A Look at Unexpected Benefits of User Experience Design in Health Care

By thrusting millions of new users onto online tools such as Zoom, the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown has highlighted the importance of easy-to-use tools for communication and coordination. The health care field has lagged in its digital tool designs. (For an example, let me take you on a tour of the Epic patient portal, Mychart.) So I talked recently with Jennifer Dadagian, Director of UX, Content Strategy & Research at Tank Design about user experience (UX) design for health care.

UX design, which I’ve covered in the context of the former HxRefactored conferences, goes much deeper than many observers think. UX is not just about where the buttons go on the screen, or how deep the user should have to dive through layers of menus. Good designers will rip open the organization for which they’re creating an interface, to determine the values, goals, and working methods of that organization.

So UX designers are not just forging a path through the menus and screens of an application; they are redesigning relationships and workflows in the organization.

Dadagian offered an example from Tank’s work for Coursera on an online program to train COVID-19 contact tracers, in partnership with a large medical institution. The client had initiated the project by designing a flow before they hired Tank, thinking that Tank would just polish it up and deploy it. Tank designers investigated the requirements and ended up designing a different flow that was more streamlined and less complicated. The client had not originally intended on modifying the flow, but once they all sat down and looked at the proposed solutions together they all agreed this was a better experience for the user.

The project involved another challenge that designers commonly discover in health care: constraints imposed by regulations or other standing requirements.

Health care applications are also distinguished by often having many users–not just a single clinician and a single patient–and needing to handle complex relationships. These applications are also tasked with protecting privacy–although too many organizations evade a relationship that would invoke HIPAA, and go on to abuse their relationship with the patient.

UX design can make the client uncomfortable by revealing a mismatch between the organization’s goals and those of their desired audience. Health care institutions are concerned with all sorts of rules and paperwork that the patient finds tedious. For instance:

  • The institution must ask the patient some initial questions to make sure she isn’t confused with another patient.
  • It has to establish insurance and other billing issues.
  • It has to offer consent forms.

The institutions viewpoint also diverges from the patient view. One obvious example is the staff’s tendency to refer to medical and billing terms that are unfamiliar to the patient. On a larger scale, the staff may focus on treatment and ignore everyday issues that matter a great deal to the patient. For example, a friend of mine went through surgery for a hernia and found that coughing caused him pain during his recovery. Nobody mentioned till later that you could avoid pain by pulling your legs up to your chest when coughing.

Worst of all, health care institutions in the U.S. face funding pressures that lead them to push treatments of dubious value. I know of dentists who push teeth whitening and orthopedists who offer treatments of unclear value for back pain. Dadagian says that UX designers can persuade clinicians not to do unwanted marketing, because it reflects badly on them in the long run. I’m not sure the problem is so easy to fix.

Overall, good UX design can produce both applications and workflows that make life easier for users, as well as lowering administrative costs by cutting waste and automating routine tasks. We need more UX of a far-thinking sort in health care.

About the author

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Andy Oram writes and edits documents about many aspects of computing, ranging in size from blog postings to full-length books. Topics cover a wide range of computer technologies: data science and machine learning, programming languages, Web performance, Internet of Things, databases, free and open source software, and more. My editorial output at O'Reilly Media included the first books ever published commercially in the United States on Linux, the 2001 title Peer-to-Peer (frequently cited in connection with those technologies), and the 2007 title Beautiful Code. He is a regular correspondent on health IT and health policy for HealthcareScene.com. He also contributes to other publications about policy issues related to the Internet and about trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business.

1 Comment

  • Very nice article Andy. I love the way you dissect the things & come up with a very good analysis of the benefits of UX in healthcare. And, It has been proved that the impact of UX on product success in the healthcare sector is higher than average across industries. Healthcare is essentially innovation-driven, where technology has helped transform the market landscape.
    I read a beautiful article & case study on the impact of UX in the healthcare industry. I recommend you go through it. I am sharing the link here, https://www.koruux.com/blog/healthcare-delivery-through-ux-design/
    You will like the read.

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