Vaccine passports and digital Covid passes hold the key to reopening travel and returning to normality. We take a look at the options available now.
As international travel makes its way cautiously back onto the agenda for many of us and the return to normal life continues, we’ve been thinking about the technologies that will make it all possible.
The COVID ‘vaccine passport’ app space is crowded, convoluted, and complex, with individual countries, regions, international associations and private companies launching competing apps with differing interfaces, technology and uses.
These apps were developed at speed to meet a need that none of us could have foreseen a mere 18 months ago. Digital proof of double-vaccinated status — or proof of a negative test result or natural immunity — holds the key to everything from getting on a plane or attending a professional conference, to setting foot in your local coffee shop or getting a haircut, depending on where you live.
With such wide-ranging uses, varied user profiles, and rapid development timelines, how successful have the various solutions been in terms of the user experience (UX) they offer?
In the EU, all citizens and residents will be able to generate a verified Digital COVID Certificate that is recognised and accepted for travel between all EU member states. The pass is available free of charge for all citizens and can be accessed in various formats — a digital pdf, paper copy, or via various apps developed by individual countries.
In France, the government announced in April 2021 that the existing contact-tracing app, known as TousAntiCovid, or “all against Covid” when translated, would be updated to include functionality to demonstrate vaccination status. Against a backdrop of rising cases in the country, the “pass sanitaire” is now required for entrance to bars, cafes, theatres, cinemas, museums, hospitals, on public transport and at all events attended by 50 people or more.
There has been widespread resistance to the idea of introducing a COVID health pass across France. A poll in March 2021 showed that 54% of people were opposed, and tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against the scheme in July 2021.
App store rating: 3.9/5.0
Developed by: Gouvernement Français
- Onboarding: The registration process is easy as it does not require users to create an account. The onboarding focuses on the benefits of the app, and on data protection.
- UI: Warm and welcoming UI; easy to know what action to take; easy to navigate; modern feeling and visually appealing with integrated illustrations and graphic flourishes
- Noteworthy features: Bluetooth connection to detect other users phones in vicinity; COVID monitoring; Help Service; offers users up to date data, news and helpful information on the Covid situation and development of the pandemic.
- Data security: Makes it very clear that the app does not track your location, or your identity. This is explained on the onboarding, the App store and on the actual app, perhaps reflecting the wider concerns amongst the French population.
Italian app, Immuni — translating as ‘immune’ in English — was developed and launched in 2020 as the country’s COVID contact tracing app with functionality including reporting test results, contact tracing and alerting via Bluetooth, and offering general information and advice about Covid-19. In 2021, a new feature was added to allow users to access and display their ‘EU digital COVID certificate’ via the app.
So far, it has been downloaded 13,7 million times. There are also active social media accounts — for example, on Instagram — where information about how to use the app and how the technology works are shared regularly.
App store rating: 3.4/5.0
Developed by: Ministero della Salute
- Onboarding: Easy to register as it does not require the users to create an account. The onboarding focuses on the benefits of the app, and the data protection element. It also informs you how to protect yourself from scam messages.
- UI: Warm, welcoming, and clear to know what action to take; easy to navigate; modern and illustrated; gives the option to see how the app works.
- Noteworthy features: Tracing APP: Allows the user to select 3 countries they plan to visit so that they can help contain the spread but also alert the country and the users; Available in both English and Italian
- Data security: Makes clear that the app does not track your location or your identity and also provides information on how you can protect your device from scammers.
- UX suggestions: Give more information on what type of scams you may be susceptible to and how to protect yourself; the wording for the Tracing APP could be improved
In Germany, residents are given a paper pass when they have their second vaccination which has a QR code included to scan. Downloading the CovPass app and scanning the QR code will load up the relevant personal vaccine data.
The app had issues in mid-July around data security and potential “weak points” in accessing the German Pharmacists’ Association web portal, which is used to generate the certificate. An investigation by business daily Handelsblatt found that forged documents could be used to generate ‘guest access’ for a non-existent pharmacist on the portal and use this access to secure certificates for unauthorised third parties.
App store rating: 3.0/5.0
Developed by: Robert Koch-Institut
- Onboarding: the onboarding process appears to be straightforward. It highlights what the product does, and takes you directly to scanning the code.
- UI: Minimalistic design with clear highlighting of calls to action and important information. Simple, but effective
- Noteworthy features: Three types of users can access this app — those who recovered from the covid, those who have been tested negative and those who had the vaccination; Apple Wallet integration
In England, after various discussions about the use of third-party ‘vaccine passport’ apps and international solutions, it was decided that the existing NHS (National Health Service) app would be repurposed to provide a digital Covid certificate allowing people to use their smartphone to prove they have either been vaccinated, recently tested negative for Covid, or have natural immunity through previous recovery from the virus.
Whilst the Covid-19 vaccine is not compulsory for British citizens, the government recognises that businesses and other organisations can legally ask customers for proof of COVID status to access their premises or events if they are compliant with equalities legislation. A report published in July 2021 stated that ‘essential’ services and retailers should not however be using certification as a condition of entry.
