Clusters: A COVID-19 Design Challenge

Zara Abraham
8 min readMay 12, 2020



In the wake of COVID-19 spreading around the world, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design hosted a virtual COVID-19 design challenge from March 26th to 30th, 2020. A group of us from the University of Washington MHCI+D program were selected to participate in this interdisciplinary weekend design sprint with one main objective: the design needed to be quickly implementable.

Our Team:

We are all students at the University of Washington’s MHCI+D Program.

The Challenge

The challenge was to design an intervention in one of the main problem spaces associated with the COVID-19 spread and mitigation. Since we were a team of user experience designers and researchers, we decided to focus on the human behavior pain points. This was at a time when the number of positive cases were skyrocketing in dense, urban areas like Seattle and New York City, and it was widely claimed that young healthy people were not vulnerable to the disease. We heard from the Johns Hopkins medical experts that, while social distancing was starting to be widely adopted, the young people were still struggling to practice it and potentially spreading the disease while remaining asymptomatic themselves. We needed a way to incentivize this group to practice safe social distancing in a healthy, optimistic way.

Our Response

Clusters is an app that helps the user validate maintaining 6 feet of social distance from other smartphone users while keeping users connected and accountable to their chosen social cluster.

How It Works

The way it works is surprisingly straightforward, the user downloads the app and starts with their post-social distancing goal, then steps through the most recent public health guidelines and finally joins a team with their friends. During the process of creating or joining a team, the users will all have to select and agree on team guidelines and goals. These would be adjusted and updated based on most up to date public health information.

Using Bluetooth Proximity Detection, the app would simply measure the distance between one smartphone and another.

If the phone detects that the user has been less than 6 feet from another device for over a minute, the app will nudge the user via push notification to step away to maintain social distance. If the user steps away within a certain period of time, the app would notify their teammates that they maintained social distance and the team could choose to send a supportive “thumbs up”.

Since this feature utilizes the smartphone’s in-built bluetooth functionality, it would be able to gauge this distance even if the other person did not have the app downloaded.

The app would then act as a hub for the user to keep track of the teams progress. For every day that the whole team maintains social distance, they would build a streak together. The team could also decide which of their goals the streak would unlock, ultimately completing 14 days of continuous streak while showing no symptoms, which would allow them to form a social cluster and spend time together in-person. The app would also visualize their individual progress and their impact within the whole community of users.

The idea seems simple but fairly radical, and this is how we got here.

Secondary Research + Subject Matter Experts

The JHU challenge was an opportunity to get immersed in the factors that impacted and were impacted by COVID-19. We were able to access over a hundred recently published articles and essays that spurred our interest in the area of social distancing. We attended several lectures and discussion groups with leading health experts to understand the most up-to-date research around the virus. We were also able to interview 5 subject matter experts in the fields of psychology, communicable diseases, and emergency medicine. We came away with some initial understandings about the space.

In New York City, 25–34 year olds make up 17% of the population, most of whom do not live with family and many living alone.

50–75% of young adult cases are potentially asymptomatic, which could make them unaware super spreaders.

Health officials are gearing up for at least 12–18 months of some form of social distancing measures, while we wait for a vaccine to be developed.

Interviews + Insights

Remote synthesis might be the future

We narrowed our target user population to young adults aged 24–30 living in the Seattle area, one of the most infected areas at the time. We interviewed 6 potential users in total and synthesized their responses to create 3 key insights:

  1. Young adults living situations are not conducive to social distancing. These young people moved to the city to experience life in the city and so they tend to compromise on their living spaces, opting for studio apartments in 4 out of 6 cases. This has left them socially and physically isolated. Without a family or even roommates to turn to, these people might slip up and go out to more crowded areas for the chance to see friends or be around other people.
  2. Young adults want to practice good social distancing but they still have some level of cognitive bias. The people we interviewed told us about their efforts to be careful and considerate to not breaking any of the social distancing rules while somehow rationalizing all the times they have spent with “trusted” friends since social distancing was announced.
  3. Young single adults tend to form “chosen family” groups with their close friends, even if they don’t live together. Most of our participants had moved to Seattle from somewhere else and were all away from their families. Most live alone and the only people they knew in the city were their close friends, whom they considered equivalent to family in this context.

