Day 2 – “I mean, I can lift a shovel”: Design Skills in Disaster Response

The disasters in focus of the talk are physical, acute disasters, like — hurricanes, tornados, fire, and not chronic disasters, like — racism, poverty, etc. 

In this talk, four main areas of design:

  • Service design
  • Visual & graphic design
  • Database design
  • User research

Events used as examples in the talk:

  • Hurricane Katria, 2005
  • Deepwater Horizon Oil spill, 2011
  • COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 +
  • Hurricane Ida, 2021

Anatomy of a disaster

  1. Preparation
    • Nothing really is happening
    • Just hoping nothing bad happens
  2. Warning
    • Short as fifteen minutes
    • About getting the resources
  3. Impact
    • Move through as quickly as possible
  4. Relief
    • Get immediate needs mapped
      • First responders: EMS, fire, Red Cross
      • Second responders: Utilities
      • Third responders: FEMA, construction, schools, (&UX – fits in here too)
  5. Recovery
    • Basic needs met, but not back to normal
      • Third responders
  6. Stabilization
    • Things are rarely exactly as they were before
    • Not changing as dramatically

Improve service accessibility

Services stood up fast, often stacked altogether— difficult to find, people weren’t getting what they needed. Hence a person stood up in front of it — took a lot of emotional capacity. Lacking robust service design, most of the services were used by non-directly impacted people.

Some things are obvious

Screenshots of transportation communicated road closures — shows list and lists and lists of areas that were impossible to reach. Not usable at all.

After disasters, there is opportunity to improve data visualization.

Support decision making with data

Services generate data. Design systems to organize and protect it.

Asked for volunteers after the storm, demand for services outpaced capacity. Collected information in binders, demand started to ramp up and binders became a box.

Process of asking questions was improved:

  • How are you feeling?
  • Contacted by enforcements?
  • Looking for anything? (passports, wedding rings, etc)

Standardizing data collection allowed to triage and serve the people who needed help. Turned all the paper data into an Excel sheet. 

Get more people to read the email

Information of COVID-19 changed fast, the problem was — no one read emails. Transformed the way of communication by redesigning the emails based on the information — noticeably changed behaviors. This was sent to all, not just management.

Disasters create information vacuums. Communicate better to get facts to people.

Some ideas are bad

Even if they are fully funded.

Developed an app for fishermen and small businesses to access information about the claim process. It seemed it could work — worked in this industry, knew they had iphone, knew they were struggling (this phrase is a bad signal for user research!).

Built the app and then started to test it, did all the arrangements. Asked them to download the app, and he said — we don’t get data here! Pulled offline copy and only looked at the phone number, got stuck on hold in the automated call tree. Ran this with others, and they were exactly the same.

Didn’t consider literacy levels, cell service, dynamic nature of data, as well as culture of industry. This was a huge flaw.

How to start off —

Do no Harm

Disaster-impacted users have it hard enough.

  • Volunteer
  • Build relationships
  • Identify problems
  • Establish a core team

In times of chaos, use design to create clarity.