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NHS COVID-19 Contact Tracing: A UX Designers Verdict

A quick surface-level UX review of the NHS COVID-19 app really doesn’t reveal many bad practices, stomach-churning UIs or UX horror shows. However...

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TL;DR

The app has clearly had a lot of thought go into it and has been both designed and developed very well. There is only a small handful of more obvious UI/UX wins that were picked out from the interface itself.

However, there are lots of questions in understanding the thinking that went beyond the app itself and into the context it would be used in and the users it would be used by. It is incredibly surprising that the app was released before the pilot phase had fully concluded and am sure that there is a gold mine of user feedback that may well have not been addressed. That being said, having looked at previous app store feedback for the pilot version that some improvements have been made (such as additional languages being available.)

A glaring problem is that its success is entirely dependent on users having fairly current devices, being downloaded and used properly in order to be effective. Time will tell if these factors are a nonissue, or the success of the app hangs in the balances because of them.

Hopefully, this app pushes forward with some success but admittedly, am a bit dubious at this stage as to the onlook of its overall practicality.

Intro

A quick surface-level UX review of the NHS COVID-19 app really doesn’t reveal many bad practices, stomach-churning UIs or UX horror shows. However, digging a little deeper and looking at it holistically there are some potential issues including the app’s disregard for older handsets. We will discuss why these are potential problems and they’re connection to UX.

Why am I doing this review?

As a UX designer in the Tech for Good field, it is always important to keep an eye out for what is happening around you. That includes keeping an eye out for events happening in the world as well as how people respond to them and any potential solutions that arise.

COVID-19 is one such event that has had a catastrophic impact across the globe. It has affected how people go about their daily lives, including how they communicate, shop and work. This was really a gold mine for digital companies as it unlocked a whole new way of doing things that companies would not only race to achieve first, but would have to adapt to survive.

The way we experience almost everything has changed due to the current global pandemic, and where we’ve been busy at Cube looking at ways we can help out, I wanted to take a look into how other people were tackling the situation and share my thoughts around the parity between other people’s responses and our own findings. Therefore I have chosen to take a look at the latest app update from the NHS: “NHS COVID-19”.

 

How does the app work?

The app asks for some basic information from you, including asking you to confirm you are over the age of 16 and your postcode district. Next, the app will use the Exposure Notifications System from Apple and Google to allow for a “new” phenomenon known as contact tracing, so long as you provide the app permission to.

Contact tracing works by using the exposure notification API which allows your smartphone to exchange anonymous identifiers (think a small packet of data that can’t be used to identify you. But contains a unique, untraceable ID that is linked to your app) with other nearby smartphones also using the app over Bluetooth. Your phone will store these anonymous identifiers, and if the original owner of that identifier tests positive for Covid-19 you will be alerted that you have come into contact with them.

 

The app also allows you to check into venues and in a similar way, you will be alerted by anyone who tests positive for Covid-19 that attended the venue at the same time as you.

What is my opinion?

The app on a whole is pretty straightforward to use, and more attractive than a lot of other apps out there. I have highlighted the following key themes from my findings that I will discuss further:

  1. Download & Onboarding
  2. App’s positioning
  3. Dashboard
  4. Risk Alert
  5. Venue Check-In
  6. Symptoms Checker
  7. Accessibility
  8. Languages

Download & Onboarding

The first part of the challenge of any app is discovering it, downloading it and setting it up. My point of discovery was hearing about it all over the media, which led me to download it from the play store where everything was described in plain English, other than a few terms such as contact tracing that I believe would prompt most users to take to google to learn a little more.

Once I had installed the app I began to step through it to get it set up and ready to use, this section of the app we call onboarding. Onboarding is an experience that is often too overwhelming, over-complicated and long to complete and can serve as a massive barrier to entry for new apps, so it is always an area we look to focus on improving.

The first screen of the app looks clean and concise and clearly communicates the main capabilities of the app. The page is scrollable, however, where the sticky button has no shadow or separation it is easy to miss this, especially on smaller screen sizes. It would have also been useful at this stage to get an idea of how long this onboarding process would take and be provided with some kind of progress reminder along the way.

Continuing on you are asked whether you are 16 years or older, selecting no will present you a screen explaining why you can’t view the app. I see this as a neat way of handling who can and can’t access the app, however, the ever-growing inquisitive side to my nature wanted to dig a bit deeper on the decision to make the app 16+ but I will cover this in the next section.

