Designing and improving the UX of digital products for healthcare

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Healthcare UX is a potentially life-saving field, yet design is still far from having a seat at the table in the medical sector.

10 min read

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Design has had a massive impact on the success of many organizations, especially tech companies. However, there are still plenty of sectors where design doesn’t have a seat at the table yet. Healthcare is one of them.

In healthcare, change isn’t embraced as much as in other industries. It comes more slowly, partly because it can have serious implications on the health of millions of people, and the user experience in some areas hasn’t changed in decades. Healthcare products also have the tendency to be very technical and scientific, and often don’t take the people interacting with systems or processes into account enough, from doctors to nurses to patients. Then there are privacy issues, and questions around how data is handled and what recommendations and insights a user can receive. As a result, doctors are spending a lot less time with patients and more time battling inefficient medical systems.

“It’s an honour to work on products that can improve the lives and outcomes of patients facing some of the most difficult times in their lives,” points out Barbara Spanton, senior manager for user experience at Varian Medical Systems. “But the reality of working on these deeply impactful products is full of obstacles. This work often exists in sensitive domains, which are slow, regulated, and involve all the legacy and integration baggage you might imagine.”

Despite the challenges, there are also huge opportunities in designing for this highly-specialized domain. A better user experience is urgently needed. In an ideal scenario it can save lives. But it’s also needed because some significant change is happening: health is no longer confined to the walls of the doctor’s office. The web has empowered people to manage their health themselves more than ever before, making it critical to get the UX of digital health products right.

“Healthcare is an incredibly competitive and fast-moving sector,” says Andy Thornton, design strategy consultant at user experience design consultancy Clearleft. “The ability to take advantage of emerging technology and create services and user experiences of exemplary quality is crucial for adoption and retention of users, more so than perhaps in any other sector right now.”

For this article, we talked to some of the world’s leading designers and thought leaders in the field who are actively working on making a difference in healthcare UX. They cover both the challenges and the opportunities of designing for medical care, and explain how UX design can benefit a space where it’s traditionally been lacking.

Healthcare app on tablet next to stethoscope

Design with empathy for the users from the start

One of the biggest challenges of designing digital products for healthcare is also one of the most obvious ones.

“You can’t ‘move fast and break’ things when the product you’re building really does have life or death implications for those who will use it,” points out Jonny Belding, partner of digital health design agency Hanno, which hosts a weekly podcast on building digital products for better health and wellness. “Our team didn’t always work in the health space. In a previous life, we did a lot of work with non-medical startups, so our journey to becoming digital health designers has been a real eye-opener.”

Healthcare is a space with heightened sensitivity, which means you need to carefully consider privacy, ethics, and laws to conduct your research. The design process itself, however, still starts and ends with customer insight.

UX pioneer Don Norman adds that UX mistakes you tend to find in other sectors could have far more damaging consequences in healthcare.

“I just spent 15 minutes trying to log on to a certain airline’s website, for example,” he explains. “I assumed I had the wrong password, but each time I use the new password they suggest, I get a 403: Forbidden error. My experience with the system over the past several months has been so bad that I simply will never fly with them again. But what if this had been a critical medical device? The patient might die while I tried to figure out what I could do. I couldn’t simply refuse to use the machine.”

This gravity of what’s at stake means that the journey to launching a product in the healthcare space can have many more hurdles than you might see elsewhere. You simply can’t apply many of the approaches and techniques you’ve learned because they’re not intended for highly regulated industries.

Illustration of doctor and mobile app for digital health design agency Hanno
Hanno helps health and wellness companies deliver customer-centered digital experiences. Illustration by Joanna Ławniczak for Hanno.

Understand the bureaucracy and regulations

Apart from legacy technology and siloed practices, one of the biggest hurdles in designing for healthcare is the bureaucracy and regulations involved. These impose severe constraints, high costs, and a lot of delays.

“Regulation can significantly affect the quality of the experience you're able to deliver,” cautions Clearleft’s Andy Thornton. “Also, regulatory standards in healthcare can vary hugely from region to region, making consistency and scalability of design solutions problematic.”

It’s therefore not unusual for designers in the healthcare sector to have years of work still going through studies and trials before it eventually gets regulatory approval and reaches the market.

Barbara Spanton focuses on a different persistent challenge. The digital products she works on are Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) – sometimes also called Electronic Health Records (EHR) – essentially digital versions of the paper file(s) that a doctor keeps as a record of a patient’s health data and events. EMRs impose a heavy burden of increased complexity on clinicians, without reciprocating any perceivable benefit.

“The promise of digital EMRs is the smart use of previously-entered data to find insights, streamline and optimize care,” Barbara explains. “They also promise real-time safety checks and mitigations to ensure patient risk is minimized, easy sharing of patient data across hospitals and clinics, and increased efficiency in capturing and accessing records wherever and however you need them. However, this promise remains undelivered. Clinicians are spending additional hours every day documenting through dozens of controls, forms, and workspaces [the same information that] they used to be able to capture in a few short phrases on a paper chart. These systems benefit medical processes, hospital administrators, and claims. But they’re often an obstacle to delivering good care by patient-facing users.”