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Risky Business

Breaking Covid transmissions in hospital break area’s

Risky Business is a collaborative project with the Mater hospital. It implements interactive 
seating that uses thought-provoking drawings from local school children to send messages of encouragement to health care staff to maintain social distancing in break time areas, with the aim of breaking Covid transmissions.

The problem

With Covid-19 being rampant across the globe hospitals are ever vigilant to maintain the spread of the virus within hospitals. However one of the key points of transmissions within the hospital isn't wards or medical environments, its actually break areas. This is due to people from different departments getting together at the break to discuss their work, all while eating with no mask on and this is where the virus is spreading.

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A collaborative project
with The Mater Hospital

The team

The team comprised of the Assistant Director of  Infection Prevention & Control in the Mater, Nurse Lead for Innovation in the Mater, both a Service and Medical device designer and myself an Interaction designer. We where tasked with coming up with a solution to tackle Covid transmission in break time areas of the hospital.

Interviews & observation

To get the best understanding of the situation the hospital was dealing with, we took

the opportunity to observe staff interacting with the environments they use to take their

breaks and have their lunch, as shown below.  We also interviewed a series of junior and

senior staff who's perception of the guidelines differed slightly. The staff interviewed

included nurses, occupational therapists, caretaking staff, and doctors, they gave us a walkthrough of how they went about their day and key points of contact they made throughout

the hospital before taking their break in a break area and after they had finished their break.

This allowed us to get an understanding of who was mixing in each environment. From

this we were able to use the information coupled with the observations, to map out key areas

which we wanted to focus on and take finding's which helped us in our concept development.


Seats in open areas are taped off but people remove the tape and sit on top of it. These seats are used by staff for their breaks when canteens are full also.


Nurses kitchen areas are very small and offer little to no ability to socially distance from one another.


Staff don't maintain social distance while sitting at canteen tables while they are eating even with no mask on. They see it as pointless as they will be in close contact once they leave the canteen. 

Findings & Insights


Staff sit close together while on break and disregard guidelines.

Standard social distancing and Covid-19 signage doesn’t work as a barrier to staff on where to sit.

Tape doesn’t work as barrier in open area seating as people remove it to sit down.


Because they want to communicate about personal information and talk privately.

People become more 
desensitized towards the signage as time goes on.

This is because family's assist patients to the hospital and want to sit beside them because they are in the same bubble.


Area of focus

Considering the 1 week time frame we were initially limited to, we decided to focus in on two areas, which were the open seating areas which were used for overflow during break times and the canteen. The canteen was limited to 64 people due to the social distancing restrictions. We aimed to reduce the number of people gathering in these areas so that safe social distancing was carried out while people ate their lunch while not wearing their mask.


How might we   - 

 make health care staff conscious and aware of social distancing guidelines in break areas.

Concept ideation

We started to develop ideas of how we could go about getting people to maintain social distance in these break areas. We didn't want to take an authoritative approach to this as people tend to not like being told what to do. We decided to take a fun casual approach to the problem-solving of this issue, with an aim of using peoples emotions to persuade them to maintain their social distance within break areas.

Sketches before this


We recreated the seating plan of the canteen and tried implementing prototypes to see if they would be feasible to test in the hospital canteen.

We tried using string cups to improve communication, creating barriers to prevent people from sitting down and barriers to stop people from leaning around the current barriers in place.


We tested out interactive seating which would make noise if someone sat on it, coupled with a fun warning message. The aim of this was to draw attention of other colleagues in the canteen and to create a sense of embarrassment so that people wouldnt sit there a second time.

Concept selection / prototyping

After discussing through our concepts with the team at the Mater hospital we settled on testing one of the concepts in the break areas of the hospital. The concept as seen in the image below are seat coverings which would display local primary school children's artwork that would have supportive messages and would clearly state that the seat was closed. We wanted to see if people would sit on the children's art or would they simply feel bad and not do it. An added extra to the concept was the implementation of a pressure alarm fitted under the children's artwork. This would emit a rather loud alarm sound somewhat like a morning alarm and would draw attention to the person sitting on the artwork.


