control”. We want everyone to know that governments and civilians are doing what the can to flatten the curve.

Many of us will get infected but if we are young and healthy we will be ok. We need to take care of the people who may be at higher risk of getting very sick from the coronavirus, for example, the elderly.

Here are some suggestions.

1. Images of people staying at home

The governments want people to stay at home. One way to convey this in a calm matter is to share relaxing images on the TV, online, bus tops reminding people that they should stay at home if they do not need to be outside.

Designers can help design these images that governments can use, and help them decide where to place them to have the desired effect. This image by danish Sidsel is perfect, it is quite a fun way to encourage people to stay at home.

Gently nudging, and the readers are experiencing nice emotions like joy while viewing it.

Link to source

2. Staying safe and taking care of each other

The governments also want to encourage us to stay safe and take care of each other. The image below shows happy and safe people. They are caring for their elderly who may be at higher risk of getting very sick from the coronavirus.

Images like this can be used in information brochures from the healthcare or on websites providing information about the coronavirus to the citizens. Images like this make us feel calm and safe while reminding us to be careful and take care of each other.

Organizations like the World Health Organisation (WHO) already know this, they have made a really good information video where they use drawing and pedagogically explain the coronavirus, you can find it on YouTube. Designers can use their creativity and produce this kind of material.

Link to source

3. Visualize social distancing IRL

This is a great example from Brevity & Wit, visualizing how far we need to stay from each other with big red circles on the floor.

This is a photo from SuperBrugsen Brøndby in Denmark, the circles help people figure out how far away from each other they need to be. Without the red circles, this scene would look a bit strange.

Why is the woman in the middle just standing there? And the man in the back, why is he nor facing the shelves? Again, gentle nudging, encouraging people to alter their behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options.

Link to source

4. Visualizing germs and virus

I don’t have the source of this image, but it is a great nudge, a great reminder that we need to wash out hands.

And talking about handwashing. Here are some examples of how we could encourage people to wash their hands.

5. Handwashing songs

Radiostations could play handwashing songs reminding people to wash their hands. The Halsey Schools have shared lyrics to melodies like Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Happy and You Know It and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

The Twinkle, Twinkle song is really good to sing while washing your hands since it takes about 20–30 seconds to sing it, the recommended time of washing one’s hands.

The lyrics below are provided by the Halsey School, you can also listen to the song on YouTube, sung by two lovely girls.

Twinkle, twinkle little star
Twinkle, twinkle little star,
Look how clean my two hands are,
Soap and water, wash and scrub,
Get those germs off rub-a-dub,
Twinkle, twinkle little star,
Look how clean my two hands are

6. Soap with a toy inside

Suprise soap from Save the Children and Field Read is a great nudge for the young ones to keep washing their hands. The more the wash their hands, the sooner they will get the toy inside the soap.

Link to source

Do not underestimate the power these simple nudges have.

Many studies have been made researching the power simple nudges have. Just by framing information or questions in slightly different ways will affect the outcome. Since must of the decisions we make are unconscious, up to 90% of our decision-making is unconscious, so we need to communicate to the unconscious part of people’s minds. And we want to communicate trust.

That way we can limit the panic and start helping each other.

Do you have any other examples of how UX designers can help?


Created by

Dina Zuko







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