Photo “IMG_2746”, by Donald Macauley is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; please see post script for more context

Designing with Care During COVID-19 and Beyond

In addition to supporting a number of Facebook’s design and user research teams, I lead our Responsible Innovation & Design core team. We work to cultivate ethical foresight in our product teams and develop and train teams across the company in responsible design practices. What follows is a public version of internal guidance we provided to our product teams who are designing features to address the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. We are sharing this as a way to encourage all designers and technologists to take a moment before hitting the launch button and reflect on how even a well-intentioned idea can cause unintentional harm.

We are all still learning how to design responsibly at this unprecedented global scale. By sharing these suggestions and things to consider, we may invite criticism if we don’t fully live up to these aspirations, but the benefits of sharing with others so they can learn from our experience outweighs that risk. I hope you find it helpful and welcome feedback and additional ideas we can share with the global design and technology community.

This is an extraordinary time for our extended human family. We are living through a global public health crisis. It’s a time filled with fear of the unknown, concerns for our own health and the health of those closest to us, as well as billions of people we don’t know, but whose fate is intertwined with ours.

In recent weeks, even though many of us have been physically isolated from each other, we’ve found ways to connect with each other online. For global platforms like Facebook and others, there are critical issues that must take priority at times like these, such as combating misinformation about the virus, blocking bad actors from profiteering during a crisis, and maintaining reliability during times when there is extreme demand on networks. These issues have appropriately been the focus of much of the discussion around technology companies’ response to the ongoing crisis. But they are not the whole story.

As designers and technologists, we play an important role in helping craft digital environments. We help design them, build them, and test them. And since in this time of crisis delaying a launch by even a single day can profoundly affect millions of people, we feel a strong sense of urgency to get new solutions out into the world. This is why so many teams are working hard to ship new products and features, and why we’re participating in things like the #BuildforCOVID19 Global Online Hackathon with fellow companies and platforms from the tech ecosystem, as well as health partners including the World Health Organization and scientists from the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, as well as experts from other industries.

Personal and public health are very sensitive systems, and work done with even the best of intentions could create unintended harm by undermining critical efforts in other areas.

However, as we move fast to respond to this evolving and changing crisis, it’s critical for us to stay mindful about what and how we build and ship. Personal and public health are very sensitive systems, and work done with even the best of intentions could create unintended harm by undermining critical efforts in other areas. This challenge is not unique to public health crises; we must be mindful of our responsibility to minimize harm in everything that we do. At Facebook, we have learned from past experience how critical it is that we design with intentionality, empathy, and privacy in mind from day one.

Here are some things to consider as you and your teams look to harness the power of technology to assist people in this crisis…

Should you build it?

Be intentional, stay focused, and listen to your users. Place the needs and perspectives of the people who use your product first. Not every product needs to have a coronavirus (COVID-19) specific feature. When designing a new product or feature, ask:

  • Is it solving a clear and unique problem? In times of crisis we need to hold ourselves to a higher bar for solving real people problems, lest we create more noise and chaos.
  • Is the feature a natural fit for your company, brand or product? If your efforts have no relevance to the broader context of your product or brand, it can distract people from official sources of information. For example, you might expect to get financial guidance from your bank or stockbroker, but it could feel forced (or be counterproductive) if they tried to replicate or duplicate medical advice from the WHO.
  • Listen to your users: People often develop ingenious work-arounds to meet their needs, especially in times of crisis. When you see these emergent behaviors, consider turning them into a more formal feature of your product. This is how Facebook’s Safety Check feature was born; it was a solution that the community developed for itself to notify their loved ones they were safe in the wake of the 2011 tsunami in Japan. We observed this community-led invention and saw its value, streamlining it so it could be used by many more people in future events. Your community may already have incredible ideas, but just may need your help in making them come to life in a more scalable way.

