NHS confusion, a UX design approach

The UKs public funded National Health Service (NHS) is facing criticism for having overly confusing messaging which impacts services causing frustration. This is a problem for many organisations offering services to large quantities of people.

The NHS is confusing the public by using ‘gobbledygook’.

Phrases such as ‘ambulatory patient pathway’ to describe being allowed home, and ‘Vanguards’ meaning a new way to test a service cause confusion among service users as people don’t know what they mean. Can you blame them?

However, it’s not only the NHS which suffers by neglecting to place users of their services first. Many other businesses also have issues with messaging being confusing or overly complex.

‘Operational Pressures Escalation Level Four’ may sound cool and perhaps sophisticated to the people inventing it — but in reality it makes for a clunky term and ultimately a poor user experience.

More than lacking UX or design thinking

These terms signal a wider issue stemming from an inward looking culture. People in organisations such as the NHS are surrounded by the organisation daily for perhaps decades. This prolonged internal experience makes it difficult to empathise with users, identify points of confusion, and areas where concepts can be confusing for those encountering them for the first time.

Empathy is the key to good design. The built up areas of “we do this because it’s always been that way” is scrutinised and this leads to better experiences.

Sadly, there is often little understanding or care for design or user experience among key executives, managers, and staff. This means the cycle continues and the organisation forgets that it exists to serve people.

This is where design can help by providing a fresh insight and ensuring both staff and users needs are provided for.

Design has improved services before

A few years ago PearsonLloyd redesigned signage for NHS emergency departments. They utilised design to provide users with a solid understanding of the process. Combined with calming colours and a clean layout, this reduced patient aggression by 50%, and 75% of patients were found to be less frustrated.

This is an example of a very good application of user experience and design principles to improve services. With the reduction in aggression and frustration, it also delivers a great deal of value for a small investment (Not unusual for design).

Make do and mend

With NHS budgets being cut in line with other public services, it becomes easy to view design as a lower priority than core services and staff. However, design, when implemented correctly, can provide incredible returns on a relatively small investment. For a short term cost there is long term savings with often hugely increased efficiency.

When user experience design is either poorly carried out or neglected, efficiency is lost and it can lead to a great deal more funds being wasted.

An example of this can be patients having to spend more time talking with experts such as doctors who could be dealing with more important issues. If UX design principles had been applied, messaging would be clear and the user would have understood their next step without having to spend time and waste precious resources asking.

It quickly becomes clear that UX is vital, and needs to be placed at the heart of services.

This may seem insignificant until you consider the fact services such as the NHS deal with millions of users. Small inefficiencies add up. Poor UX such as unclear messaging could easily lead to hundreds of hours and millions of pounds wasted.

Fighting inwards culture through design

To solve these issues and enable services to fulfil their purpose better, user experience design principles need to be adopted not only on signage and digital services, but permeate the entire organisation to include messaging and more.

Whether you call it design thinking, ergonomics, or UX, it is vital for delivering services painlessly and efficiently.

User experience design is not just for producing pretty web apps as so many decision makers in organisations wrongly believe. It can be applied to services to improve them immensely. When you consider the journey a user has to go through whilst interacting with a service, you learn how seemingly insignificant problems can lead to an overall poor experience.

The role of experience designers is to go in and identify issues armed with a fresh outlook and robust process. Built up areas of “we do this because it’s always been that way” are scrutinised leading to better experiences. This saves time and money, providing a huge return on the initial investment.


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