Part 4: The diagnosis? Empathy.

February 23, 2017

An accurate diagnosis in healthcare is table stakes for providing quality patient care. 

Likewise, listening to, observing, and truly empathizing with healthcare professionals is table stakes for delivering new solutions that are user responsive and enable them to do their best work. Of all human centered design principles, this is the core. Because healthcare is so complex, empathy is even more important. But the lessons are simple and transferrable.

First, you must begin the process very early on – talking with and observing users and listening to the needs of customers. In this stage, you learn information about tools, processes, needs and pain points to help create experience maps. But often what you’ll hear in these conversations will also challenge assumptions you had previously held to be self-evident truth. Identifying where you’re wrong – an incorrect diagnosis – is unquestionably a healthy thing and helps design better solutions.

That’s why it’s critical to begin with an extremely open mind. It’s important to listen carefully in order to discover the previously unconsidered. Practicing human-centered design has the power to illuminate your blind spots – the unmet user needs, real pain points and gaps. Inevitably, something new and unexpected will be voiced. If you’re not hearing those things, you’re missing an opportunity. If you’re not challenging your assumptions and carefully considering the input you’ve received, the output would look, feel and behave a lot like existing solutions today.

All of the data collected needs to be interpreted into a clear set of user needs and pain points that will drive design efforts, translate into product, marketing and business requirements for implementation, and ultimately, result in a better solution.

However, the insights, stories and personal experience of talking with users firsthand serve as the most direct path to empathy. It is critical to have a diverse mix of project stakeholders in the field early in the process, learning directly from the users. Yes, you should have skilled and experienced researchers leading the charge. However, designers, engineers, developers, marketers, executives and project managers should also participate in the research.

Without having a direct path to empathy, the decision making path changes. You make different decisions based on data and logic alone. To help expand the group of people who have second-hand empathy:

  • Bring back videos, photos and stories from the field to share with your broader team and expand the empathy base.;
  • Use the team that did the research to serve as champions of the voice of the customer.

This multidisciplinary group should serve as advocates for the user along the entire development process. This firsthand experience gives the designers the empathy to understand that the maintenance access to an instrument is more important than the shape of the handle for a secondary component. It gives the engineer the empathy to simplify the vent pattern because the lab technician was so emphatic about the difficulties of dealing with dust. It gives the division director the empathy to decide on a standalone solution rather than modular because of the maintenance challenges. It gives the project manager the empathy to approve 

It’s important to listen carefully in order to discover the previously unconsidered.

the priority of accommodating STAT requests over the desire for just a little more throughput.

Clearly, empathy alone cannot drive design and decision making. However, the emotional underpinnings are where data, quantification and logic fall short. You can always conduct a large market quant study or a conjoint survey to gain further insight into feature tradeoffs. But you can’t invent empathy at the beginning of a project or just do it later. You need to begin with that empathy.

Empathy is different than conducting a 10-question interview. Empathy is gained through conversation, context and observation. You do not need everyone on the team to conduct weeks of worldwide research to gain empathy. But you do need to give diverse team members the chance to fully participate in at least one to two days of deeply talking with and observing users. Encourage them to be curious. Their personal experience will allow them to more easily absorb their colleagues’ stories and experiences and add to the collective human-centered design process.

The importance of visual communication

Empathy not only addresses the needs and pain points of users, but also addresses their emotions. The look and feel of a product may not sound important, but being intentional with the aesthetics of your product is empathetic also. You are acknowledging a basic human trait.

Have you ever had a speaker or professor deliver content in a way that went in one ear and out the other? Often times, healthcare solutions are delivered in a way that is not useful or meaningful to users. Businesses know the importance of marketing and brand, but what is often forgotten is addressing the look and feel of the actual product (hardware, software, commodities, packaging, informational forms), which users touch and interact with regularly.

Admittedly, designing solutions in healthcare is so challenging that by the time the solution is ready for a look and feel (form / color / aesthetics) to be addressed, the company may not have the time, energy or even the interest to address it. It probably seems good enough. This step is so easily dismissed, removed or forgotten. But it is one of the most emotionally impactful levers a brand has with a user.

Taking the time and attention for the appearance of a product does not always require a huge investment. Sometimes, it is simply finding the right talent to make a few improvements that go a long way. Other times, there is a significant business opportunity to make a statement or a market entrance with a broader product offering that features a design or a visual brand language. Such an effort may require more time and resources, but the investment of clearly and effectively communicating your brand values through your product allows a user to interact with your brand every single time they see or touch your product. It is good for your business and it is empathetic to your users.

Aesthetics and emotions may not be logical, but they are some of the most human characteristics that we have, going back to well before our time and even before language. Our brain patterns are deeply rooted, which is why people can react so quickly – even without reason. Because they know. Those reactions are strong and can, and will, overrule logic. Spend the time making your product look great and communicate your brand. It will help users choose you in the first place and reinforce everything your company stands for and has been working toward.

Conclusion

The topics covered in this four-part series are critical to good healthcare is design. However, they are simply just good design principles. They are the methods of human-centered design. As always with healthcare, there is a level of complexity and rigor that changes the game a bit.

The purpose of healthcare solutions – delivering or supporting better outcomes – will not change. But the bread and butter of healthcare companies is business, marketing and science – the feasible and viable elements of innovation. Delivering on the ‘desirable’ element for healthcare solutions is the real secret sauce. Whether healthcare or medical device companies have in-house design talent or they hire outside partners to assist them, first they need to recognize the value of using human-centered design, a process that requires systems-level thinking

The human-centered design process delivers on ‘desirable’ by creating solutions that are seamless, simple and empathetic. Solutions that seamlessly fit within overbuilt ecosystem and workflows without adding complexity or risk. Solutions that simplify tasks and make them faster and safer. Solutions that are empathetic by truly considering the needs, priorities, desires, perceptions and motivations of the many different user groups.