Risk Management

You’re thinking about contact tracing wrong

contact tracing

Dear New York, 

As I watch the city and local businesses be devastated by the impact of the virus, I see you making a big mistake in the approach to contact tracing. One that’s already costing us dearly as we ramp up the team reaching out to people who test positive. 

This sort of thing is a common oversight when it comes to technology; we often focus on the “what” and forget the “human behavior” surrounding the what. 

It’s why the US healthcare system bleeds money from missed appointments.

In other words: we could cure cancer, but if people don’t show up for their appointments, it won’t matter as much as it could. 

And with contact tracing, just because you want to call someone to talk about exposure, doesn’t mean they want to (or can) answer.

With the variety of messaging (and messaging APIs) available, you need to pivot to meet your customers in a way your customers want to connect.

Human behavior 

I don’t know about you, but I never answer my phone if I don’t recognize the number. I’m not alone., Especially among the younger population, people prefer texting. 

I talked to one of our executives the other day, and he chuckled. When I shared this idea, he responded: “That’s right, and then a few days later I look at my phone and, wow, nine voicemails.” (We don’t listen to voicemails either… they should be text messages!) 

And, it gets worse because of government inaction on spam callers.

The spam calls got so bad that Apple took action. Apple customers have a setting on their phone that sends unknown callers straight to voicemail. We’ll never get interrupted by people we don’t know, including your contact tracers. 

Importantly, Google has a similar but different capability called screen calling. I use the phrase —the platform informs the experience. We, as technologists supporting business outcomes, can no longer think of “write once, run anywhere” at any level of our solution. We must consider the platform, the modality (voice, touch, AR, etc.), and the persona before understanding the technology parameters. 

Similarly, look at the behavior around phone calls these days. The phone calls start with a quick “ping” on some messaging platform — “you there?” — before the phone is actually dialed.

I don’t know about the etiquette of phone calls these days, but it feels different from when I was younger. When we’d just pick up the phone and dial. 

By shouting at people to answer our phones, you’re fighting against habit and technology. That’s a losing proposition. 

Trust results not anecdotes 

Forget the people who can’t take their phones into work with them. Forget the grumpy people like me who don’t like to be intruded upon by strangers. Forget the busy executives double-timing as parents and homeschool teachers who are triple booked from sunrise to sunset. 

Let’s look at the numbers

Text message confirmations convert 295% more than phone call confirmations, while text response rates are 209% higher than phone call response rates.

It’s undeniable, if you were selling stuff, you’d incorporate messaging into your communication flow to improve success. 


  • What if before I went to bed, I could ask, “Hey Alexa, has my family been exposed to COVID today?”
  • What if I woke up in the morning and saw a text that said I was exposed and was given the option to schedule a time to speak to someone? 
  • What if we could understand the people we’re communicating with and make it easy?
  • We’d get better results. 
  • Why can’t we?

Processes vs. experiences 

So often the mindset is still that of “process.” What workflow does the system support and then organize around the process? 

Instead of adapting the process to the human, we expect the human to adapt to the process. 

That works ok when you control the human, like when a person is forced into a way of working because of corporate IT. 

Unreasonable demands don’t work when customers have a choice. Like the choice to simply not answer their phone. 

I recommend that states like New York who are implementing contact tracing stop thinking about systems and start thinking about experiences. 

Let me share how I do that in case it’s helpful. 

There are three things to consider when creating great experiences:

  1. The persona,
  2. The moment in the journey,
  3. The job to be done.

Pick a persona, find a moment in the customer journey where there’s unnecessary friction, and deeply understand the job that the persona is hiring you to do. 

Go find that person where they are and deliver a solution. 

This is hard because there’s so much software to create. It’s not as hard as curing cancer, but just as impactful on the results if it’s done right. 

That’s why an API-first solution, built on top of an API platform that ensures privacy and security is critical. I remember when NYC first opened up its subway APIs and all the innovation that occurred. They even advertised them on the subway!

A concerned New Yorker


Two days or so after writing this post, I noticed the following two tweets on exactly this topic. It’s not just me.

The first, Dr. Fauci talking about how black and brown communities don’t pick up phone calls from random government callers:

and the second a person like myself who’s thinking, ‘Who answers calls from unknown numbers?! Send a text.’:


International Interoperability of COVID-19 Contact Tracing Apps: A view of goals & opportunities.