We’re in a moment of incredible opportunity in the healthcare product space. The COVID pandemic pushed us to embrace digital health solutions and rethink the way patients, providers, and healthcare devices can collaborate toward better health outcomes.
At the same time, though, creators of medical solutions (from digital therapeutics to physical devices) are operating in a high-stakes environment: a single negative healthcare experience can cause patients to stop adhering to a treatment or seek a different treatment entirely.
This means it’s crucially important to design products with patient experience top of mind to increase the odds of positive experiences and thus strong adherence and positive outcomes. The field of user experience (UX) research offers a framework for assessing and improving patient experiences. There are many ways in which healthcare product manufacturers can leverage UX research and user-centered design to craft exceptional patient experiences. Here are three key things they can do throughout the product development process to create better patient experiences that yield better adherence and health outcomes.
1. Empathize with patients
Several years ago, I was part of an early-stage user research project that involved going around the country to speak with patients diagnosed with human growth hormone (HGH) deficiency and their caregivers (often parents).
At that time, a treatment regimen existed: a drug plus a device to inject it. But the manufacturer knew that there were opportunities to make the experience of treatment better. In conducting our research, we asked the people we spoke to to gather all the artifacts associated with administering the medication.
These included the drug itself and the injector, of course. But families also often showed us things they pulled together to support administration of care, such as calendars where they tracked doses, toys and other comfort objects used to entertain or distract patients (often children) while caregivers administered the drug, and portable coolers to hold the medicine when families had to travel.
From this experience, we gained a lot of empathy for what it was like to take or administer this treatment on an ongoing basis. And that opened up new opportunities for the manufacturer to improve patients’ experience of using their product. One such opportunity would be to provide each new patient with an onboarding package: a dedicated calendar (or calendar app) to track doses, a branded cooler for travel, finger puppets to use during administration, and so on.
Nothing about the product itself changed after that research trip; instead, the manufacturer reconsidered what it might offer in addition to the medication to improve its users’ experiences.
Often, healthtech innovators recognize that opportunities to improve user experiences exist; talking to patients can shed light on what those opportunities are. Makers of existing products can learn how to refine and improve those products by talking to patients to understand their experiences. Doing that leads to better patient experiences, which can lead to better adherence and, ultimately, improved health outcomes.
2. Educate patients about how to use products through design
Patient empathy can, broadly, guide medtech innovators toward products that lead to positive experiences by addressing unmet use-related needs. Leveraging design affordances to educate patients about how a product should be used helps translate empathy-powered products and features into positive experiences when patients put them to use.
Take an auto-injector, for example: it may conceptually address some important and unmet use-related needs in that it is more convenient to store, transport, and use than a syringe and vial treatment. But if a patient gets their first auto-injector out of the box and can’t figure out how to use it, they won’t have a positive experience – and might even abandon the new product altogether.
This is where design affordances can provide crucial in-the-moment education. On a physical device like an auto-injector, for example, visual and tactile design affordances might be able to…
- Indicate which end contains the needle or jet injector with, for example, a tapered shape with words in a large font.
- Signal which cap should be removed before an injection with, say, bright colors and / or textures that can draw the user.
- Guide the patient toward the button or release that triggers the injection. Shape, size, and texture can help here.
- Show the patient the drug so they know it’s been injected. A clear window and / or explicit language can do the job.
The goal is to make the device itself as intuitive as possible, which can be particularly helpful for those patients who skim detailed user guides (or ignore them completely).
Of course, it’s also possible to increase the odds that users will read through detailed instructions and safety information by applying the same UX principles to these materials. In addition to detailed written instructions and safety information, manufacturers might also create a quick-start guide with visuals or (for digital therapeutics) an in-app onboarding tour.
These can help not just those in a hurry but also those with limited reading comprehension skills. Presenting information in different formats also lets manufacturers set the stage for positive experiences among patients with different use scenarios: a first-time user may read an entire guide, for example, while an experienced user may only glance at the new feature highlights.
3. Provide feedback to confirm patients’ proper use
UX-informed design of the form factor and instructions can help patients understand the theory of how to use a medtech product. Providing feedback can validate that a patient is using a product correctly.
This can help eliminate uncertainty and the stress it causes, especially during a high-stakes medical situation – for example, administration of epinephrine via an epipen when someone is having an allergic reaction.
Again, simple audio and visual cues can do the bulk of the work here. Some auto-injectors, for example, make a click at the start of an injection and another click when the injection is complete. Another common example: think of how a digital thermometer beeps when it’s ready to be read.
The right feedback helps patients use medtech products more confidently.
Consider how important that confidence is for users of an epi-pen. In many cases, there are several years between when a user is prescribed their epi-pen and when they first use it. In that time, they may have forgotten how the device works. Or maybe the written instructions have faded. Or maybe the user is experiencing too much stress to make sense of those instructions.
Medtech manufacturers who approached epinephrine delivery devices with empathy came to understand all of these realities. Today, for example, there are epinephrine delivery devices available that offer verbal feedback in addition to written instructions to help ensure users can use them correctly regardless of extenuating circumstances.
Leaning on user research yields better experiences and better health outcomes
The technology available to patients today, as well as evolving attitudes about where care can be delivered, mean that we are in a moment of great opportunity for medtech innovators. Those that approach their products with user empathy top of mind will be best equipped to design products that provide the support, education, and validation necessary to usher patients confidently through use, thus laying the groundwork for positive health outcomes.
Korey Johnson is a Managing Partner at Bold Insight, a user experience (UX) and human factors (HF) research agency. Korey has 15 years of experience in UX and HF research and is passionate about making medical devices safer and more effective.