Key considerations while building

Consider the context in which people will experience your product or feature. Some of the people who will see or use your feature may be impacted by coronavirus (COVID-19) in ways that you are not. Dissonance between your product’s tone and someone’s lived experience can be hurtful. Pay special attention to the way your work is seen in or out of context. So take time to consider:

  • Could your feature be unintentionally offensive or insensitive? Consider how it might be perceived by someone who is ill or has a loved one who is, or by someone who does not have access to resources for “best practices” like running water, soap, medical care. Even assuming that people are “working from home” reveals a privilege many do not have. There are lives and livelihoods at stake, so don’t assume everyone has access to the same resources that you may have.
  • Are content, colors, illustrations, and avatars appropriate across a range of scenarios? For instance, we may use friendly, positive iconography to alleviate stress, but that may feel highly inappropriate to individuals who are in the midst of a personal health crisis. For example, in 2016 we shipped whimsical Halloween-themed reactions in the Facebook app, but in practice and in context, they came across as out of place when people were responding to emotionally serious content.
  • Have you taken a global perspective? Attitudes and norms around public health differ culturally. For example, the use of and associations with surgical masks varies across cultures; some communities associate it with healthy people trying to avoid infection, while others associate it with sick people looking to avoid infecting others. Be sensitive to these differences and avoid elements which don’t internationalize well.
  • Have you been transparent with people about how you are collecting, using, and storing data? Honoring people’s privacy is always a top priority, but it’s especially crucial in times of crisis when people’s desire and need for new information and utility may cause them to provide more information than they normally would. We all should make sure that we take extra efforts to be transparent and educate people about how we’ll be utilizing the data today and in the future, as well as making sure that we require and use the minimal amount of data necessary.
  • Have you been mindful of the privacy risks associated with handling sensitive data? Even with the best of intentions, some ideas could include potentially high risk privacy practices. Asking or inferring whether a person has or is at risk for coronavirus (COVID-19) or has friends or connections who have the virus would be especially sensitive. Consideration needs to be paid to how sensitive things like location and health related data is collected, used, and retained. Finally, consider privacy-related health regulations in different countries and regions, such as HIPAA in the US and GDPR in Europe, and build the right processes to prevent misuse of the data.

Think long term as well as short term

Consider how your product or feature sets expectations for the future. We shouldn’t set the expectation that a product or feature will be there for people, then take it away without warning or explanation. When designing in response to the current crisis, consider:

  • What is the defensible, objective threshold for invoking your team’s feature? We sometimes can show our cultural or social bias when we trigger assistive technology at some moments but not others. For example, when Safety Check was first launched in 2014, it required Facebook to manually activate it. This approach was critiqued for either being too slow, or ignoring some tragedies in favor of others. We adjusted the system to activate through community input with validation from expert third-parties.
  • Consider the lifetime of your feature. The 2009 H1N1 epidemic officially lasted 5 months with years of post-pandemic seasonal circulation. The 2018 Kivu Ebola epidemic is still ongoing. Look ahead to the hopeful threshold for when your feature is no longer needed and consider the effect that any rollback will have on people who are still suffering or affected by the virus.

Together, we can ensure that our response to coronavirus (COVID-19) is coordinated and effective, but that it is also done with a sense of humanity. We hope that these guidelines provide some helpful prompts for the many designers and technologists who are exploring the very real opportunities we have to leverage the power of technology to assist people around the world. It can be difficult to keep all this in mind when we feel the urgency to move so fast, but this is just one of the many dimensions of responsibility that come along with the privilege of designing for billions of people.

Experts tell us this won’t be the last time we will go through this kind of pandemic, so it’s crucial we learn from the past and the present and become ever-more prepared for the future. Together we can help each other maximize the benefits and minimize the harm that results from our work during these times of unprecedented challenges.

Stay well, everyone.

Disclaimer: Each product and feature that Facebook Inc. builds is subject to careful review. The ideas expressed above are general guidelines and other requirements may apply to ensure compliance with global laws

Special thanks to my colleagues Aubrey Bach, Beth Dean, Luchen Foster, Jane Francis, Emilia Dallman Howley, Liz Keneski, Emily Konouchi, Zvika Kreiger, Katherine Maslyn, Shivani Mohan, Heather Monley, and Lisa Turner and my friend Molly Wright Steenson for their work and feedback on this article.

P.S. Some background on the beautiful cover image by Donald Macauley of a murmuration of starlings. In a piece on NPR, George F Young commented on the starlings’ “remarkable ability to maintain cohesion as a group in highly uncertain environments and with limited, noisy information.” Beyond its mesmerizing beauty, perhaps there’s something to learn from this as we try to design our way out of this crisis.



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Margaret Gould Stewart

Margaret Gould Stewart

Vice-President of Product Design & Responsible at Facebook. Previously at YouTube & Google. Ted speaker. Passionate about design, ethics, & tech. Find me @mags.