With these insights, we were able to empathize better with this misunderstood group of people and realized that they had a very strong, intrinsic motivation that we could leverage in our design response: They would do anything to see their friends again.

We used this methodology along with the insights to craft our final need statement:

How might we help people practice safe social distancing while not requiring them to remain home at all times.

Concepts + Prototypes

Would it be a design case study without stickies?

We ideated around several concepts to do with social support, social distancing badges and leaderboards. We settled on a main feature utilizing the phones ability to gauge distance to other smartphones and alert the user. We created a rapid prototype for quick turn-around usability testing.

The feedback we received was surprisingly based on the perception of the users. These young people wanted to understand their impact on mitigating the crisis as a whole and wanted to trust that their friends were being careful.

We decided to move forward with a final prototype keeping the following in mind.

The incentives should be more tangible outcomes from validating good social distancing behavior for the users to work towards them.

The system should be robust enough to accurately detect distance to another phone without false detections.

The app should give the users a sense of their impact on the crisis.


We adapted their feedback into a lo-fi prototype to understand the needs from each of the features.

We were able to collaboratively build wireframes, virtually.


We mocked up a wireframe prototype collaboratively using Figma. This helped us visualize the features and remove complexities. We also conducted a literature review into the technology we were focusing on, Bluetooth Proximity Detection, to make sure that technological method was viable.


We structured the experience of the app around the incentives. If the app could validate the 14 day asymptomatic social distancing behavior of each separate individual, then it was possible that it could bring a social cluster together safely.

Final Concept

Clusters — An app that connects friends through physical distancing

Key Takeaways

  1. The system would inherently limit any one user to only one group, since the user would have to define and commit to one social cluster
  2. With a technological intervention, our young target audience might become over reliant on the app nudges to tell them when they are getting too close to other people.
  3. Our most prevalent concern was giving people allowances to form social clusters would inevitably lead them to stretching those allowances.
  4. The added benefit of creating a system for people to limit their social groups would be making it easier to contact trace in a situation where any one person gets infected.


This 5 day design challenge was very exciting and extremely involved. Also the virtual medium of the challenge meant that our team spent 12 hour days on the computer. It’s been a little over a month since we completed the challenge and I have been able to gather my thoughts since then.

✱ Apple & Google Bluetooth Proximity Detection.

A few weeks after we completed this challenge, Apple and Google announced their plans to release APIs that would help in digital contact tracing via bluetooth. While this was not exactly our idea, their documentation suggests that our app could be built on these APIs for more robust cross-platform proximity detection.

✱ Designing Virtually is an Interesting Adjustment.

Compared to any other time in history, we are extremely well equipped to do design work virtually. Some things are more difficult, like sitting in one spot in front of a computer all day for all phases of the design process and all communication is very draining. However, we were able to use several collaborative tools such as Slack, Miro, Airtable, Figma and Zoom to have a relatively seamless virtual design studio experience.

✱ The COVID-19 Opportunities

While it has been a truly unprecedented and harrowing few months, COVID-19 has certainly opened up avenues for innovation rapidly. Even the nature of our situation has afforded us certain opportunities that would otherwise be unheard of. For example, since most of our participants were working remotely we were able to organize and conduct 6 user interviews in the span of a day! There are more and more opportunities opening up in this space that need new, innovative solutions.

Maxing out Zoom

The JHU COVID challenge was able to bring 180 teams together from all over the world to dedicate 5 days of their time and effort to solving one human issue. It was truly incredible to experience and I am humbled by the resilience and tenacity of everyone who participated in this challenge.

Thanks for reading this case study. Follow us at UW MHCI+D, Mehul Shah and Veronica Wojnas for more.



Zara Abraham

Senior Product Designer @ Mighty Networks 🦾 Hopeful Futurist | 📚 History Fan | ☀️ Happiness and Fun | 🌐