Every second seat is blocked off to maintain social distancing when people are eating, but people still sit in these seats

The sleeve with the children's art is placed on every second seat to encourage people not to sit on them

Some people will still sit on the sleeves and will ignore the children's art and message

If they do sit down on these spaces and pressure pad will trigger an alarm which will draw attention to them

Only when the person gets up will the alarm stop playing and the aim is to prevent people from sitting there again

In context testing

Most people generally hate being the centre of attention, especially in public, and you would think most people would'nt sit on a childs artwork either. Well that's what we wanted to find out. So we set up in the Mater hospital canteen and decided to try some wizard of oz testing with our prototypes.


Wizard of Oz testing

We attached each seat closed sign with the children's art work to a few tables, under each sign we placed a small Bluetooth speaker. If and when a person was to sit down on the childs art work we would play an alarm sound through the speaker and we would only stop when the person got up. After that we would then go have a chat and see what they were feeling and what they thought.

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Speaker under bench

connected to phone

with alarm sound

ready to play


I felt quite embarressed when the noise went off and I kinda want ye to go away now cause I feel everyone is looking at me. Im sorry 


I’d be embarrassed and would probably leave if the noise went off, sure everyone would know I wasn't following the rules if it went off, lets just say I would be aware of where I sit next time

I feel its a less authoritive way of enforcing social distancing. I'd

be mortified if it happened to me

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We would normally sit together, like all four of us. But we didn’t because of the kids’ art, id feel bad if I sat on it 

Community driven final product

The final design would consist of plastic sleeves that's easy to sanitise and that could be fixed to a bench or around a chair in a waiting area. These plastic sleeves would showcase local school children's art with supportive messages for health care workers and would encourage them to keep their distance when

eating without a mask. Some sleeves would be fitted with pressure sensitive  speakers leading to a noise being played if sat on and the person being weary

of where they sit next time out of the embarrassment and attention it may draw. 


The plastic sleeve would slide over the bench and the child art work would display an encouraging message. You wouldn't sit on a childs art work would you ?


A community driven project. The mater foundation would lead school children in boosting moral amongst staff. A fun way to encourage social distancing while eating.


Some sleeves are fitted with pressure alarms which will leave people guessing if the alarm will sound if they sit on it. these could be swapped around to keep people guessing  

Block off communal seating, but display a gallery of children's art work for everyone to enjoy and have a laugh at some of the things they come up with.

Implementation & stakeholders

The project was community driven meaning that the mater hospital had to work with local primary school to develop the artwork.

Mater Hospital

The Mater foundation would manage the cross-collaboration between the local community and the Mater hospital. They would organise for the children's art to be displayed in the hospital.

Mater foundation


Infection prevention & control

Infection control would manage the implementation of the product in the hospital and the maintenance and sanitation of the product.

Community National Schools

Local national schools would create the art and supportive slogans to boost staff morale in a fun meaningful way and would provide them to the hospital for display.


Innovation department

The Innovation department would work closely with all other departments and would manage the development and manufacturing of the product until fitted by the maintenance team in the hospital


After carrying out a number of wizard of oz tests and gathering user feedback it was decided that to maintain social distancing in the break areas, small cheap barrier would be used to prevent people from sitting across from each other preventing people from eating food and therefor needing to take off their mask. These barriers were designed by our team and were laser cut and implemented within the canteen within a week of our testing. Once the barriers were implemented, it was observed that the barriers did prevented people from siting across from each and eating. However peopledi still sit on the edge but because they couldn't eat there they did not take off their mask and treated the area with the same respect as any other location in the hospital.

Although the interactive seating was liked by staff and managment and was seen as a viable option to prevent congregation at tables, it was deemed to be too time

consuming to maintain and develop over a short period of time.

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