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5 Principles for Making Digital Healthcare More Human-Centered

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Nov 08 2019

From stepping into a doctor’s office to taking a daily vitamin, each interaction with the healthcare system was designed for and by a human—and yet the industry can often feel soulless. As more of our interactions with healthcare become mediated by screens, the need to design human-centric systems only increases. Digital interfaces can empower people to take control of their own health, but these systems can also amplify the sterile interactions for which the industry is all too well known.

As a director at the global design firm IDEO, I’ve worked with dozens of clients to help bring a human-centered lens to their products and services. I’ve witnessed first-hand the excitement of using technology to help patients deal with chronic diseases like diabetes. But I also know how easy it is to lose sight of the end user when designing with pixels and bits.

In order for “making healthcare more human” to be more than a marketing slogan, it’s important for designers, entrepreneurs, and business leaders to keep in mind the humans they serve—especially when designing digital products. Below are five principles we use at IDEO to keep human needs at the center of everything we do.

1. Meet users where they are

Human-centered design means designing for a user’s whole life context: income, employment, food preferences, and emotions. We must also consider the expectations, learned behaviors, and technological capabilities each user brings to the table when thinking about his or her health.

At IDEO, we always try to map out the full user journey. And because that user is human, they might not always be consistent in the way they interact with the digital product or tool. For example, in the course of designing a connected blood glucose meter, we observed that many people with diabetes don’t test their glucose levels on a regimented schedule. Why? Life gets in the way.

But because certified diabetes educators (CDEs) need as accurate information as possible, they ask patients to test as regularly as possible for the two weeks leading up to an appointment. This is where designers can play a role: Because digital tools live in people’s pockets and homes, we can tailor solutions to the individual to a greater degree than is possible in the in-person clinical care environment. By observing how patients use workarounds to integrate products into their routines, we can design solutions that work within the context of their lives. It’s only by meeting users where they are that we can inspire meaningful behavior change over time.

2. Create “give-get” loops

Imagine you’re introduced to a digital product or service by a healthcare provider during a routine clinical visit. You may choose to search for the accompanying app and download it from the App Store. You’d then go through an onboarding process, create a username and password, and decide whether to accept push notifications. You may also be asked to share sensitive health information or consent for the application to access it.

All of these steps have happened before you gained any tangible value from the product or service. In the absence of clear benefit to users, it’s not uncommon to lose many at this early stage.

One way we address early user drop-off is with a “give-get” loop. This could be as simple as asking a user to enter their dietary restrictions in exchange for tailored suggestions about nutrition, or asking for an address to provide hyper-local recommendations. Ultimately, good user experience design incorporates that data to complete a cycle of action that benefits the user. When we’re able to create conditions for purposeful data gathering, we can then recognize patterns and help users discover insights that they could act upon by introducing and initiating new behaviors.

At the same time, we need to be mindful of the role we might be creating for ourselves as recipients and holders of sensitive information. That’s why we’re careful to only collect the “minimally viable data” required to create the intended user experience.

3. Design for relationships

User experience design for managing chronic disease needs to rely on more than software and technology. The relationship between the primary user and their network of care providers and community members has significant bearing on the success of the product. The user experience is part of a larger service ecosystem and must consider how the nodes in that system interact.

Today, pharmaceutical companies often use digital tools to drive adherence—to make sure that patients take their medication at the right times and in the right ways. But digital solutions can go beyond adherence: they can—and should—support holistic care beyond acute or immediate medical needs.

When digital experiences and interactions can help patients live healthier lives, they become tools for delivering better health outcomes overall, beyond any specific condition. Further, the burgeoning field of digital therapeutics is turning out digital health products that themselves stand as effective, proven interventions to treat physical, mental, and behavioral conditions.

4. Don’t be limited by the boundaries of “the device”

When IDEO began working with Bayer Diabetes (now Ascensia Diabetes Care) in 2006, people with diabetes were able to access their own blood glucose data either by logging it themselves or by showing the meter to their doctor. The Contour USB opened up new opportunities for design, enabling people to plug the meter into a personal computer and transfer all readings to a single document. Once the Contour USB launched, the next design challenge was to make it simpler and less expensive. We honed in on a feature: the color screen.

While a color screen might seem like a great new opportunity to present rich information, it was only used for displaying simple data, like meal markers, dates, and times. From a human-centered design perspective, it made more sense to eliminate the color screen and use users’ smartphones or computers instead. The meter’s color screen was adding unnecessary cost without contributing enough benefit in return.

By focusing on the outcome rather than the solution, we were able to spot our own blindspot. Just because an intervention can be solved with technology doesn’t mean it always has to be.

5. Inspire the organization to evolve

As a rule, creating digital products and services will create the need for new capabilities and processes inside the organizations that deliver them. Digital user experiences are living systems, and they require organizational investment and structures ready to support near-constant change. As soon as we’re “done” designing a digital experience, a software operating system might change, a new data privacy law might pass, or a content partner could change their rules of engagement, any of which would require additional refinement.

Today, many companies that deliver global offerings at scale work in silos that are each oriented around different targets and metrics. There are several examples where organizations are directly addressing this challenge through new experimental ways of working. Whether through a corporate innovation lab, internal incubator, or entirely separate venture, carving out a portion of the business enables efficient experimentation without detracting from core business objectives. Then, once proof-of-concepts have been successful, learnings can be incorporated into the rest of the organization.

Even within the most nimble and flexible organizations, any digital product or service will need to continue to evolve and improve from day one. It’s like that old adage about buying a car: once you drive it off the lot, it immediately goes down in value. Once a digital solution is launched, it’s essential to start planning immediately for its next update. By listening to the needs of end users, it should be clear where to begin.

  • Erin Henkel

    Senior Portfolio Director, IDEO Chicago
    Erin is a Senior Director of Responsive Services and New Health Ventures at IDEO in Chicago. She’s responsible for supporting businesses to create new value in the world while taking a human-centered approach to solving their toughest challenges.
  • Jarrod Ryhal

    Communication Design Lead, IDEO Chicago
    Designer, outdoor-enthusiast, and obsessive collector of oddities both new and old. Jarrod has a passion for crafting intelligent and highly-expressive visual stories with a human touch.
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