Experience design and healthcare: Wicked problem and inspiring challenge

August 27, 2014

Medical diagnostics is where the often unwieldy, slow-moving beast of healthcare collides with mind-blowing, quickly changing advances in technology. It is the behind-the-scenes intersection where healthcare workers interact with equipment, day in and day out, in hospitals, clinics, laboratories and universities. This is where fast and accurate results may mean the difference between someone getting the correct diagnosis and treatment in time and, well, not.

Medical diagnostics is where the often unwieldy, slow-moving beast of healthcare collides with mind-blowing, quickly changing advances in technology. It is the behind-the-scenes intersection where healthcare workers interact with equipment, day in and day out, in hospitals, clinics, laboratories and universities. This is where fast and accurate results may mean the difference between someone getting the correct diagnosis and treatment in time and, well, not.

Experience design is a field prepared to help healthcare workers effectively use new diagnostic technologies, but it is a pretty wicked problem to tackle. The challenge is not only designing the interactions for accomplishing tasks, but designing complex workflows and interactions across multiple modules within the same instrument and even multiple devices throughout a laboratory. Experience design in medical diagnostics requires an artful simplicity of complex systems, physical device interactions and digital interactions while balancing suffocating regulatory constraints. To further complicate matters, users have widely varying technical abilities including many with dozens of years of experience who defend the way “it’s always been done.” Thankfully, designers are optimists by nature and creating lifesaving diagnostics is an extremely inspiring challenge.

For medical diagnostics, an experience design team needs to have expertise and backgrounds in solving design problems for both hardware and software. Team members need to coalesce learning from the physical experience of a device and input from healthcare staff. They must also take hundreds of thousands of samples and medical records into consideration while maintaining patient confidentiality. Solutions need to be effective for both younger tech-savvy workers and older entrenched workers. The design work requires an artful blend of inspired, familiar and modern ideas and those that work seamlessly with technology-compatible, error-proof solutions.

Experience design teams work together to identify unmet or unknown user needs and carefully map detailed workflows of objects, information, people and environments. They use these inputs, along with the design constraints of the business and brand, to explore early experience design solutions and options. They work together to quickly create low-fidelity experience concepts — represented in quick storyboard format or paper, cardboard or plywood — so they can evaluate design options, test them with users and identify tradeoffs early in the process before big money is invested. As experiences become designed and optimized, the solutions are designed in detail and validated with different stakeholders before they are put in place in laboratories.

Successful experience design solutions need to be quickly proven and launched into the market while holding promise for an extended life.

Although the experience design process is interesting, it may not be surprising or all that different from the iterative process of design that many of us are familiar with. However, another layer that makes designing for medical diagnostics even more wicked is the need to ensure experience solutions are relevant. Diagnostic systems are an investment that will last 10 if not 20 or more years out in the marketplace. The interactions and experiences we design today will be around for a very long time — much longer than the speed at which consumer electronics and the broad ‘digital space’ rapidly change. While medical diagnostics live in a huge, complex, rigid and regulated ecosystem, there is still incredible momentum for making life-changing advances in healthcare including pharmaceuticals, technologies, connectivity, shifts to home care, care delivery and with the patient/doctor relationship.

So how do we design everyday diagnostic experiences for today’s healthcare employee and still enable a smooth transition to the future?

Successful experience design solutions need to be quickly proven and launched into the market while holding promise for an extended life. Close collaboration and partnership between the experience design team and the manufacturer’s technology and R&D groups are simply table stakes. The experience design team also needs to have a seat at the table with key decision makers for the brand and enterprise. As business and marketing decisions are being made, an effective experience design solution relies on a holistically branded experience that is supported by the larger company brand, not just the touch points in the laboratory. Diagnostic solutions are most successful when the company delivering them recognizes embraces the importance of experience design, embraces it and enables it to serve as the conduit between the overarching brand promise and the tangible offering portfolio of hardware, software and services in labs.

Medical diagnostics offer huge potential for experience designers to improve the human condition — both for healthcare workers and patients. In other words, for all of us. Their charter is to make effective and relevant experience design solutions which loosen the chains of the stifling healthcare system, enabling healthcare workers to use the full potential of new lifesaving technologies. A tough challenge, but I can’t think of anyone else who would be better suited than these talented individuals to make medical diagnostics a better user experience.