The Pandemic as Opportunity: Designing ‘New Normal’ Human Interactions

Cartoon by Peter Arkle, The New Yorker, March 16, 2020
Cartoon by Peter Arkle, The New Yorker, March 16, 2020


Naturally, the coronavirus pandemic has occupied much of my thoughts these months. Early on I first attempted to articulate some emerging ideas about it on video (13 March 2020); then I tried to essay ideas about it in prose (26 March 2020); wrote some poems (30 March 2020; 01 April 2020; 06 April 2020); revisited Samuel Pepys for perspective (31 March 2020); created and published 40 Lockdown Chronicles comic strips (07 April 2020 – 11 June 2020); co-designed one physical distancing poster (10 April 2020) and two COVID-19 response comics (21 May 2020; 22 May 2020); co-authored and published a COVID-19 response post at ACM Interactions Magazine (12 June 2020); and, for what it’s worth (!) have publicly shared data, links and opinions on Twitter. I have also done an inordinate amount of washing-up!

In case you come across this blog post without knowing much about me my background is in comparative literature, critical theory and cultural studies; my PhD is in Information Science. So I am not a medical doctor, nor an epidemiologist, nor a political scientist. My focus is on locating, assessing and interpreting information. Then I try to do something with those interpretations- it can be merely sharing them with the hope to contribute to public discussions, or by creating new discussions or even artifacts.

It’s hard to believe that it was in 2006 when I came to London to start my PhD at University College London. One of the first books I borrowed from the library was Bill Moggridge’s Designing Interactions (MIT 2006), it was hot off the press at that time! I was very excited it came with a DVD (my laptop at the time did have a CD/DVD drive) with interviews and additional material. It was that autumn, in my first year as a PhD student, that I first came across the field of “interaction design”. In his introduction, Moggridge describes his personal journey in the early 80s. He writes:

I felt that there was an opportunity to create a new design discipline, dedicated to creating imaginative and attractive solutions in a virtual world, where one could design behaviors, animations, and sounds as well as shapes. This would be the equivalent of industrial design but in software rather than three-dimensional objects. Like industrial design, the discipline would be concerned with subjective and qualitative values, would start from the needs and desires of the people who use a product or service, and strive to create designs that would give aesthetic pleasure as well as lasting satisfaction and enjoyment” (Moggridge 2007; my emphasis).

Today, it is clear that interaction design as a discipline and as a way of thinking about the world and doing things with/within it has a responsibility to not just interrogate technoscientific infrastructures and their epistemologies but to go beyond interactions with technology to embrace wider interactions, those not only happening in the ‘virtual world’ as Moggridge called it but in the wider world today, which is still very much defined by what happens with and without computing. As my colleague Alex Taylor writes in the July-August 2020 “Design in the Pandemic” issue of ACM Interactions,

…computing and design must face the challenge of imagining how life might be otherwise, in and after the pandemic. Perhaps it is about more than asking what worlds we are making possible. The question to be asked could be: What technoscientific interventions might make other worlds possible? And we could also consider asking what it might mean to be more responsive and responsible in these worldings, ensuring the conditions for many more actors to have a place at the table” (Taylor 2020).

I am inspired by this positioning, and moved to suggest that we should also be thinking about what interaction design thinking can contribute to interventions that might not be of a technoscientific kind, at least not as we tend to understand the term. Interpretive frameworks are tools as well, and in that sense a type of technology- the pandemic times call for interaction design thinking that can inform new ways of doing things in the ‘real’ world (for lack of better term). This is important because, as Alex points out in his article,

Covid-19 has made it strikingly clear that a significant proportion of undervalued and low-wage work must by and large be performed in person. Those most at risk in society—careworkers, cleaners, bus and delivery drivers, packaging and factory workers, and so on—are at risk because they simply have to physically be at work, and at the same time don’t have the privilege or choice not to work” (Taylor 2020).

And it’s not only “undervalued and low-wage work” that is required to be performed in person- as the UK Government Coronavirus Guidance changes, employees of all types are being under greater pressure and expectation to go back to traditional workplaces. The plan continues to be to reopen schools for kids of all ages in September. The Government is literally paying the public to dine out. The trend has been to go back to a sense of “normality” which means doing things the way they were done before the pandemic. Taking public transport, going to work, socialising in public spaces.

An extreme but terrifyingly paradigmatic example of the default position to revert to the old normal in spite of the mounting evidence the pandemic is still at large can be seen in the following statement tweeted by the spouse of a prominent cabinet minister:

We all have to die sooner or later. If I get Covid and cop it, so be it. My time has come. I'll have had a good life, better than most in this world at any rate. I certainly don't expect the entire nation to bankrupt itself to save my sorry ass. 1:06 PM · Aug 2, 2020·Twitter Web App

To me this position is indeed paradigmatic of a cultural inability to imagine different, context-aware, timing-specific interactions. Because “interactions” are ways of doing things. Alternative interactions appear unimaginable: we prefer to literally die (more importantly, let others die) rather than envision different ways of making society work in the light of what is known.

Let’s take schools as an example. If studies have shown that “young children not only transmit SARS-CoV-2 efficiently, but may be major drivers of the pandemic as well” (Forbes 31 July 2020; links to specific studies in linked article), and if “findings demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 spread efficiently in a youth-centric overnight setting, resulting in high attack rates among persons in all age groups, despite efforts by camp officials to implement most recommended strategies to prevent transmission” (CDC 31 July 2020), why are we so hell-bent on “going back to normal”, i.e. to send young people back to school? Because we haven’t figured out an alternative way to make things work safely. Instead, we prefer to ignore the evidence- hope it’s not true, that it’s exaggerated or unreliable, and hope for the best. Because it feels like there’s no choice.

Indeed, our socioeconomic models (defined types of interactions) have depended on the availability of specific modes of schooling for children while parents are in specific modes of working. In light of the highly-contagious, airborne nature of the coronavirus, we have failed to design different modes of interactions that solidly respond to what we know about it. I am fully aware that finding alternatives, particularly in a relatively short notice, is hugely complex. But we failed to take meaningful, sustainable first steps. As soon as we were told we could, we rushed to the ‘outside world’ and wanted to do things ‘as normal’. Any alternative has been seen as a certain catastrophe for either mental health, the economy, or both. We should be able, collectively, to re-design the present for the future, but instead we panic and we freeze. Motivated by fear and conservatism, we go back to what we know is no longer safe and therefore (at least for the time being and who knows for how long) no longer works.

Though a more radical transformation of our modes of social interaction would take time and careful sustained, collaborative effort, it is not impossible. We need to be able to redesign sustainably for a pandemic and, if we are lucky, post-pandemic world. Because if it’s not the novel coronavirus it will be another virus. Will we be prepared? What will we have learned from COVID-19? Isn’t the spectre of a second wave (pretty much at home) enough to make us want to reconsider the strategy?

Like others, I’d like to think that this pandemic is still a wake-up call, an opportunity to design new types of interactions that re-imagine ways of being together, and this includes ways of keeping the economy going. It’s no longer merely about having lectures, drinks or Yoga classes on Zoom and about making the user experience for more generalised, more demanding use better. It’s about rethinking how to transform the ways we make money, the ways we get to places, how we take holidays, how we rest, how we have fun, how we are in the world. If businesses close down and other established modes of behaviour disappear entirely it will not necessarily be, in all cases, “due to the coronavirus”, but because there was a failure to adapt to a new set of circumstances. Some of these re-designs do not need to be altogether radical, but they will need to be different, and more importantly, based on the evidence.