You now enter your postcode district (a term I’m sure a lot of users aren’t familiar with) and do the normal, boring tick box exercise to sign your life away (agree terms and conditions). This was pretty quick and easy to finish up. The only real thing worth pointing out is the amount of copy supporting these onboarding pages. They do a good enough job of explaining why the information is being gathered which is important but the screens are quite busy and feel a little cluttered.

All in all a good start to the app, however, I’m already asking myself a host of questions as to whether an app is the right fit for the task.

I’m already asking: “Is an app the right tool?”

The majority of apps we develop here at Cube are very specific to their audience, which in a way for a UX designer is somewhat of a dream, as designing for everyone is second to impossible (see my blog post about inclusive design here.). However, this sort of tool meant for the vast majority of the general public is always going to face some very tricky challenges.

Earlier I mentioned the app being positioned as 16+. Interestingly it turns out that the pilot ran with the audience of 18+, however, the age was lowered not only to increase the spread of education around Covid-19 but due to there being many issues surrounding elder relatives and technology, this would enable more teenagers to help their less technically savvy relatives.

This uncovered the next issue with the app, and potentially the greater issue at hand. The app relies on large numbers of users for it to yield results. 

For example, if I was reliant on this letting me know I’ve come into contact with someone with Covid-19 what is to say the infected person had a phone, and if they had a phone that they had it turned on, with Bluetooth enabled and the app both installed and correctly set up. Before we even get into the app itself, we’ve already identified a huge sticking point to the app’s reliability.

This becomes such a sticking point when looking at the small portion of the nation who are using devices that are capable of running the app. The handsets must have Android 6.0 or iOS 13.5 and Bluetooth 4.0 or higher. For iOS that excludes the iPhone 6, the UK’s 6th most popular handset in 2019 and older.

 

Building upon that point on a recent project I was working on, I was fortunate to chat with clinicians from a hospital setting who explained their experience of the vast number of patients suffering from digital poverty. This means they either have inexpensive mobile phone devices, likely being able to afford little credit, or older devices without the available funds to upgrade. This is also true of many individuals in at-risk communities, which questions whether the budget was best spent on an app in the first place for this utility.

Further, still, the app is developed by a governmental body, who have always had to battle for the public’s trust, especially around Covid-19, where government advice caused little short of confusion and triggered a widespread of highly plausible conspiracy theories. This is helped by the app is an update to an already existing App Store/Play Store submission that contains some “positively constructive” reviews to put it politely.

Dashboard

Quickly getting back into the app’s design; once you are through onboarding you are faced with the main dashboard screen. This contains a slightly overbearing animation letting you know contact tracing is working in the background as well as the following buttons:

  • Risk level in your area
  • Venue check-in
  • Check symptoms
  • Read attest advice
  • About this app
  • Enter test results
  • A toggle to turn contact tracing on and off

As mentioned the contact tracing animation is very in your face and really serves little purpose, outside of reassuring you contact tracing is working in the background, up until the point that you’ve come into contact with an infected individual. 

The interesting part comes when you have crossed someone who has been infected. Fortunately, while testing the app I haven’t had to experience this, however, I have managed to get access to what this would indeed look like.

The app will alert you via a notification that you have come into contact with someone who has been infected. The dashboard will now show a self-isolation timer for 14 days, encouraging you to stay in isolation until this timer has completed. During this time you’ll have easy access to symptoms to keep an eye out for and the ability to book a Covid-19 test through the app.

The experience is actually pretty well thought out from a digital interface point of view, however, as mentioned above the issues occur outside the interface. This relies on the honesty of the people using it, people believing in the jurisdiction of technology (it is very easy to ignore a message on your phone telling you you’re at risk, just like it is ignoring your mate who’s pissed you off.) and people having faith in the organisation promoting the app.

It is interesting, as this app ultimately aims to change people’s behaviours in the way they receive and react to potentially life-saving information, and in taking the self-initiative to put themselves out of harm’s way and self isolate. This makes it a very hard challenge to change the behaviours of those that haven’t personally seen the devastating impacts of the virus, a subset of people will likely never download the app in the first place. I feel like the app doesn’t go through the lengths it could to build trust and distil behaviour change in these networks.

