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3 UX Trends Reshaping Medical Product Design

The acceleration of tech, and especially the mobile revolution, has deeply affected both the consumer and medical device industries.

Our experience designing for both gives us a unique perspective on where the two are cross-pollinating. It’s also what fuels our discovery of opportunities for future cross-pollination. New technologies bring new user experience (UX) trends that blur the boundaries. (Check out the portable ultrasound device we designed that was compared to “a remote control crossed with an iPod.”)

We’ve identified three technology-driven UX trends to show how these two product categories, once far apart, are moving closer together. The continuous challenge for the medical device industry is to keep up with users’ expectations — users who are also exposed to all sorts of consumer-good trends — while ensuring devices are safe and effective in the face of all this rapid change:

Trend #1: Our Relationship with Technology Is Shifting 

Technology is everywhere we turn — in our homes, pockets, cars, at our jobs, and in some cases inside our bodies. Individual technologies fueling the spread of smart products include sensors, beacons, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), data connectivity, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning. Technology’s new ubiquity weighs heavily on how product development moves forward.

Designers of digital-physical products in any industry first need to grasp the evolution of the human-machine relationship. For a long time, machines were tools that required time and expertise to learn to operate. As tech enables machines and devices to learn about people rather than the other way around, design is shifting.

Our tools can now perform tasks better than we can. Humans are at a point where our machines are making decisions for us. As these technologies become more complex and our own physical and cognitive limitations remain somewhat static, our design challenges shift. One new challenge for designers is how to mitigate humans’ universal tendency to over-rely on technology. Time and again, we’re too fast to assume machines are foolproof, causing us to shift our attention elsewhere and relieve ourselves of responsibility — often erroneously.

Bresslergroup designed a connected coffeemaker a few years ago, and during user testing we observed people jump to the assumption that the machine could do everything, once they saw it could do a few things. The problem was, it couldn’t do everything. The user still had to take care of tasks such as emptying the coffee grounds and refilling the water. But it was instinctive for them to shift the total burden over to the machine.

At SxSW a few years ago, Astro Teller of Google spoke about the early days of Waymo, Google’s self-driving system. Google put humans behind the wheels of the cars as a back-up system in case anything went wrong. Soon after the human drivers observed the system was working as it should be, they tuned out and stopped paying attention. (And often started texting.)

The Takeaway for Medical Product Designers: Designers of medical products, products that serve high-stakes tasks, need to be hyper-aware of this human tendency to over-rely on technology by addressing these assumptions at the ideation phase. Decide who is in control — machine or human? — and how it will be made clear.

Managing the transition from human to machine control and vice versa can be tricky. (Read more about how to solve the agency problem in Bill’s recent post, “Who Knows Best? Designing User Control in the Age of AI.”)

Trend #2: Consumer Design’s Influence on Healthcare Is Accelerating

Technology adoption in every aspect of life is shaping expectations in healthcare among both practitioners and patients. There are higher expectations across the board for technology and screens, but the consumer influence also extends to icons, interaction patterns, gesture-based interaction, navigation models, responsiveness, connectivity, and even the way we power our devices.

At Bresslergroup, we’ve noted the influence of consumer design while user-testing a medical device with a touchscreen and observing nurses trying to swipe to get to the next screen. Then there were the users searching for a battery icon like the one on their phones to assess the device’s charge. Our mobile phones create these automatic behaviors by reinforcing the same interactions over and over.

Designers in the risk-averse medical industry have the luxury of learning from consumer, whose products go through a lot of trial and error. “Fail fast” is a popular notion in consumer design that would never fly in medical. Healthcare can adopt the most successful elements to emerge from these consumer experiments.

The Takeaway for Medical Product Designers: Hardware and UI design are increasingly becoming differentiators as the medical space gets more crowded, and buyers are more inclined to factor user experience into their purchasing decisions.

Trend #3: Medical’s Regulatory Bodies Are Reacting

The medical field is embracing new technologies, and adopting common user interface (UI) patterns, iconography, and gesture-based interactions. Medical product designers are quickly learning what works with both patients and practitioners. On top of integrating consumer-driven elements, the healthcare industry is adopting tech-world development practices such as early prototyping and rapid iteration. This can be seen across a gamut of products, from websites and mobile apps to surgical devices, vital-signs trackers, and medical facilities.

The regulatory bodies are reacting. In 2016 the FDA finalized its “Guidance on Human Factors and Usability Engineering in Medical Devices” after it had been in draft form for four and a half years. It includes a detailed framework for consideration and testing of user interface design and potential use error.

We’re grateful the FDA is establishing these requirements to prove med-tech devices are safe and effective. But this guidance isn’t the end of the story. The conversation between product developers and the FDA continues to evolve, and to become more open, informed, and sophisticated. And what we’ve learned from this developing dialogue is the FDA is mainly looking for two things: 1) for medical developers to have a better understanding of what user research is; and 2) to make sure we can make qualitative arguments to prove unsafe outcomes have been mitigated.

Our expectation is for the FDA’s requirements to become more rigorous over time. Designers will need to be more creative and nimble about their approach to affording the resources needed to perform this user research.

The Takeaway for Medical Product Designers: What we tell our clients is the FDA is looking for a complete story — a story that starts with a product idea based on a user needs and ends with proof the use is safe and effective, meeting those users’ needs. The FDA wants to see where you started and how your understanding of users evolved through formative testing. And you need to show you’ve validated these assumptions and done all testing necessary to probe potential usability issues.

The Bottom Line

There’s great opportunity for human-centered design to bridge the gap between technology and humans by creating a user experience people will find easy to use and will intuitively understand. But none of this can come at the price of ensuring safety. The bottom line for medical products will and always should be: Can you sleep at night?

(If you like this post, read our follow-up, 3 UX Best Practices for Medical Product Designers, and check out “What’s New in Human Factors & Interaction Design for Medical Devices” on SlideShare and Vimeo!)