Lessons from building digital platforms for the masses

Chan Chi Ling, Deputy Director and Senior Product Manager, of Open Government Products, remembers the day that she was given the mission of launching vaccine.gov.sg, Singapore’s Covid-19 vaccine registration portal.

She and her team had the herculean task of building a user-friendly and inclusive online platform with the goal of vaccinating 80 percent of the 5 million-strong Singapore population, in just two weeks.

“It was Christmas Eve 2020, when Singapore had finally received its first doses of vaccine after a year-long wait”, says Ms Chan.

Singapore’s first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines is unloaded at Changi Airport on Dec 21, 2020. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo / CNA)

She remembers “falling off her chair” after being told that she had to build the website in two weeks. “But I got up and I was like, let’s talk. Let’s see what we can do in two weeks,” she says.

On top of rolling the website out in such a short time, it needed to control crowds, so that people could get vaccinated in a safe and organised manner.

The scarcity of the vaccines meant they had to minimise any wastage. The vaccine programme had to prioritise front-liners and seniors as the first to receive their doses.

She recounts this memorable day, on top of sharing her insights and lessons from designing some of Singapore’s most widely-used digital platforms, at When your customer is everyone: lessons from building technology for public good, held in March for the Greater community at The Great Room.

What does it mean to use technology for the greater good?

While tech companies seek to improve lives, sometimes, it doesn’t always translate into positive outcomes for the everyday person.

Chan witnessed this first-hand as a student in Stanford University. San Francisco, home to many of the world’s top tech companies, was experiencing skyrocketing rents due to gentrification. 

“With a lack of affordable housing, many people who couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco had to move out of the city, and others experienced homelessness”, says Chan.

It was really stark for me to see how, in one of the wealthiest countries or wealthiest cities in the world, there’s also a general sense of indifference towards the local community,” she says.

Wanting to deliver real impact to the society, Ms Chan joined Open Government Products a year-and-a-half ago.

Open Government Products is a team of 110 engineers, product managers, designers, policymakers and product operation specialists working in government. She describes the organisation as a ‘modern tech company that works on public sector problems”.

Products by Open Government Products

Open Government Products’ mission is to build technology for public good. From building better apps for citizens, to automating the internal operations of government agencies, it aims to help governments digitally transform and be more responsive to the needs of the public.

As senior product manager, she drove the creation of no-frills digital portals such as Parking.sg and ScamShield, platforms that provide specific services to the Singapore public.

For instance, her team built the Covid-19 Management Backbone to store all Covid-related health records, and which enabled people to retrieve them via TraceTogether, HealthHub and share verified records with organisations and employers via sync.gov.sg.

Open Government Products also shares its tools with the public as a way to assist other governments in digitising their services, via its open source software.

The Vietnamese government, for example, is looking to deploy Open Government Products’ digital form solution FormSG to collect data securely from residents and businesses.

Chan is also the co-founder and chief operating officer of Better.sg, a volunteer-run charity that creates digital tools for societal good.

Having a sense of what a great product is

Chan polled the audience on what they think are good and bad products. The audience named some examples, of which the bad ones range from popular but user-unfriendly e-commerce sites, to clunky digital banking apps. Netflix was unanimously named as an example of a good product.

Chan notes that experiencing not-so-good products and exceptional products, and knowing the difference between the two, is the first step to building a good product. 

A similar principle extends to teams too, as a skilled team is behind every acclaimed product.

If you have experienced working with a good team, you know instinctively when you’ve encountered a not-so-good working environment,” she explains.

Keep it simple

When there’s uncertainty, you want to keep things simple and not complicate things,” says Chan.

Chan and her team wanted to keep vaccine.gov.sg basic and practical. It was a challenging exercise to build the platform, as she had to rethink her definition of what makes a great app given time constraints.

It’s a little counterintuitive, because you come up with a lot of good-to-have features when you brainstorm. But when you really drill down to what must happen, you need to let go of some of the things that are good,” she says.

Vaccine.gov.sg directed users through the registration process, by getting them to fill in their biodata, to letting them know when is their turn, to getting them to choose two available dates and venues for their first and second vaccines.

Chan has to turn down requests such as bookings for couples to access vaccinations at the same time, and do away with queue numbers to keep the registration process straightforward.

Always test with real users before launch

“This step is easy to gloss over for many product developers, but it is also the most important,” says Chan. “Ultimately, it is users who have the best insights into what works for them, not the developers or even their management,” she adds.

Chan described the testing phase of vaccine.gov.sg, two days before launch. She went to a community centre near her home, and crashed a health screening exercise to test the platform.

“A volunteer and I set up a booth there and told this community centre staff to direct all the seniors after their health screening and checkups to the booth. So I had a captive audience where I could test the product with,” she says.

Image Credit: GovInsider

Some examples of user feedback for the app include senior folks not understanding the word “immunocompromised”, or not receiving the one-time password during registration. Or explaining why the first and second dose needed to be spaced 21 days apart.

Chan’s team was on standby to implement any changes as quickly as possible. The team went back to the drawing board several times to improve the app.

“These nitty gritty details are what makes a good product”, says Chan. “Directing users to vaccine locations with more supply, and including a phone number to call a clinic of their choice to get vaccinated there, are some of the additions made”.

Design for inclusion

Chan knows that even the best products are not perfect, and that you cannot please everyone.

As much as vaccine.gov.sg was designed for the masses, there are pockets of society that have been left out.

One of these pockets is seniors who don’t have smartphones, or who don’t know how to use a smartphone.

In response, the health ministry mobilised silver generation ambassadors, as well as People’s Association members, to go from door-to-door to help seniors book their appointments.

This has resulted in an 87 percent vaccination rate in seniors above 70 by 2021. It was an important step towards healing from the pandemic, as seniors were more vulnerable to the Covid’s impact.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, has vaccinated just 15 percent of its elderly citizens, which has led to outbreaks of the virus in elderly communities and an overwhelmed healthcare system.

Solve the problem

To Chan, building the tech isn’t enough. The solution needs to translate into real impact, and users need to be better off after using the product.

As Singapore went the endemic route, infections surged and the Ministry of Health was overwhelmed with calls from Covid positive people, who weren’t clear what the next step was in their recovery.

The complicated procedures and processes of home recovery meant many positive cases were confused about what to do.

Chan’s team was mobilised again to build an information portal called Living with Covid, that explained to users the steps involved in home recovery.

By using a checker that asks questions like age and vaccination status, the user will be given instructions unique to their profile.

This resolved miscommunication issues and restored transparency among those who tested positive.

Inverting the pyramid

Chan reiterates the importance of listening to user feedback, as it is them who should have the most influence on the product.

In fact, she calls the users the real “bosses” of the organisation, with senior staff supporting the development of the product according to users’ needs.

The role of management is to support the team who are closest to the customers, to ensure they are delivering good results,” she says.

As part of their research, Chan and her team make field trips to gather on-the-ground information and feedback. 

From government agencies such as the National Environment Agency, the Central Provident Fund, to nursing homes, her team studies the information carefully to formulate their products according to real-life intel.

“What you deliver at the end of the process of that month is not slide decks, but a real demo that works,” says Chan.

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