Risk level

Tapping on the button at the top of the screen containing my risk level provides me with a little more information about what this means, but this information is still limited. I had hoped to find out the number of cases in my area and those areas surrounding and have some more specific advice in my area. However, the illustrations and tone of voice do provide a suitable experience.

Venue check-in

The venue check-in feature utilises a QR code scanner to scan a QR code as you enter a restaurant or other venue that has registered to participate in the NHS Covid-19 scheme.

Using the scanner is easy enough in theory and poses no real issues from an experience standpoint. Having scanned a QR code at a venue it presents you a confirmation message that you’ve checked in to the location. If anyone at the same venue is found to be infected you will be alerted immediately.

This is really intuitive for those familiar with QR codes which have been somewhat universally adopted. However, there are still many, especially many in the at-risk category who would likely not understand its implications.

The other half of this experience is dependent on venues having these barcodes available to their customers as this is not a legal requirement as of yet. This poses a problem where not every venue will have this available, however, they have made it super easy to set this up and I had to have a go myself.

You are simply required to head over to https://www.gov.uk/create-coronavirus-qr-poster and fill out a straightforward form with the address of the venue, the type of event served at the venue and a name for it. After a little wait, upon successful completion, you will receive a poster with a QR code and the name of your event, ready to print out and hang up. This was super easy and in fact somewhat enjoyable.

Check symptoms

This is a quick way to check your symptoms. Simply tap any of the relevant symptoms that you are feeling. The form’s information is easily digestible and quick to fill out, so no problems there. Once you’ve selected your symptoms the app will respond with next steps including a timer for self-isolation and the ability to order a Covid-19 test.

There is an option for when you don’t have any of the mentioned symptoms. Tapping this opened a confusing dialogue asking you to confirm you do not have any symptoms, but presenting you with the button choice of “Remove” or “Cancel”. Left slightly unsure what I was removing I tapped this and was presented a nice reassuring message that I was unlikely to have Covid-19 but I could phone 111 for more information.

Other

That really covers the major functions of the app. Its feature suite is small but to the point which is most certainly intentional. You are also able to gain access the latest Covid-19 advice from the NHS website, get a few more details about the app, including how it accesses your data, enter a code to receive a test result from a pre-existing test and toggle on or off your contact tracing (the annoying, pulsing, green circle.)

I had hoped for an easy way to find out the rules in my area or an area I have an interest in such as where my family is based. As I feel this is an often debated and misunderstood topic among peer groups desperately trying to reconnect while remaining safe. However, otherwise, it covered most of what was expected.

Accessibility

From an accessibility standpoint, the app performs well. From a quick review, it seems to meet WCAG AA standards comfortably, including colour contrasts and screen reading capability (tested with Android TalkBack). This is incredibly important, as mentioned earlier we need to include as large an audience as possible.

 

Languages

The app needs to succeed across a very diverse audience, where English isn’t the first language in many communities across the country. This is even more important when the information around possible Covid-19 infection holds such gravitas. For this reason, I wanted to test that the app was available in different languages. The app changed successfully with changes to the native language settings on my phone with the following languages: Welsh, Bengali, Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi (Gurmukhi script), Chinese (Simplified), Romanian, Turkish and Arabic (Modern Standard).

Should this be an app?

It is very, very hard to say at this stage, but in my opinion, the app could have been more focused on the venue piece and made a bigger deal of the risk level in your area and what that means to you, but as it is and with the budget that was put behind it, efforts were likely better spent elsewhere. Time will only tell whether the cost and effort were worth it.

Conclusion

The app has clearly had a lot of thought go into it and has been both designed and developed very well. There are only a small handful of more obvious UI/UX wins that I picked out from the interface itself.

However, there are lots of questions I have in understanding the thinking that went beyond the app itself and into the context it would be used in and the users it would be used by. I still find it incredibly surprising that the app was released before the pilot phase had fully concluded and am sure that there is a gold mine of user feedback that may well have not been addressed. That being said I can see, having looked at previous app store feedback for the pilot version that some improvements have been made (such as additional languages being available.)

I do hope to see this app push forward with some success but must admit I am dubious at this stage as to the onlook of its overall practicality.

If you are in need of an app audit to see how we think your app is performing or a team who will design with your users and their context considered from the start, get in touch!

Published on September 25, 2020, last updated on October 12, 2020

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