App store rating: 3.0/5.0
Developed by: NHS Digital
- Onboarding: the NHS is vulnerable to identity theft, which is apparent in the extra precaution they take with the number of steps that the users have to go through to create an account. In doing so the onboarding process becomes lengthy and potentially complicated if you do not have the required details to hand. Users have to provide a lot of information (NHS Number, Date of Birth, Postcode), and each question is split into different steps.
- UI: the design is not the most visually appealing — we agree with the sentiments of one of the reviews in the App Store that the app feels like a website. A lot of copy/reading occupying the interface
- Noteworthy features: Apple Wallet Integration; PDF and email COVID Pass available to export.
- UX suggestions: Making the app feel like a native app would simplify and improve the UX. Improving the information hierarchy would also be beneficial.
In the USA, there is no federal solution to the COVID pass issue and states and cities are being left to develop their own apps and technology. The Biden administration has declined to back a national app and the issue has become highly politically contentious with 15 Republican states limiting or banning vaccine passports via legislation or executive orders.
The majority of people in the US are therefore still relying on the paper vaccination records issued by the CDCP as proof of their vaccination status, with the exception of those in a handful of states which have pushed forward with the launch of their own digital solutions.
New York, USA
In New York, residents will be required to show proof of vaccination status before entering indoor restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and other venues from 16 August 2021. This can be done using your paper vaccine card, a copy of your official vaccination record, the city’s NYC Covid Safe app, or the state’s Excelsior Pass.
The Excelsior Pass is New York State’s vaccine passport app that launched in March as the first government-issued pass in the US. It’s been downloaded by more than 2.5 million residents so far. The app works by linking with a person’s vaccination record and automatically generating a custom QR code 15 days after the date of the second vaccination.
The Excelsior app is built by IBM and is a customised version of the IBM Digital Health Pass that uses blockchain technology to allow individuals to share their health status through an encrypted digital wallet.
App store rating: 2.8/5.0
Developed by: New York State Office of Information Technology Services
- Onboarding: You have to sign up via the website in order to access the QR code. This might cause problems and it creates a fragmented user journey
- UI: Simple interface, in that it’s just designed to scan your QR code. The way the content is presented however is a bit tight, which could lead to accessibility issues.
- Noteworthy features: Apple Wallet integration; lets users upload photos of their vaccination card or any negative test result.
- Data security: Users have to provide name, zip code, date of birth, and vaccination has to be done in New York State.
- UX suggestions: Users state that they feel like it's just a confirmation pass to enable them to go to restaurants and events. The app could run with this and take the initiative of being an aid app for New Yorkers. Also, it's only for New York State.
NYC Covid Safe
The city’s new NYC Covid Safe pass is a very simple app that allows users to take pictures of their paper vaccine card and store it within the app.
It does not require any verification of the paper document to ensure it represents a real card. Questions have subsequently been raised about the security of the app, with one local resident replying to local politician, Mark D. Levine’s celebratory launch Tweet with a successfully uploaded photo of their cat in place of a vaccine card:
App store rating: 3.1/5.0
Developed by: Department of Information Technology And Telecomm
- UI: The app doesn't follow Apple human interface guidelines and instead uses a clunky UI design.
- Noteworthy features: Apple Wallet; lets users upload photos of their vaccination card or any negative test result
- Data security: No security checker
- UX suggestions: Since users can upload documents by themselves, we would suggest implementing a checking system to validate the legitimacy of those documents. We’d also suggest adjusting the design so that it follows Apple's human interface guidelines.
As well as the solutions being developed by individual states, governments and countries, there are a number of private providers who have launched vaccine passport apps designed to be used and recognised internationally.
Motivations for these private providers vary. Some have been developed by philanthropic organisations with the aim of reopening the world and returning to pre-pandemic habits, and others have been funded by trade bodies — such as the International Air Travel Association (IATA) — with specific commercial outcomes in mind. Many companies are also developing internationally recognised solutions that can be sold to other organisations or governments to brand and personalise — IBM and VST Enterprises, among others.
CommonPass is the vaccine verification platform developed by the Commons Project — a digital services nonprofit — along with the World Economic Forum and other organisations. It allows users to share their current COVID status in the hope that they can safely return to travel, work, school and life.
It collects a user’s COVID-19 status and verifies his or her identity. It then produces a unique QR verification code that airlines and countries can rely on to ensure that a traveler does not have the virus. The makers of the app say CommonPass lets travelers access their lab results and vaccination records.
App store rating: 2.2/5.0
Developed by: The Commons Project
- Onboarding: at the first step, you are prompted to enter an invitation code (from an airline or destination), or alternatively you can click ‘Continue without code’. The onboarding process without code is quick and simple.
- UI: minimalistic without information crowding the interface
- Noteworthy features: give details about where you are travelling and what you need to have when traveling to a certain destination — e.g. QR code, face mask, or the need to self-isolate. Users can create multiple passes for different destinations or trips.
