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How Korean mobile apps are making COVID-19 resources more accessible

This review is a bit of a departure from the norm (but then again, so many things are these days). The following UX is good, yes. But more importantly, it’s doing good. Some of the experiences below aren’t perfect—but the developers and designers behind them worked late nights to roll these updates out within days. We think the results are pretty impressive. 

South Korea has been widely praised for its response to the novel coronavirus. One way the country has flattened the curve is through comprehensive and rapid testing: They began testing early and have tested over 357,896 people to date—or 1 in every 170 people. 

Another is by retracing the movement of infected persons down to the minute—and making that data available to the public so that anyone exposed knows to go get tested themselves. 

They’ve also leveraged their local tech industry to help manage the COVID-19 outbreak, and make public health resources more accessible. The government is even providing up-to-date mask inventory data as an open API, which developers from a number of apps are using to help people locate stocked pharmacies.

For this review, we're going to take a closer look at how Korean tech giants Naver and Kakao updated their apps in response to COVID-19. We'll also look at the Seoul city government’s mobile website, which includes detailed and up-to-date data in an accessible and transparent format.

Let's begin.

KakaoMap’s mask distributor search

Kakao, the company behind South Korea’s most popular messaging app, KakaoTalk, owns a number of transportation apps. KakaoMaps—and its main competitor Naver Map—is South Korea’s answer to Google Maps (which is not granted access to South Korea’s map data and therefore doesn’t work particularly well in the country). 

KakaoMap updated their map using the government’s open API. The change was pushed through quickly, but it doesn't feel hurried—the modal announcing the new mask distributor search feature is well-designed, and the feature itself looks polished and works smoothly.

Here’s that new feature modal (more of a PSA, in this case):

kakaomap coronavirus covid 19 mask distributor search in-app announcment

KakaoMaps has a pretty decent English language version, but this message shows up in Korean regardless of language settings. A rough translation for the curious:

Subheader: I need a mask.
Header: Check the mask sellers and inventory around me!
Microcopy: (A bit about how KakaoMap's mask search function pulls from the open API)
CTA: Check nearby mask sales outlets

After users dismiss the modal, they’re taken to the main maps screen. See that button at the top? Clicking “Official Mask Distributor” populates the map with the locations of pharmacies. 

kakaomap official mask distributor pharmacy finder

Selecting a pharmacy pulls up more details, notably how many masks are left in stock. Since there is a mask shortage in South Korea (where it’s long been common practice to wear masks when ill), sales are being rationed by birth year. For example, you can see in the screenshot below that anyone whose birth year ends in 1 or 6 can buy 2 masks per person on Mondays.

KakaoMaps does a great job of conveying this critical info clearly. And, luckily for any foreigners living in country, this vital information is translated into English. 

kakaomaps mask search pharmacy information coronavirus mask ration

Honorable mention: Kakao T’s touchless payment reminder

As noted earlier, Kakao operates a number of apps—including taxi-hailing app Kakao T

Upon login, Kakao T users were recently shown a small modal reminding them to avoid paying with cash or card and to opt for touchless payment (common in Korea) instead. Riders were also asked to wear a mask for the safety and comfort of the driver. 

Thanks to the friendly graphics, this public health announcement feel less alarming and more like a gentle reminder.

kakao t taxi hailing app coronavirus in-app mob

Naver’s mask distributor and coronavirus testing center search

Naver is South Korea’s largest search engine. Like Kakao, Naver swiftly moved to update its UI in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, although their approach differs notably in places.

Naver Map also includes a mask distributor search function, although the experience differs a bit depending on how you access the map.

In the Naver Map mobile app, users need to search “마스크” ("mask" in Korean). This search then populates the map with pharmacy locations, which can be viewed as a list sorted by inventory:

naver map masks pharmacy search how to find covid masks with naver search

It’s pretty good, but it's not as easy to see which pharmacies have masks in stock from the map view.

However, there is more than one way to view Naver’s map. The other way is via the main Naver app, which serves as a portal to all of Naver’s offerings.  

Here’s what the home screen looks like these days:

naver come coronavirus statistics button

See that little virus chart icon below the search bar? (Translation of associated copy: "Check the status of confirmed people by region.") Clicking on that banner brings you to Naver’s hub for COVID-19 information.

From that screen (which we’ll look at in just a minute), users can access a mobile web version of Naver Maps. We like this version better, because it shows users the locations of pharmacies with mask inventory at a glance:

naver mobile web mask search

Users can also quickly search for coronavirus screening centers and hospitals using the same method:

naver korea coronavirus testing center search

Naver’s integrated coronavirus statistics 

But Naver doesn’t just show where you can buy masks and get tested. They also provide up-to-date statistics on the current state of the outbreak:

naver news coronavirus statistics mobile app

Wondering what those stats are? From left to right: confirmed patient (red), under observation (orange), recovered (lit. out of isolation) (blue), deceased (black). 

This at-a-glance information may not be comforting on its own, but it’s this sort of transparent reporting on the situation that has helped South Korea tackle the outbreak. 

Users who want more information can go beyond this bird’s eye view—clicking on any part of the map redirects users to local government websites with more detailed information. 

Seoul government’s coronavirus statistics reporting

Of particular note is the official government website of Seoul. In addition to a wealth of public health resources—like a detailed explanation of social distancing—their website includes coronavirus statistics that update in real time.

Interestingly, the design team seems to have made some changes over the past week or so, opting for a lighter color scheme. Perhaps they decided it felt less ominous.

seoul government website coronavirus covis 19 statistics

This screen includes national data, as well as detailed information about local cases. This information may even be too detailed—phone tracking has allowed officials to trace patients’ movements down to the minute, but this has led to a number of privacy complaints within the country as this information is made public, albeit anonymously.

Whether or not the rights of the individual supersede the needs of the public in times of crisis is a weightier question than we’re prepared to answer. So we won’t review that portion of the Seoul government website (ethics aside, it doesn't have particularly good UX anyway!). 

But regardless of all that, the Seoul government website does do a fantastic job of presenting a whole lot of data in an easy-to-read format. (And hats off to the tireless design team for whipping up some unexpectedly delightful imagery to add style to the substance.)

Leveraging software for the greater good

The experiences highlighted above are just a few examples of the ways global software companies have responded to this unprecedented crisis.

These features and updates were rolled out at lightning speed. No doubt the product teams behind them worked tirelessly to push out features that have little to do with their bottom line. 

The results are compelling examples of the way technology can be leveraged for good—and how small changes can make a big difference to an app experience. 

And we think that makes them all really good UX.