Designing For Medical

Ted Goas
Ted Goas
Mar 10, 2015 · 6 min read

by Ted Goas

I’ve been designing in the medical industry since the summer of 2010. When I joined Canfield Scientific, I was excited to help create apps in an industry that’s underserved by the design industry.

Up to that point, though, everything I’d worked on was consumer based, focused on solving relatively ubiquitous problems for large groups of people. I soon realized that while some things translate well, in other respects it’s a completely different ballgame.

This article explains how my team works and my experience in designing for medical.

Our Tooling and Workflow

Unfortunately, this rules out most third party tools that require us to put information on someone else’s server. DropBox, GitHub, Basecamp, Google Drive, Invision… just to name a few, are all off limits. Bummer. Instead we rely on self-hosted email and a few homegrown systems for things like file sharing and bug tracking.

Privacy guidelines also make it hard to share my work outside the company. I design with real data (so awesome!), but have to sanitize it before posting anything dribbble or my portfolio. I can’t promote a product or even specify what it does because Canfield could be held accountable for my words. Because there are so many obstacles, I don’t share my work publicly very much. Bummer numero dos.

We Design for Clarity

Clarity over cleverness

Accuracy over brevity

One-Off Requests Are A Thing

I love this quote, but unfortunately it doesn’t carry much weight in our world. Many clinical trials are different from one another and doctors often have their own way of running their practice, so we’re frequently asked to adapt our apps or create a special feature that benefits only a small number of users.

“Yea sure, we’ll get right on that…” a product manager might think with a hint of sarcasm.

But here’s the rub: Compared to consumer-focused products, we have a small number of large customers. If we lose business because we turn down special requests, it hurts. So we listen and sometimes build a feature that we don’t fully understand. Our willingness to do this keeps customers coming back with the confidence that we’ll make what they need. I imagine this is similar to building for enterprise clients.

Everything is an Option

A by-product of catering to requests like this is a large, carefully engineered product with lots of features and options. Most of our interfaces are configurable, either by user preference or permission level. Each option makes each interface more unpredictable. Depending on what’s enabled, a single screen can take many forms. It’s a challenge to design interfaces flexible enough to handle every scenario. In Internet Explorer.

Apple philosophy: It’s only done when you can’t remove anything else.
Android philosophy: Every bell and whistle marginally adds value.

Yeah, we’re Android.

The Technology Landscape is Vast

Conversely, iOS rules our mobile landscape.

To ensure no one is left behind, our team leans towards progressive enhancement. Poor type rendering and laggy browser performance aside, it’s not so bad. Sorta like building mobile-first: start with the lowest common denominator and build up.

And then there’s email design. Outlook Express appears in our email metrics. Don’t get me started on email.

It’s Incredibly Lonely

Designing in such a private, specialized industry is lonely. It’s hard for me to feel like part the design community when I don’t build stuff for my peers. I have a hard time explaining my work, and even when I do, folks don’t always understand. I rarely receive helpful feedback from designers outside my team.

Thoughtful Design is Appreciated

Our clients are usually impressed by our design efforts. A few basic things go a long way, things like:

* thoughtful I.A. (instead of jamming every link in a mega drop-down menu).
* a typographic hierarchy (instead of 12px Arial everywhere).
* a color palette (instead of defaulting to black, white, and blue).

I’m surprised how many of our competitors don’t put much effort into their software’s organization and presentation. I wonder how many of them even employ in-house designers.

This is an easy win.

The Work is Meaningful

I mean, not everything I work on has a strong sense of meaning. My first project involving plastic surgery was kind of a bummer. First world problem, I thought. But I realized that people would always be making major decisions about their body with or without good data, so why not use software to improve the information they use to make those decisions?

And of course, not everything I work on is exciting. Like fixing bugs in IE 7 or integrating with legacy software found in so many doctor offices. But this work needs to be done. I’ve embraced the boredom and made it a strength: I can work on a big serious problem at Canfield or go work with the other guys.

So that’s it. Despite it’s drawbacks, I’m tremendously proud to be in this field and helping people make better decisions about their body. We don’t use the latest web tools or design bleeding-edge interfaces. But that’s fine, because:

And in this industry, shit doesn’t always just work. That’s what my team is working on.

P.S. We’re hiring

If you are working on similar problems, or would like to, hit me up! I’d love to talk shop or help any way I can. I’m @TedGoas on Twitter. Designing For Medical was originally published on

Ted Goas

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Ted Goas

I plan, prototype, & publish for the web & email. Design @StackOverflow. +1 hockey, snowboarding, soccer, skepticism, Newcastle, Troy McClure quotes.