Most notably? Even as we got vaccines (and boosters), COVID continued lurking, and in the last few weeks with Omicron, it has surged again. Times are bleak. But I am emboldened by the changes I saw in 2021, led by designers and scientists who learned quickly from this pandemic, and built a more resilient world for it.
The greatest innovation I saw in 2021 was within UX, and specifically the evolving user experience of hygiene. We are learning that we can clean our personal airways to breathe more safely, and monitor our environments to spot COVID before it spreads. The larger world is awakening to realize that germs are real, air quality matters, and we have the technology to live safer lives than most of us do—without sacrificing all comfort and social contact to get there, as we did at the start of the pandemic.
To see how far we’ve come so quickly, just rewind back to early 2020. As COVID struck, we knew very little about the virus. Many experts insisted it was spread primarily through contact only. We were instructed not to buy masks, lest we take them away from healthcare workers. The CDC wouldn’t acknowledge that COVID was airborne until May of that year.
So the first wave of hygiene was focused on “flattening the curve” with hand-washing. (I can still appreciate the well-meaning, sharply designed information being packaged as a meme back then—even if it was ultimately wrong.) We counted and sang songs as we scrubbed, and trained ourselves how to effectively wash our hands.
The next wave of UX brought PPE—masks and face shields. That approach has proven to work. It also brought us plexiglass dividers across stores and offices, along with the promise of frequently sanitized surfaces. Again, we were wrong in our approach here. As it turns out, plexiglass can prevent air from circulating, creating particularly dangerous hot spots for the virus. And sanitizing surfaces doesn’t fix our issues with air (though upgrading your HVAC system to the right MERV filter can!). Sadly, the plexiglass approach has stuck with us as part of the rise of COVID theater. It’s a way for business owners and communities to pretend they’re doing something beneficial for public health, other than lowering capacity, upgrading HVAC systems, or closing entirely.
Despite this ongoing public health posturing, 2021 has brought new hope to the UX of hygiene—which starts by recognizing when you’re infected. Rapid test kits debuted this year, giving people at home the ability to swab their nose and test themselves for COVID with respectable accuracy. Sure, as a society, we were used to testing kits like this for pregnancy or blood sugar. However, allow yourself to pause for one moment, and appreciate how remarkable it is that companies like Abbott have developed a way for anyone, with no scientific training, to self-test for the pandemic of our age. This is a virus that you might otherwise spread if you have few or no symptoms.
Not only can we test if we’re infected; we have new tools to prevent getting infected in the first place (other than masks!). Take the Fend. This is a $13 nasal mister—born from the mind of a Harvard researcher, and brought to market by the same design firm that created Beats by Dre. The Fend sprays ocean-like salty air at a very particular vapor size, which allows it to reach through your nose into your trachea. Several studies demonstrate that it appears to prevent airborne infections by boosting your body’s natural immunity: specifically its ability to trap viruses in mucus before they fly deep into your lungs. The UX? Just two pumps and deep inhalations to boost your immunity for hours at a time, from a device that slips easily into your pocket. It couldn’t be simpler. The trickier matter for Fend is the pitch itself. How do you introduce the concept of nasal hygiene? How do you communicate that something so seemingly superficial can prevent infection? Then again, Fend sold out of its first run of 10,000 units in a matter of days.
Another startup that comes to mind is Poppy. In a previous life, its founders sold their research company Meta (yes, Meta) to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Poppy is a simple piece of hardware that looks like a smoke detector. It takes continuous samples of the air to spot COVID floating in a space. Samples are sent to a lab daily for testing—the system uses cutting edge microbial DNA analysis to identify COVID or other airborne pathogens upon request. While not quite instantaneous, Poppy allows anyone managing a space to see if COVID is present, sending alerts through an easy-to-read dashboard. And within the next year, Poppy plans to improve its hardware, so all testing can be done on the device (lowering costs and expediting results).
What grabs me most about Poppy and Fend is that they don’t only work for COVID times. These devices represent a rethinking of hygiene as an ongoing problem facing society—though as a problem that can be lived with. Each platform can be just as effective in protecting us against seasonal flus, and whatever pandemic comes next. These are ideas born in 2021 that I suspect will feel completely mainstream by 2030.
And how could I talk about the UX of hygiene without bringing up Razer? Razer is a PC gaming peripherals company that makes glowing mice and keyboards. That’s their thing. But with COVID hitting, their industrial design team took on the task of building a high tech mask called the Zephyr—a mask that made it both easier to breathe and express yourself than a stock N95 or other option.
Yes, a lot of unexpected companies made masks in 2020 and 2021, but most were either made for internal purposes, or were just another cloth mask option produced by a fashion label. Razer focused on innovations: specifically fans that suck in air to make it more comfortable to breathe (and, less importantly, LED lights that can glow in any color you like). This $100 mask feels excessive in so many ways. But it’s also unquestionably awesome, a sort of Hail Mary pass to battle the pandemic with technology. The Zephyr is as symbolically empowering as it is downright smart in its implementation. Whether or not the Zephyr is something that you would wear, its approach is full of good ideas, namely, that we should all be wearing reusable masks that feel more breathable and reflect our personalities.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’re going to be living COVID-free any time soon. But 2021 was not a completely lost year. We are learning how to prevent and respond to dangerous, viral illness. And yes, it’s a whole lot more complex—but not necessarily any more taxing—than just washing your hands.