How I Applied the UX Design Process to Create a Custom Face Mask

I’m very proud to share that I successfully designed a custom face mask…at home…from scratch!

Even more exciting? I did it by combining my apparel design skills from a previous career and my user experience design skills from my current career as a Product Designer!

Mask Version 2: Nearly finished!

When the CDC recommended that we wear face masks out in public, I started wearing a scarf or handkerchief tied over my face. At first, it seemed to work alright, but after about twenty steps, it would begin to fall down, and I’d be fidgeting and adjusting it while out and about.

With the time at home and lots of materials left over from my fashion design days, I decided to sew masks for my BF and myself. I found a few patterns online, but before I could decide which one to try, I ran into a problem. My printer and Macbook Pro had decided they were no longer talking, and I couldn’t print the patterns I found online.

I had no choice but to create a pattern myself. And this is where my UX design process intuitively kicked in!

I wondered: HMW* design and develop an effective face mask that can be made at home? (*By ‘We’ I mean ‘I’)

The following outlines my process through a UX Design lens:

RESEARCH

  • Conducted user research: noted user goals, issues, needs
  • Researched materials for optimal effectiveness
  • Conducted a comparative analysis of existing patterns

Isolating at home with my partner, I took note of when he complained that a tied handkerchief wouldn’t stay up on the back of his head, especially while running. I tried a makeshift, no-sew mask with rubber bands and a folded handkerchief for one of our walks. The rubber bands worked much better for him, but the weight of the handkerchief was too much for the rubber bands. I knew I’d have to sew something!

I did some online research, Googling the most effective homemade face masks, what made them effective, what commonalities there were between existing patterns available online, and which might be the easiest for me to whip up quickly!

Research on the most effective materials for homemade masks
Top row: NY Times pleated face masks pattern. Bottom row: Blog with printable pattern from JoAnn’s website, Joann’s website with links to mask patterns and tutorials.

PROTOTYPING

  • Ideated and sketched designs
  • Sketched iterations of a prototype version 1, based on the pleated pattern
  • Prototyped this first draft and conducted usability testing
  • Noted user feedback: what worked/what didn’t
  • Pivoted: Creating a new prototype, referencing a different design pattern
  • Developed a ‘low-resolution’ prototype
  • Conducted more testing and documented user feedback
Version #1: Based on the pleated pattern
First prototypes of version 1

In testing the pleated mask, we noticed that it would slip up on my partner’s nose when we ran, or even just on walks, sometimes covering his eyes. The pleats were meant to allow the mask to shape to the face. However, since I wanted to keep at least two layers of fabric to increase the efficacy, and possibly allow space for a filter, it became too bulky and became a hindrance. Also, the pleated pattern required a lot more material.

As I wanted to recycle materials (i.e. tote bags, vintage clothes, and pillowcases), the pleated mask didn’t appear to be a good option. I didn’t have quilters cotton fabric, which was much thinner than the recycled materials. I’d also selected softer fabrics for the prototypes so they would be more comfortable against the skin. Unfortunately, this led to the pleats not holding their shape very well. I added a dart to the yellow prototype to try and fit it better to the face contours.

First prototype of style #2 — I blurred the background (and myself)

At this point, my partner mentioned that he’d like more of a ‘ninja’ mask for running. I believe he even wondered aloud about ‘something more like the N95’. Realizing that style lines would be more efficient and require less fabric than pleats, I had an idea.

So, I decided to pivot. I sketched a pattern based on the rounded shape of the N95 mask, with a center seam, and ties that wrapped around the head.

During my research, I’d read that adding a coffee filter increased the efficacy of a homemade mask. So, as part of this second version, I left an opening where the wearer could insert a filter for added protection.

DESIGN AND TESTING

  • Reiterated and developed an MVP
  • Conducted beta-testing on the MVP
  • ️Ideated and implemented additional features
  • ️Tested…again
  • ️Finalized the design and shipped it! Literally — I’ll be mailing some out today!
MVP pattern, sewn, tested, and reiterated!

After testing the prototype with the ties, I realized I could just insert elastic and mimic the folded up handkerchief/rubber band mask. It had been really easy to put on and take off. I wasn’t sure if it would work for me because my ears are very bendable, but it did! And it worked great on my partner.

I extended the sides of the ‘low-res’ prototype. We tested out the new MVP with the elastic sides and inserted coffee filters. They were a big improvement!

The issues that we found on this version were that the mask was too high on the nose and my sunglasses fogged up because the mask didn’t fit to the bridge of my nose. Again, my partner mentioned the metal on the N95 mask and I had another idea.

I reiterated on the pattern and tried one more out (the green one at the bottom of the photo below.) I sewed it up and added a large twisty-tie inside the nose-bridge (the kind that holds products in place inside packaging.) To hold it in place, and keep the lining from peeking out, I added a 1/4" topstitch around the edge. This version worked great!

Nearly done!

I cut out dozens of masks, cutting 4 pieces for each mask. I realized that I could use pillowcases for the lining instead of the ‘self’ fabric. This would add to the efficacy of the mask, as my research showed that linens had a higher thread-count. Because I’d already cut out the ‘self’, or the main, patterned fabric for lining pieces, I now had twice as many masks!

A friend was using pipe-cleaners for her homemade pleated masks. So I dug out some glittery, red and green pipe-cleaners from my Christmas wrapping, which I’d somehow acquired but never used. I cut these into 3 pieces and tried two ways of sewing them into the bridge of the nose so that they wouldn’t move.

Finished!

The final touches included:

  • Ironing all masks
  • Adding stitch-witchery to the sections left open to insert filters. It’s basically a fusible fabric glue that may keep the raw edge from becoming exposed and/or fraying.
  • Inserting coffee filters

Voilá! Are we done yet?

Almost! I have one more iteration to go (as of right now). While inserting the coffee filter at the bottom right, I thought ‘there’s got to be an easier way to insert the filter. My friend had finished both the self and lining at the top, leaving a much easier opening for the filter, but that required a lot more work. While turning the fabric right-side out, it occurred to me that the side, between the elastic edges, would be a much easier area to insert a filter. So I’m going to test it out.

I will be implementing this update soon so I can finalize the pattern, add instructions, and publish it to my website for others to download and use!

The Final Pattern…for now!

Get the final pattern and instructions here >

For lots and lots of free online resources to use while staying safe at home, including educational resources, virtual tours, free mindfulness meditation, and much more: https://mailemalin.com/free-online-resources

UX Researcher & Product Designer