- Data security: mentions within the onboarding that they do not control your data as it’s nonprofit software. They clearly state that they will not track users’ locations, share PII (Personal Identifiable Information) with third parties, or require account creation to use.
- UX Suggestions: does the job!
IATA Travel Pass
The IATA Travel Pass was developed by the International Air Transport Association — the global trade association for airlines. The app helps governments verify the authenticity of vaccine and covid test certificates and the identity of those presenting them and aims to streamline international air travel to countries all over the world.
For passengers, the mobile app helps store and manage verified certifications for COVID tests or vaccines. It also lets passengers find accurate local information on travel, testing, and vaccine requirements for their trip, and contains a directory of approved testing centres and labs at their city of departure.
Multiple international airlines are currently trialling the IATA Travel Pass app with their staff and travelers — Malaysia Airlines, Emirates, Avianca, Vueling, Qantas, Air New Zealand, British Airways, Air France, and others.
(graphic above from IATA website)
App store rating: 1.9/5.0
Developed by: International Air Transport Association
- Onboarding: users need to register for the app in order to access it.
- UI: the design could benefit from some visual design updates.
- Noteworthy features: Enables passengers to find testing centers and labs at their departure and/or arrival location that can conduct COVID-19 tests in accordance with the type of test required for their journey.
- Data security: mentions in the onboarding that they do not control your data as it’s a non profit software
- UX Suggestions: in feedback, users frequently mention having problems when scanning their passport which is something that should be explored. Loading issues are also common.
Developed by British cyber technology company, VST Enterprises, the VPassport app provides a single app to track a multitude of health related information — vaccination status, recent tests, travel and boarding pass details, and event details. It also includes a built-in contract tracing tool and a service for booking appointments at local testing centres.
A USP of the V-Health Passport app is that it avoids QR codes — which it says can be faked and duplicated easily — as a means of certifying test results. Its technology is already in use in 80+ countries and VSTE has partnered with a number of private companies who are able to rebrand the app for their own use.
App store rating: 3.9/5.0
Developed by: VST Enterprises
- Onboarding: the onboarding process was more complicated than alternative apps in that users are required to create an account, validate their email address, upload personal information such as date of birth, postcode, ethnicity, and a photo.
- UI: The interface is simple and does what it is supposed to do without interfering with other features or actions.
- Noteworthy features: distance scanning (from 2m distance); patented ‘VCode’ technology.
- Data security: Asks for a lot of data, however, does not inform the users directly how they are being protected or if their data is being shared. In order for users to find out more about it, they are referred to lengthy privacy policies and legal documentation.
- UX Suggestions: The interface could be improved — there is a lot of empty blue space that is not being utilised (see the notification page and the profile page). For the profile page, they could provide more detail such as current health information/status.
Other international vaccine apps:
Our favourites: Ranked
- TousAntiCovid (France)
- Immuni (Italy)
- NHS (England)
- IATA TravelPass
- CovPass (Germany)
- Excelsior (New York, USA)
- NYC Covid Safe (New York, USA)
Graphite's top recommendations for building a successful Covid passport app
Simplicity is key
These apps have to work for everyone, from ‘digital native’ Gen Z’ers through to retirees who may be less comfortable with new technologies. The ability to prove vaccine status, immunity, or a negative test result is something that will be required of people of all backgrounds. Therefore, the technology has to be accessible in order to avoid being discriminatory in nature and creating a situation where people are excluded from aspects of modern life due to struggling to use an app.
Be transparent when it comes to data
A key concern for wide sectors of the population around the increasing prevalence of Covid vaccine passport apps is data security. Apps and solutions that are upfront about what data they require and how and data will be used help to build trust with the user from the outset.
Convey trust through clear and professional design
Although simplicity and usability is the number one priority, this shouldn’t come at the cost of strong design. App providers can convey trust with a clear and professional look, while being friendly to help users feel comfortable and safe. Whilst unnecessary flourishes should be avoided, a defined visual identity can be achieved with the right fonts, colour palettes, layouts, and informative illustration.
Must do what it says on the tin
The implications of vaccine passport apps not working are potentially huge and likely to evoke a strong emotional response from the user — a missed family wedding due to not being able to board a flight, or being unable to attend a ticketed event when the appropriate pass cannot be generated.
It is essential that vaccine apps — however basic — function as they say they will. Providers should listen to all user feedback and ensure bugs and improvements are actioned quickly.
Make the most of the opportunity to share important information en masse
Vaccine passport apps offer a great opportunity to provide helpful information on the pandemic — local and international regulation, the latest data, and guidelines about keeping safe.
Including this kind of information alongside the basic functionality to prove vaccine status — as with TousAntiCovid and CommonPass — can help users feel like they are part of the wider solution, rather than simply using a tracking app. It reinforces the ‘why’ and offers a quick way of disseminating important, up-to-date information.