Making Relevant Health Solutions: Design for People, Not Patients

By Kate Quigley, Director of Strategic Relationships — Method San Francisco

Last year I had a baby (again) and frequently used BabyCenter’s app and website as much with the second pregnancy and newborn as with the first. BabyCenter is full of information about health and non-health related topics for parents: product reviews, what to expect articles, videos of pediatricians sharing insights, photo collages of other parents going through similar transitions, surveys that share how others in similar times are responding, etc. In other words, it is a wealth of engaging content! Which turns out to be a rare find these days. Everyone making digital healthcare tools can learn from the BabyCenter app and website.

As healthcare providers, it’s easy to consider the services you offer as the primary focus for patient engagement. For example, we want patients to adhere to a drug regimen or continue to use a health tracker to monitor prescription usage or personal health data — so we create websites, apps, devices, and the like to drive home those messages. While a user might be interested in doing those activities for a while, the rest of their lives get in the way and usage drops off fairly quickly.

In short, *people want health products to help with their lives, not their healthcare provider’s lives. We see ourselves as people, not patients*. Design for people accordingly. Engaging healthcare products provide value not because it helps their “medical conditions,” but because it helps their lives.

Choose one extreme or the other — two design approaches

Just as with all compelling product experiences, healthcare products are most likely to have ongoing engagement when they are relevant. Relevance in this context means either one of two design approaches:

1. The product experience is so simple, it really only facilitates one action (and may only have a single button, for example)

2. The product experience provides a bounty of engaging experiences with information, tools, etc. A la Babycenter.

Don’t create anything in between these two. The in-between is too complicated to be of help, and too irrelevant to be a go-to source for multi-faceted lives.

For example, when working with a pharmaceutical company on a companion app to an injectable medication, Method was tasked with the goal of increasing adherence for that one medication alone. As we embarked on the design of the app, though, we quickly learned from patients that an app tailored to one drug might not necessarily increase adherence on its own. Instead, we discovered the potential for an app with a broader aim of encouraging healthier lifestyle habits overall to improve medication adherence as a byproduct of engaging with the service.

So we opted for Design Approach 2. The result was an app that offered a rich variety of healthcare and self-care resources that patients found really helpful, not unlike BabyCenter.

Connecting the care circle

Caregivers are often as important to the healthcare product experience as the patient themselves. Connecting these individuals, be it the physicians, clinical staff, and loved ones, can be a significant challenge. Designing for multiple users (as we say in the product design and development world) requires understanding what the users would like to be able to accomplish. Designing for this multi-user product experience therefore requires an understanding of connective information and actions for all to share. This means the experience must be beneficial to both the patient and caregivers.

In a study called “Family Matters in Caregiving and Technology Adoption”(1) conducted in 2015 by Philips and the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, the researchers found that the primary hurdle for the adoption of aging in place technology was for the younger generation. Many eldercare product manufacturers assume that the tech barrier lies with the elderly and their discomfort with adopting new gizmos into their homes. On the contrary, the study found that the elderly were quite fine with some of these items, but that the care-taking adult children already felt overwhelmed with the amount of constantly updating and frequently demanding information the products supplied. It’s overwhelming for those already overwhelmed with taking care of children, participating in communities, maintaining marriages, and developing in a critical career chapter. The best solutions in these ongoing, frequent care situations will be those that adhere to Design Approach #1:

“Is mom okay?”

End of product experience.

As an example of this extreme simplicity, the Method team designed Nightingale.

Working with regulatory protectors

The healthcare industry admittedly faces the greatest design challenge for creating optimal experiences: safety regulations. It is common to see these regulations as so limiting and intimidating that it’s not worth creating new products whatsoever. But this is also part of the people-oriented design effort.

Have ongoing conversations with lawyers and regulatory committees. These individuals are (thankfully) tasked with protecting patients. They are also always catching up with what technology can offer. This presents an inherent opportunity for co-education and collaboration. In addition to designing a great product experience for the end users, the product team should create supporting communication around 1) the human benefits of the proposed product and 2) the systematic rationale that went into limiting liabilities throughout. This documentation is the start of the conversation with these safety protectors, who can then better understand the trade-offs…and significant upside for patients.

Method took just this approach when working with 23andme. At the time, the genomic testing start-up ran up against continuously evolving FDA guidelines. The FDA demanded a complete halt to public’s access to the product because of a particular concern about how disease information was being relayed to consumers. In order to provide further clarity, Method created an entire design experience demonstrating the intended use of the information. Although these designs were never meant for public consumption, they communicated exactly to lawyers and FDA representatives how 23andme would provide information but not personalized suggestions. The teams worked together closely to ensure all felt the risk mitigated and the expectations clarified. This clarity through design re-opened the possibility for the company to communicate with consumers again.

Create by Intention

While it’s easy to start creating a product and see how it performs, the healthcare industry is littered with unused, purpose-free products. Spend the time to set intentions beforehand, and the design and build process will become significantly more straightforward…and the users significantly more engaged.

1. Understand the lives of your end users (formerly known as “the patients”) and how their health fits into their complex, everyday considerations

2. Decide which caretakers should loop into the experience, and establish the common task flows amongst all users

3. Decide if the product will be radically simple, or if your organization is ready to invest the time and effort in a fully-realized lifestyle product

4. Partner with regulatory guides so everyone agrees on the evolving “what’s possible”




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Method is a global strategic design and engineering consultancy. We use design and technology to solve big challenges for businesses, people, and the planet.