Ready or not: why UX is the next frontier in healthcare

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“Whether or not healthcare enterprises are ready, the new reality is that virtual care has arrived,” reads a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association last May, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Duke University School of Medicine, researchers explained, saw the share of telehealth visits jump from less than 1% to 70% of total visits over just four weeks to the tune of 1,000 video visits per day.

More than a year later, it looks like what grew out of necessity in 2020 is here to stay.

According to McKinsey, virtual care utilisation has stabilised at levels 38 times higher than before the pandemic. Not only are both consumers and healthcare providers more willing to use telehealth solutions, new regulatory changes enabling greater access and reimbursement have also sped up the move away from in-person care delivery. In fact, $250 billion of US healthcare spend might be shifted to virtual or virtually enabled care.

In a world where healthcare and tech go hand in hand, healthcare UX is bound to take centre stage – and become the new battlefield for revenue and market share. Here’s why.

 

What’s in an interface? 

In short, endless opportunities to make users fall in love – or out of it – with your digital product or service. In more prosaic terms, user experience is the result of end-users’ interactions with a business, its services and its products, according to cognitive scientist and usability engineer Donald Norman, who invented the term. His 1990 bestseller, The Design of Everyday Things, is still considered the bible of usability and all the ways it can go wrong.

As to how to get it right, user experience must meet the exact needs of the customer. Sounds like a no-brainer? You wish. “The problem with the designs of most engineers is that they are too logical. We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we would wish it to be,” explains Norman. Simplicity and elegance are also a must for making sure that products are a joy to own and a joy to use.

As is a holistic approach to designing complex UX ecosystems. According to Norman, “No product is an island. A product is more than the product. It is a cohesive, integrated set of experiences. Think through all of the stages of a product or service – from initial intentions through final reflections, from first usage to help, service, and maintenance. Make them all work together seamlessly.”

 

 

When UX can be a matter of life and death

When it comes to healthcare user experience design, Norman’s laws have their limitations. “If designers and researchers do not sometimes fail, it is a sign that they are not trying hard enough – they are not thinking the great creative thoughts that will provide breakthroughs in how we do things,” he explains in his epoch-making book. “Try-fail-learn-repeat”, however, is not an option when designing interfaces people’s lives depend on.

In 2011, the US Food and Drug Administration recalled a software system because the interface caused doctors to confuse the left and right sides of the brain. In another example, a glucose meter was recalled because when it displayed “2.2”, the square decimal point was so small that users read it as “22”. “The consequences of this mistake could range from severe hypoglycemia to diabetic coma or death,” point out Abbott’s Shannon Clark and Ed Israelski.

In cases where bad healthcare UX design doesn’t put patients at risk, it can still make life miserable for service providers and recipients alike. Think sluggish, overcomplicated Electronic Patient Record systems or iPad apps built to help the elderly, except they don’t have an iPad. With competition in the digital space heating up, the divide between healthcare providers that embrace UX strategies and put users at the heart of them, is laid bare.

 

Acute condition: is healthcare ready for a UX overhaul?

Medical technologies, whether a fitness tracker or a VR surgical training platform, have the potential to make healthcare safer and more efficient for everyone involved, enabling early and more accurate diagnosis of health problems, timely intervention and better outcomes. User experience, however, remains key to unlocking these benefits.

“Anyone can create a healthcare app, but if the user experience behind it isn’t great, your users will most likely head toward your competitors,” says senior UX designer Justin Morales. “To stand out, your UI design needs to focus on simplicity, usability, connectivity, interactions and data handling.”

And the time to get ahead of the game is now. In the first half of 2021, investment in virtual care and digital health soared, Rock Health has found, with total venture capital investment in the digital health space totalling $14.7 billion. That tops all investment in 2020 and is nearly twice the investment made in 2019.

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