Design Challenges and Opportunities for Designing in a Pandemic

David Yap


December 31, 2020

Due to COVID-19, businesses are rapidly overhauling their operations. This holistic turnaround includes design. Once upon a time, companies planned their operations to be recession-proof. Today, they must also consider that a pandemic is a real possibility that can happen at any time. So, how does a business become proactive to challenge and find design opportunities during a pandemic? Grab seems to have the formula cut-and-dried.

Grab is a tech company offering digital payments and food delivery services through its mobile app. It promises to deliver your favorite food, "hot and fresh." Like other companies in its ilk, there was Grab before the pandemic and Grab during the pandemic. Jay Demetillo, the Lead Product Designer at the company, points out that recovery will be slow even across countries that have managed the outbreaks better than others. However, he further shares how companies everywhere can ride the wave of innovation that can emerge from such a crisis.

Design Challenges and Opportunities for Designing in a Pandemic

Jay mentions that COVID-19 is a more significant factor in digital transformation than your CEO or CTO. It presents countless opportunities since digital technologies will drive the pandemic and post-pandemic worlds.

The pace of digital acceleration in many countries has shot up significantly on the strength of the pandemic. Global adoption acceleration has increased by 22 percent. To contribute to that total, Asia-Pacific's adoption acceleration has risen by 21 percent while Europe went one notch better to 22 percent. North America is posting superior performance with its 24 percent in the same period from December 2019 to July 2020. Jay Demetillo echoes other experts' view that the design and tech world will continue to explode exponentially.

The common-sense trend is for executives to pay attention to the coronavirus as a driver for industry growth. The current pandemic began in Asia, but the continent has also been at the forefront of containment, new protocols, and the resumption of economic activity and promoting consumer confidence. In terms of design and tech, this clearly matters for Grab.

The Purpose of Design

The previous climate was one where physical contact was the norm. With new protocols, that's a huge challenge, as you need to keep your distance to interact with anyone at all meaningfully. That challenge is quite concrete if your primary business offering is food delivery, like Grab. According to Mr. Demetillo, the challenge for the designer is to make the experience better and more enriching.

Panic is certainly not the solution. As a designer, you only need to consider a few questions in working in the context of a pandemic.

Am I designing a crisis response?  

Jay Demetillo compares a crisis response to how companies pivot. In rapid response, the central question is if you're expecting rapid feedback on an experience or a flow. In food delivery, for instance, how do you deliver food in a way that works for all parties involved?

Two important aspects of crisis response are as follows:

  1. They are swift.
  2. They pivot.

There are rapid assessment tools, such as Google surveys and Zoom videos that can provide rapid feedback. Some other tools feature a prototype aspect where you can engage users to test out emerging products that address a pandemic situation.

Crisis response allows designers to pivot and alleviate the pain of the end-user, therefore protecting everyone involved in the value chain.

Am I designing for contingency response?  

On the other hand, there is a contingency response, which is more traditional for companies. It's a perfect fit for their long-term strategy. They are well-planned and rely on good research to go on. Jay cites the common experiment across US companies of delivering merchandise using robots and drones. While these are not yet mainstream, the companies continue to collect feedback to improve the systems and prepare them for broader adoption. COVID provides the perfect platform to put these systems on the big stage.

Restaurants now have to keep customers 2 meters apart. There are floor signs urging people to maintain safe distances from others, temperature checkers are readily available, and deliveries now happen in a contactless way. These are all forms of contingency response that focus on the future.

Both forms of response show that it is essential to consider everything that happens in a pandemic to design effective solutions.


In taking the conversation forward, Jay Demetillo describes our general state of regression in being unable to live life as usual. However, he also addresses it from a design perspective by talking about human emotions at play during a pandemic. Jay refers to a study on cancer patients in hospitals. "There are three levels of emotional grief, anxiety, and despair," he says. These are three levels of hopelessness or regression. As the patient slumps deeper into these states, they increasingly lose their ability to show emotional empathy. They become more aggressive and more self-centered.

Clearly, regression is something that designers need to consider when building digital or invisible solutions. Memory, attention, and general behavior are critical levels of design inspired by a crisis. In Jay's words, "there's a level 1 where they can't think straight, they're self-centered, and they have tunnel vision. In level 2, they are apprehensive about the experience. While they may not want to dip into it, they are aware of it. There's also a Level 3 where we are more relaxed and can have a more relaxed view of the future."

Grab's Product Design lead admits that crisis may not affect everyone equally. Yet, everyone needs a new paradigm for a digital future, and empathy is essential to design the means of adapting to this new normal. There has to be a seamless transition from the digital online world to the physical offline world, and your company can leverage that. An international crisis like the pandemic is a rare opportunity to win empathy points from the potential customer.

Vital Design Principles For a Pandemic

A crisis calls for effective measures in designing viable solutions. These include:

Prioritizing Features

Use relevant data to determine what is most important for the user and your business. Every feature should make more impact and not merely visually appealing. New features should minimize friction in the user experience. Contactless phone payments are an excellent example of this.

Decisions are a critical component of the frictionless paradigm. When prioritizing features, it's crucial for all stakeholders to contribute to the process.

Focus on the TouchPoints of Your Product

Now, what are touchpoints that connect deeply with your audience? It is essential to make them accessible. DiDi has done this with their official safety site, where you can easily find all safety features.

Systematically redirect your users to focus on essential aspects of your content and designs. Jay shares some quick content tips to interact with customers and your teams, including:

Work on Accessibility

Design should be as inclusive as possible. The Xbox, for instance, is now playable by more people regardless of their physical limitations. Also, Apple actively maintains accessibility tools on the iPhone. Jay illustrates this using a comic strip where just one person is cycling across a tight rope while others watch. In another scenario, the solution is a wide bridge that accommodates more people at once. Jay says, “No one is going to jump on a tight rope to cross the bridge. But when it's open to other people, everyone is more likely going to use your experience."


One cannot possibly overemphasize why companies must hyperlocalize their content and design systems. Languages, currencies, and even Internet accessibility options are important variables to design experiences around, and the goal is to maximize opportunities to gain user attention.

Building connections and eliminating barriers are also important. It allows platforms access to a wider market. A clear example is Instacart pivoting to become more than a place for groceries. Through a partnership with BestBuy, you can buy electronics from them too. Fitness trainers are leveraging Zoom to stay in touch with clients, while Ikea can advise customers where furniture fits best. Opportunities are multiplying because of AI too.

Jay Demetillo is quick to share Anselmo Ramos' quote, which says, "The leaner, faster, more adaptable you are, the better chances you'll have to navigate the crisis." Innovating in crisis through your company to excel during recovery and involves designers, researchers, and strategists' collaborative work.

The Final Word: Advice For Startups

By their very nature, startups are peculiar. However, they are not immune to the adverse effects of a pandemic. They typically have small teams, and the designer might not be able to make vital decisions. Jay advises those in such peculiar environments to develop the necessary alliances (what some might call “politicking”) with engineers, product leads, top management, or anyone you need to educate on the realities that the crisis presents. Having key metrics and data on hand is important to make your case when pitching to those with the final say on significant issues.

Grab is a startup, and Jay recalls with fondness how the company managed to pivot in the early days of the pandemic. It was a big challenge in designing to accommodate contactless commerce. Safety concerns and government regulations have been critical drivers of Grab’s pandemic response.

Beyond the smartphone screen, design during a pandemic considers the multiple teams participating in the process and, ultimately, the user. Indeed, the future belongs to the bold and clever.

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