Products About Blog

Understanding and designing for changing mindsets during a global pandemic

It’s December 2020. When thinking about the last nine months of the pandemic, our lives before COVID-19 feel distant. Our concerns at the beginning of the crisis barely resemble how we’re feeling now. Our fears and anxieties about the well-being of our children, the health of our older relatives, the security of our livelihoods, or whether just going outside is worth the risk, change day-to-day depending on the state of the world. 

We started building the COVID Alert app a few months into this time of uncertainty. As designers and researchers at the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), we’re building this service so it meets the needs of as many Canadians as possible. But in this unprecedented time, the question becomes, how do we design for needs when they are constantly changing? 

Even before COVID-19, we had struggled with some design research methods, such as personas, because they tended to reduce peoples’ dynamic experiences to one static representation. In this moment in particular, we needed a way to understand the spectrum of emotions, attitudes, and experiences of Canadians while acknowledging that people’s perspectives can change based on their day-to-day circumstances. In that search, we found a methodology new to most of us: mindsets. 

What are mindsets?

Mindsets are often used in the private sector to inform design by understanding varying attitudes, behaviours and motivations of users within a particular context. Mindsets are not static and set, but rather fluid and dynamic. When complete, they suggest the different needs people have, while acknowledging that these could shift.  

On a practical level, this methodology often uses two variables to map out a set of axes onto which the mindsets sit. The variables are factors that impact a person’s views or needs. There are four mindsets that sit in each quadrant of the axes. 

A matrix with 4 quadrants. On the “north” and “south” points of the matrix, it reads, “Variable 2”. On the “east” and “west” points, it reads, “Variable 1”. There are 4 circles that read “Mindset” sitting in each quadrant.

How we used mindsets for COVID Alert

We developed our mindsets for COVID Alert based on research collected during the first three months of developing the app. This included two sets of survey responses from a total of 350 people, five rounds of interviews and usability tests, and an analysis of over 200 support requests. Three of us from the team – two researchers and a service designer – reviewed and analyzed these findings to understand the varying perspectives of people who use the COVID Alert app.

Factors affecting mindsets 

In our research, we uncovered several factors that could impact peoples’ experiences of COVID Alert. However, two of them emerged as the primary ones shaping people’s willingness to download COVID Alert: level of trust and level of information seeking

Variable 1: Trust versus distrust

We noticed that people’s level of trust in the government and its ability to address this crisis vary. Many of the people with a high level of trust use the app because they feel it’s their civic duty to protect others. On the other hand, some people are distrusting of the government, which would make them less willing to use a voluntary government service, like the app. 

We used this as the primary x axis.

Variable 2: Seeks information versus does not seek information

Another major trend we noticed was that some people seek out information about the virus and ways to guard against its spread. They have the time and resources to be informed and take that opportunity. On the other end of the spectrum, there are situations where people lack either the resources or interest to learn about COVID-19 and how to stop its spread.

We used this as the primary y axis.

COVID Alert mindsets

A matrix with 4 quadrants. On the “north” point, it reads “Seeks info” and on the “south” points of the matrix, it reads, “Doesn’t Seek info”. On the “east” point it reads, “Trusting” and “west” point, it reads “Distrusting”. Starting from the top left going clockwise, the four different circles in the quadrants are labelled “Cautious”, “Helpful”, “Cooperative” and “Reluctant”.


Value statement

I value my personal safety and the safety of people in my inner circle. I want access to the information that could help me and my family stay safe.


  • Apprehensive
  • Practical
  • Worried

Sense of social responsibility: Moderate ••

Anxiety level: High •••

Reception to using the app: High •••


Value Statement

I value the health and well-being of society. I am concerned about the well-being of others and see a connection between my health and the health of my community.


  • Advocating
  • Compassionate
  • Conscientious

Sense of social responsibility: High •••

Anxiety level: High •••

Reception to using the app: High •••


Value statement

I value my privacy and the ability to choose how my data is shared. I am concerned about the limited effectiveness of following public health guidelines.


  • Cynical
  • Reluctant
  • Suspicious

Sense of social responsibility: Low •

Anxiety level: Low •

Reception to using the app: Low •


Value Statement

I value the opinions and recommendations of others. I may or may not know much about the app. If I do, I think it is a good approach to help stop the spread of COVID-19.


  • Conforming
  • Flexible
  • Trusting

Sense of social responsibility: Moderate ••

Anxiety level: Low •

Reception to using the app: Moderate ••

After mapping out the axes, we drafted the four mindsets that could fit in them. We iterated on these mindsets through analysis of additional survey data and discussions with content designers until we had four separate mindsets for people who use COVID Alert.

People in each of these mindsets approach the app differently. They each have their own motivations and biases that can evolve over time. 

Shifting mindsets

As we mentioned, life changes and people’s mindsets change along with it. My sister’s use of the app illustrates this point. When COVID Alert first came out, she was in what we might call a “reluctant” mindset. She didn’t trust that the app would protect her privacy so she didn’t download it. But at the end of the summer when she needed to start taking public transit again to go to work and became aware of the second wave of the virus, her attitude changed. Because of the changes to her circumstances, she moved from a “reluctant” to a “cautious” mindset. She downloaded the app to protect herself and the people close to her. 

In contrast to design artifacts like personas or use cases, mindsets account for this type of fluidity. They invite us to think about factors that could shift people from one mindset to another. Some of these factors include clarifying information, improving the user interface, and crafting clear marketing messages that address the needs of each mindset. As such, we are focusing these design changes to support shifts in mindsets. 

Always more to learn

Mindsets represent part, but not all of the possible attitudes and feelings that a person could have. We  – as a team – had to narrow down our focus to four common mindsets that are most prevalent right now. We know mindsets will continue to change as the context evolves, just as it has these past few months. Recognizing that these mindsets are not complete, even for this moment, means we will continue to test and refine them over time.

Do you want to be part of this learning experience? Sign up to participate in future research for COVID Alert, and help us ensure we’re meeting your changing needs.