[OPINION] Engineering care: A designer’s perspective as a COVID-19 backliner

Jason Pechardo

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'I had brushed off COVID-19’s threat, thinking that I wouldn’t even have anything to contribute, not being in the medical field. Obviously, I was very wrong.'


As non-essential personnel in the first weeks of the pandemic, my thoughts were the same as everybody else: “Where the hell do I get a toilet paper?” I didn’t have a lot of selfless and noble ideas back then to fight the virus. I was more concerned about my trips being canceled, and the Black Widow film being rescheduled from May to November. Admittedly, I had brushed off COVID-19’s threat, thinking that I wouldn’t even have anything to contribute, not being in the medical field. Obviously, I was very wrong. 

As the weeks went by under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), the number of COVID-19 cases steadily climbed. The government continued to roll out cash assistance programs and national policies to combat the pandemic and its consequent tragedies. But implementation was a different matter altogether.

As lapses in the execution of these policies became evident, the public grew restless. Soon enough, hospitals cried out over their lack of necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), public transport drivers begged for work, and small business owners filed for bankruptcy. Complaints rolled in, creating an online ruckus on crisis mismanagement and the unjust decrees that bare latent interclass tensions within Philippine society.

Soon after, the fear of hunger overwhelmed the fear of the disease and the public took the streets. Seeing how the pandemic has brought the country to the brink of disorder, many private citizens were forced to mobilize and assist in any way possible. Makers, designers, engineers, students, artists, weavers, and more joined the fight and entered the pandemic ring. These non-medical practitioners constitute the country’s COVID-19 “backliners.” (READ: 3 Filipino-made medical apps to help combat coronavirus)

Collaboration is the cure

My backliner journey started when I joined UP Manila’s Surgical Innovation and Biotechnology Laboratory (SIBOL) team of tech professionals, brought together to collaborate for solutions to the “invisible enemy.” It is basically a think tank composed of big names in the research industry, led by Dr. Edward Wang.

Working and exchanging ideas with these multidisciplinary experts was really exhilarating. But the in-depth discussions and quick tossing around of propositions could make one lose track of what is happening, especially given the complexities of remote communication (which we were forced to adopt, given the state of affairs).

Personally, I believe this is one of the main challenges of ideation in the pandemic setting. As a product design teacher, I always tell my class that design sprints with the potential user or target market need to be personal and intimate. This allows the designer to get as much information as possible from the client, including the non-verbal ones. Online meetings and interactions are also prone to miscommunication, which could easily wreck the brainstorming process. But how do we make online ideation intimate and personal? How do we transcend virtual borders and create a useful designer-client connection?

Here’s what I found out: given the limitations of the type of communication, it is important to compromise a little bit on the designer-client idea exchange and focus on one-way idea transfer. What this means is full reliance on the experience and knowledge of medical professionals regarding what they need and fully letting go of that tenacious engineering/design trait known as the “hero complex.”

Don’t be a hero

Most engineers and designers suffer from what is known as the hero syndrome. They go marching into places with real-life technical challenges like rural communities, small hospitals, and barrio schools with chests puffed out, exclaiming “We’re engineers from *insert random University/College* and we’re here to solve your problem for you!” This is exactly how it goes for most engineering projects I know, true story.

But here’s the thing: a three-day immersion will never match the years of experience locals and residents have. They face those challenges every day, so they probably know the most fitting solution, a fix that can easily be adopted given their culture and condition. The biggest insult you can throw their way is to take the helm and steer their boat. Quite possibly, they simply lack the capability to shape up their ideas into an actual product/process. What they need is someone who can realize their solutions, someone who can listen and retell their story. (READ: [OPINION] Putting the ‘community’ back in the enhanced community quarantine)

The same applies when engineering or designing for health care. As a backliner, it would be detrimental to the communication and design process for us engineers to take the lead, more so given the non-ideal online setup of the design sprint. Our limited knowledge and experience with medical processes and culture would have prevented us from making appropriate solutions. Listening to the doctor’s needs became key. Essentially, the entire design process is just a retelling of their story and a strengthening of their narrative. 

Designing for care is designing for diversity

As some of the projects proposed started rolling out, I discovered that healthcare engineering means considering diversity and inclusion without exception. As our team designed and fabricated the “Sanipod: Self-contained Disinfecting Cubicle” alpha prototype, we went through a few (a lot, really) of revisions, particularly on the height and width of the cubicle and the positioning of the spray nozzles.

This is actually nothing new; after all, design is an iterative process. But as I became exceptionally frustrated re-drilling holes and re-positioning the piping system, I began to realize what we were missing. We were always thinking of the AVERAGE. We asked questions like “What is the average height of Filipino males and females? What is the average width of the potential users?” There is nothing wrong about this per se. If truth be told, all engineering and design classes will teach you to always consider the standard user when developing a product.

However, medical products are on an entirely different level. It’s not about accessibility for most; it’s about accessibility for all. If we had designed the Sanipod based on the standard, those with proportions at the extremes would never be able to fit in there. The medical professionals I worked with, Dr. Cathy Co and Dr. Edward Wang, made me realize how limiting my design thinking was and showed me a whole new way of designing for diversity and inclusion. 

Move slow and DO NOT break things

Being a product developer, it is important to move quickly as new products get created every day. I also teach my students that at the initial phase of the ideation process, quantity is more important than quality. “More is always better,” I advise my class. I even try my hardest to make the classroom as accepting of mistakes and bad designs as possible. This way, they will be able to easily identify the best among the rest. We were living by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s now famous motto, “Move fast and break things,” which means to innovate as fast as possible, welcome mistakes, and grow rapidly by taking risks.

This design motto does not apply to the healthcare industry, however. In contrast, it does not allow you to take risks when inventing and innovating. Why? Because in the medical industry, it is always a matter of life and death. Everything, even the smallest details, must be carefully thought of, including how the product can be integrated into hospital operations before letting the product out. Believe it or not, our alpha prototypes were already functional and ready for deployment given the cautious scrutiny of the medical professionals we worked with. This way, I learned that there’s no such thing as “too much care” in healthcare. (READ: 4 new tech solutions deployed by DOST to fight coronavirus)

Finally, working with all these amazing people under the SIBOL team has taught me that designing for healthcare is more demanding than any other sector and industry I’ve had previous experience in. A designer or engineer looking towards a career in the medical industry must charge head-on with an open mind and an optimistic attitude. Recognize that the stakes are always higher — and the potential outcomes, even more so. – Rappler.com

Jason “Pech” Pechardo is a Materials Engineer who teaches Product Development at the University of the Philippines-Diliman. 

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