Human-Centered Design in Real Time

Co-designing emergency response solutions with COVID-19 frontline workers

Rachel Romano
May 1 · 6 min read
Paper fluttering in the evening wind; healthcare workers dawning masks; designers prototyping a new healthcare app.
Paper fluttering in the evening wind; healthcare workers dawning masks; designers prototyping a new healthcare app.

Crises have a way of crystallizing which systems and processes work. While some immediately break down, others emerge as steadfast solutions. In the wake of COVID-19, it’s clear that human-centered design (HCD) isn’t just a buzzword — it’s a process with tenets meaningful enough to create lifesaving solutions.

For the past month, a multidisciplinary task force at Microsoft has partnered with frontline workers in healthcare and government to co-design emergency response solutions. While empathy is always key in human-centered design, the severity of the crisis, palpable duress of the response teams, and rapidly ticking clock meant empathy was no longer step one of a five-step HCD process — it became the process. Empathy was the red thread used to sew together solutions for medical professionals overwhelmed by a flood of patients and critical cases, hospital admins dealing with resource supply shortages, and government workers facing mounting pressure and uncertainty.

This collaboration resulted in two distinct solutions, each already in active use. Currently, over 75% of hospitals in Washington state are reporting healthcare capacity and supplies through our Regional Emergency Response Solution, and our Hospital Emergency Response Tool is available to help medical professionals worldwide.

The work we’re highlighting here couldn’t have happened without the time and insights from dozens of frontline workers our team had the privilege of working alongside. Read on to learn more about the design thinking behind these emergency response solutions.

For hospitals: managing and maximizing resources

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Screenshots of the new Hospital Emergency Response Tool.

In March, COVID-19 reached pandemic status. Hospitals faced a sharp increase in patients and an equally sharp decrease in resources. Supply chains were significantly delayed, and hospitals overrun with COVID patients were creating bed capacity by any means necessary, from repurposing existing units to creating new ones in tents or ships.

Like hospitals around the world, Swedish Health Services — the largest nonprofit provider in Seattle — had a plethora of doctors, nurses, admins, and other hospital decision makers who needed to track and optimize available beds and clinical supplies like masks and ventilators. They also needed to track patient status and staffing needs. This kind of on-hand and in-the-moment information creates situational awareness to help workers make fast, informed decisions.

Working with healthcare experts, a task force of Microsoft designers, engineers, product managers, researchers, and content designers came together. From end to end, this collective discussed user needs and outcomes, data modeled the business workflows, and designed UX mockups, visual assets, and user guides. They held two-hour design sprints on Microsoft Teams, using mockups in PowerPoint to get everyone on the same page. Design and engineering then used those PowerPoints to rapidly prototype a solution and start another iterative cycle.

Members of the Swedish staff provided expertise that the team folded into the designs in nearly real-time. This insight about necessary levels of granularity and timeliness helped create designs to accurately capture staffing needs. For example, there might be Registered Nurses (RNs) without assigned primary care patients who have more availability. Using a solution that marks nurses as Assigned RN or Unassigned RN, a hospital could quickly re-assign work as it received more patients or other needs shifted.

This also gave frontline workers a voice to request additional support from supply managers, respiratory therapists, or any other clinical or non-clinical roles. Tracking these workers’ requests alongside things like burn rates of masks and other resources enhances situational awareness among management decision makers and helps analyze trends so organizations can best care for patients and keep workers safe.

Working together, an emergency response solution for individual hospital systems was ultimately created. While this is very much a first version that the team is continuing to evolve, several major Washington hospitals are already using it. Now that it’s also globally available in 11 languages, hundreds of organizations worldwide are adopting and exploring it, too. You can learn more about it here and it’s available here.

For government: coordinating regional and statewide healthcare

With the first solution, the team aimed to meet the needs of single hospital systems. With the government, however, they had a different design problem — they needed to coordinate multiple hospital systems. State governments must track and plan logistics across all healthcare providers for their region to allocate critical resources where they’re needed most

To help solve this, our task force held another multi-day HCD sprint with government workers at the Washington State Health Department to create a separate solution that focused on the state’s most pressing needs. Forget what the tech should be, forget what the screens should look like — what outcomes does the state ultimately want to achieve? And based on that, what capabilities do they need, and what are the corresponding personas and user journeys?

Starting with an empty mind map, the design team began identifying and internalizing the needs of medical professionals and government workers. They sketched workflows, held design critiques, and created end-to-end user journeys. Then came rapid cycles of user feedback and design iteration, something open-source design processes easily facilitate.

The “Regional Emergency Response Solution” in the middle; Hospital info, regional info, customer data, EMS data flow into it.
The “Regional Emergency Response Solution” in the middle; Hospital info, regional info, customer data, EMS data flow into it.
The mind map the design team and the government partners used to identify how information would flow into the new healthcare solution.

We can’t emphasize the importance of open-source processes enough, particularly during situations like these when time is of the essence. While Microsoft Power Platform and Microsoft Azure are already integrated solutions on the tech side, open-source design libraries allow integration across Design. The team used the design library to leverage the familiar Microsoft Office apps header and navigation patterns, saving time and keeping the focus on user needs.

Ultimately, there’s no substitute for getting something into people’s hands that they specifically asked for — and then humbly following the lead of a true field expert. In one instance, the design team wanted to use a different voice because it created a more streamlined solution, but the user base had existing terminology. Learning new UI patterns or language would add friction and distraction when completing critical tasks at hand, so the team intentionally matched terminology for user efficiency and familiarity.

The scale and urgency of this statewide solution also drove the design team’s decision to create a web portal. This state-hosted portal allows all participating hospital systems in the state to quickly access and report critical data, helping states make daily decisions around how to best help patients and hospitals in need. Hospitals within Washington are already using the initial release. You learn more about it here and it’s available here for any state or local government to use.

Moving the needle, together

Empathy. Craftsmanship. User love. A team of teams.

Designing when the stakes are as high as a pandemic drives home the importance and efficacy of applying human-centered design tenets when building products. Worldwide, people have been coming together across disciplines and geographies to support COVID-19 response efforts, and we’d love to hear about your own efforts in the comments below.

Thank you to Chief Nursing Officer Kristy Carrington, Chief Operating Officer Kevin Brooks, and the rest of the staff at Swedish Health Services for your dedication and partnership in creating such a powerful solution. Thank you to Sangya Singh, Nitish Meena, Paul Cooper, Pankaj Arora, Sofia Ibarra, Gary Bird, and the rest of the Cloud + AI design and engineering team for allowing me tell your story.

To stay in-the-know with Microsoft Design, follow us on Dribbble, Twitter and Facebook, or join our Windows Insider program. And if you are interested in joining our team, head over to aka.ms/DesignCareers.

Microsoft Design

Stories from the thinkers and tinkerers at Microsoft

Rachel Romano

Written by

Microsoft Design storyteller & strategist. HarperCollins author with pieces in The NYT and The Atlantic. Current mom to plants & a fur child. Views are my own.

Microsoft Design

Stories from the thinkers and tinkerers at Microsoft. Sharing sketches, designs, and everything in between.

Rachel Romano

Written by

Microsoft Design storyteller & strategist. HarperCollins author with pieces in The NYT and The Atlantic. Current mom to plants & a fur child. Views are my own.

Microsoft Design

Stories from the thinkers and tinkerers at Microsoft. Sharing sketches, designs, and everything in between.

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