In an effort to lessen the spread of COVID-19, traditional contact tracing efforts are being complemented by new smartphone-based solutions, which offer greater efficiency and privacy. Exposure notification apps typically utilize anonymous phone-to-phone signals to determine exposure, based on the duration and proximity of contact between devices. If a person subsequently reports a positive COVID-19 test, others who had been in proximity can be alerted to a potential exposure.
Numerous countries and regions have launched such apps, which, like wearing a mask, can provide community health benefits with relatively little effort. But as with face coverings, enough people need to use the apps to achieve effectiveness.
Not surprisingly, there are some concerns and resistance to using these novel technologies, particularly as they may function in unfamiliar ways. For example, measuring proximity without the use of GPS (i.e., relying on Bluetooth signal strength), or for the majority of users, offering no routine need to access the app at all following installation. Such characteristics can challenge expectations for users and app designers alike.
User Experience Challenges
Exposure notification apps present a series of seemingly contradictory interactions that must be effectively addressed to create understandable and easy-to-use experiences for end-users.
1. Publicize Anonymity
Many people lack trust in government and/or technology companies handling personal data, particularly for health-related information. Exposure notification apps sit at the convergence of these concerns. Add to that the common misperception that these apps determine proximity via GPS, thereby allowing location tracking, and the result is a perfect storm of security and privacy concerns. In fact, most of these apps do not capture any personally identifiable information about the user and utilize near-field signals (e.g., Bluetooth), rather than location-based (e.g., GPS), to determine proximity.
Given these misapprehensions, it is an uphill battle getting people to understand and download an exposure notification app, let alone achieve widespread usage. Therefore, it is essential to invest in omnichannel educational marketing toward aligning expectations. Ironically, it may be the people you know and trust who can be most persuasive in communicating the anonymity of the apps.
Once potential users are willing to download the app, education needs to continue within the app itself, particularly in the initial onboarding process. Apps should provide upfront and simple explanations of how the exposure reporting and notification processes work, reinforcing user anonymity and providing access to greater detail on the technology, as desired.
2. Make the Unused Usable
Designers must create an app that users may hope to never interact with. Once downloaded, exposure notifications apps are largely “set and forget” and can typically function without user involvement. In fact, the only times users may need to access the app is if they receive notification of an exposure or need to report a positive test result themselves – both highly rare circumstances, fortunately.
The downside to this very limited user engagement is that when the app is finally used, it can essentially be a first-time experience. Lack of recency or familiarity can impact usability, with understanding of previously used features and terminology diminishing over time. Moreover, the trigger for accessing the app is stressful news itself, so clarity and simplicity of the user experience are critical.
Key recommendations for achieving usable exposure notification apps include:
- Providing clear feedback that the app is functioning, and if not, how to make it work
- Allowing users to review instructional onboarding information at any point to refresh their understanding when it is needed most
- Continuing to reinforce anonymity throughout the usage lifecycle
- Increasing app engagement by including anonymous reference data, such as regional trends
In many cases, the quick development of exposure notification apps resulted in quick launches with limited functionality, followed by update releases. Consequently, a user is likely to face new features, design elements, and content when returning to use the app even after a few weeks. It is recommended that significant enhancement and changes are communicated contextually through the app.
The best way to establish effective experience design is through ongoing user feedback methods, such as usability testing. This is especially critical given the perception and usability challenges of exposure notification apps. Focusing research on participants who are most likely to be exposed to COVID-19, such as frontline and essential workers, can provide critical real-world feedback for improving these apps.