The Importance of Design and UX in Patient-Facing Healthcare Technology

Last week we hosted the first event of 2017 in our Executive Leadership Roundtable series. This year we are holding one event for each of our 5 Impact Sector categories, and we started with health. The topic this time was on the importance of user experience when it comes to patient-facing technology, something that is very near and dear to us at DevMynd.

Our panelists this time were senior leaders from: BrightPink, Outcome Health (formerly ContextMedia), NextLevel Health, University of Chicago Medical, Healthbox, and Rally Health. The conversation was far-ranging and insightful but a few key points came out that I’d like to share.

Design for the Audience

This one is obvious and universal, all good product teams take the time and care to consider their audience as completely as possible. But, when you’re looking at an environment as complex, sensitive, and emotional as healthcare, this laser focus on audience becomes nothing short of mission critical.

Developing a strong set of user personas is key to ensuring that we are designing for our users. In healthcare related products this goes beyond mere demographics. A few attributes were pointed out as essential to understanding a patient’s response to a product or interface.

  • Human factors – considering the ergonomics that might be unique to a patient’s situation, mobility issues, poor or altered vision, cognitive impairment, and low dexterity can all impede the communication of data or the level of interaction that is possible without frustration.
  • Family context – the family is often the first support system available to a patient and considering this context is not only important when making design choices for the patient themselves but can open up new opportunities to involve a wider group to support the desired outcomes.
  • Emotionality – when emotions are high our ability to think clearly and critically is diminished. For products which surround conditions causing a high degree of stress, the emotional state of the user should be considered.

Providers Are Users Too

Another point that was made here is that providers are users too. One panelist mentioned a study that explored the amount of time ED providers spent interacting with an EMR versus with direct patient contact. Astoundingly, the study found that 43% of their time on average is spent on a screen as opposed to 28% with patients. And, on average a provider will perform 4,000 clicks in their EMR during a 10-hour rotation.

When developing systems which assist providers, it is essential to consider the usability and speed with which they can accomplish a task or access data. It may not be a patient-facing interface, but it is one which affects the patient experience.

Education Alone is Not Enough

The topic of education came up numerous times during the evening, and surprisingly there was quite a bit of debate here among the panelists. Some believe that patient education, while important, is not the most effective way to motivate patients. Others believed that education is one of the biggest gaps in healthcare today.

Filtering through the comments back and forth, my personal conclusion is that education is important but it cannot be the sole way to motivate a patient to manage their care. Patients with diabetes, for example, can be very well informed about the risks of not managing their blood sugar carefully and consistently. But the evidence seems to suggest that education alone does not always compel action on the patient’s part.

Education is a foundational element of promoting behavior change but apps, medical devices, and patient engagement products need to “force” action. The thoughtful use of gamification, notifications, group challenges, feedback to doctors, and doctor-patient interaction are just some of the ways to encourage behavior change.

Good Data Is Vital to Success

The need for good, clean, and insight-rich data is always a key to success in steering a product. For the healthcare sector, this need carries with it the added requirement of accuracy and timeliness. There are two areas where the quality of data are key in healthcare:

  • Product operation – if your product uses data to perform its function, for example giving feedback on health metrics to a patient, obviously the validity and speed of that data are essential. You can’t make recommendations on old or inaccurate data when someone’s health is at stake.
  • Product management – in healthcare, data can be especially important for guiding the development of a product. Learning which features drive desired outcomes and what UI elements improve engagement is helping inform the future direction of the product incrementally.

Avoid the “Deep Engagement” Fallacy

One of the panelists made a really insightful statement that I think is applicable to a wider set of contexts but it no less applies to healthcare. He observed that product managers and designers often talk about the “deep engagement” that they want their customers to have with their products. But, when was the last time you wanted deep engagement with your insurer, for example? Probably never.

While we, as product owners, want our customers to feel engaged with our product, that isn’t always what the customer wants or even needs. Sometimes, they’re just trying to accomplish a task and what is more desirable is short, and possibly even fairly superficial interactions. Reducing the noise in our products can help users focus on the most important piece of data or the most immediate action they need to perform. This may, in turn, make it easier for them to want to do it in the first place.

The power of extremely quick engagements, perhaps driven by notifications, are likely more effective than more drawn out workflows. And modality here is a way to potentially achieve these kinds of brief but meaningful interactions. For example, integrating with a wearable such as a smartwatch and engaging the user only in the briefest but salient moments can induce more action with fewer moving pieces.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) techniques are becoming ever more accessible and powerful. Applying these tools in creative ways in healthcare can unlock new potential in latent data and dramatically improve decision support for providers. Several of the panelists mentioned AI/ML as something they see as an underused asset.

Predictive analytics, population health, and diagnosis confirmation are just a few of the areas where AI can open up the possibilities. And, with products like IBM Watson Health and similar software-as-a-service (SaaS) products this powerful technology is easier to integrate than ever before.

With AI, much like “big data”, the key is knowing what questions you want to answer and what insights you want to develop. As powerful as machine learning can be, it isn’t magic, it needs to be directed at the right problem.

There is a lot going on in health IT and software, and truly amazing things are on the horizon. A focus on solid design and user experience is critical products that support the most valued of assets, our health.

JC is the founder and CEO of DevMynd and leads the company’s human-centered strategy practice.