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3 UX Best Practices for Medical Product Designers

A couple of weeks ago we shared our thoughts on three UX trends reshaping medical product design. Now we’d like to offer a few suggestions on how to incorporate those trends into your medical device UX design efforts.

As cross-pollination between medical and consumer product design continues, medical product designers face new challenges. Below are three best practices for medical product designers that we’ve found effective for designing for both consumer and medical products. They include figuring out how to accommodate a growing diversity of users with a wide range of expertise; considering how to align a device’s physical and digital experiences; and prioritizing user research throughout the design process.

As always with medical devices, the challenge is to keep up with users’ expectations and needs while ensuring products are safe and effective:

Best Practice #1: Understand User Types and Environments

All designers want to understand users and environments, but in this context we’re thinking about how users’ different levels of expertise affect the ways they interact with a system.

How should you design a product experience for a first-time or novice as opposed to a power user? The challenge is to balance the needs of different user types and present appropriate experiences for each set, recognizing that a single user may have different needs throughout their lifespan of using the product.

The Different User Types …

First-time users may need clear, intuitive, and explanatory onboarding instructions. Consider what kind of coaching or training this type of user needs to understand the system. A graphical user interface can be an advantage. On-screen walkthroughs, common in mobile apps, can be put to good use in medical products. Bill shared details about designing such an onboarding experience for a touchscreen document scanner (a consumer product) in “Zen and the Art of User Onboarding.”

Novice users might have some experience, but they may also need simple and error-proof instruction that does not slow down their workflows. Instead of offering tips, consider offering an abbreviated version of the first-time user’s walk-through, or provide easy access to coaching.

Infrequent users might step away from the system for a couple of weeks or months and may not remember every detail about how to use it when they come back. Designing for infrequent users is kind of like designing for a novice user, every time. Their focus is often divided between many activities. Still, they may find it frustrating to go through an onboarding process with every use. They can also benefit from simple walk-through interactions and reminders about critical steps that include illustrations, lights, and/or sounds. (Some products, such as kiosks, are designed primarily for infrequent users.)

Power users, on the other hand, are most likely concerned with speed and efficiency. It’s common to put the design emphasis on first-time and/or power users, especially when planning for usability testing the system. It’s easy to point to how difficult it was for them to understand how to use this or that feature. It’s less easy to understand how the system can be made better for a novice, infrequent, or power user.

Then, there are peripheral users, like management, IT, environmental techs, or bio-meds, who each may have different needs; and patients and family who need a positive, unobtrusive, and secure user experience.

And Diverse Use Environments

Versatile products lead to diverse use environments. We recommend planning for and testing in multiple environments, with an emphasis on the worst-case environments: How much noise will there be? What else is happening? What else is the user thinking about? What are the primary reasons they are using the system? Are they managing multiple things at once? Is there anything about this medical product that might have an emotional impact? Use environment can determine user type — anything in a hotel, for instance, should be optimized for infrequent use.

The Takeaway for Medical Product Designers: Only after thoroughly evaluating user types, their needs, and environments can you lay out the user experience that accommodates all. To fully understand your user types, gauge: How skilled are the users? How frequently will they be using the product? What else is going on in their environment? Etc. You may decide there’s a need for different modes of use for different types of users or environments. Experiences need to be prioritized based on who the audience will be and what’s important.

Best Practice #2: Combine the Digital and Physical

As technologies become more complex, workflows become more complex with an increasing mix of physical actions and digital elements.

Bill comes from a software development background, designing UX for desktop and mobile software. Those environments are dedicated — the user sits down at a computer (or focuses on a mobile phone) to complete a task. There isn’t as much to be considered about what else is going on, and the physical input controls are often outside the scope of the design. Physical products are thornier — many have mobile applications, touchscreen displays, and custom/unique UI controls.

More often than not, there is less flexibility to overhaul the physical workflow. Instead, consider flexing the digital user interface to better support, rather than distract from, those tasks.

At Bresslergroup, we like to think about digital and physical experiences traveling along the same path. We visualize them together in a digital-physical workflow to understand how one affects the other. We did this when we worked with Baebies, developer of newborn screening and pediatric testing products, to create a cartridge-based, blood test instrument called FINDER to conduct quick and easy on-site blood testing for newborns.

Historically, nurses have had to collect a number of blood samples from newborns and send them off to the lab for testing, but with this product, they can take one small-volume blood sample and insert it into a custom cartridge to receive on-site test results.

FINDER comes with a touchscreen interface, which guides nurses through the process and enables multiple screenings throughout the day. While mapping this product’s workflow, we merged the physical, cartridge-based product and the digital demands of the touchscreen interface so it all works in unison.

The Takeaway for Medical Product Designers: Rather than thinking of the physical and digital components of a medical product as separate entities, consider their relationship to each other and map them in parallel from the beginning of your design process. More often than not, there is less flexibility to overhaul the physical workflow. Instead, consider flexing the digital user interface to better support, rather than distract from, those tasks.

Best Practice #3: Users First, Users Last

Our mantra is always, users first! That means: Begin, continue, and end with user research. This is true for any product development project, medical or consumer. Spending time with users upfront leads to insights that inform the design. Testing concepts with users throughout leads to ongoing design improvements and ensures the development path stays true to the target users and use. Usability testing at the end of the development process evaluates whether the final design is functional and viable; if not, it enables the team to focus their re-design efforts on the areas that cause usability issues.

Practically speaking, this means investing in upfront user research, which can be expensive and time-consuming — and harder to justify budget-wise when it’s not the kind of research the FDA expects. It means choosing to go out and learn what people want before you get started with development, even if this ends up being different from the product your team originally envisioned. We know from experience that the investment is well worth it — you will always come back with invaluable data.

The investment in upfront user research is well worth it — you will always come back with invaluable data.

Bresslergroup recently did an ethnographic study to discover insights to drive development of an insulin product. To answer the question, what are the problems with insulin products today?, we spent time inside the homes of people with diabetes and watched them use these products in the context of their daily lives. We observed people dealing with products in ways that ultimately worked against their medical needs, but reflected the trade-offs they were making daily to juggle medical needs with the rest of their lives.

Based on insights from this research, we developed early-stage concepts and tested them with patients with diabetes. This process led to multiple innovation opportunities, including an innovative pen needle design that shows promise for addressing user interaction issues with existing products.

Research Before Requirements

Another, admittedly less pithy, mantra for you: Don’t set the technical and UX requirements until you understand the users’ needs!

Display size, display technology, viewing angles, pixel density, memory, connectivity, firmware, task flow, error handling, feedback and status — these are examples of the categories of requirements that often get handed to designers before they’ve had a chance to fully understand the users and their workflows.

Every product will ultimately face cost and technology constraints, but it’s essential to know when you are setting these requirements: Will these requirements work for our users?

The Takeaway for Medical Product Designers: Even the smartest, most experienced industry experts don’t know if a general design concept or specific requirement is best for a product until they fully understand their users. Upfront research is necessary, as is user testing throughout the process for validation.

The Bottom Line

With lines blurring between consumer and medical devices, it’s an exciting time for UX designers to be working on medical products. The “users first” rule remains constant — it has always been applicable and is never more so than now. Constantly seek to get to know the users and to unify digital and physical designs with their expectations and needs. We hope these best practices help steer you toward realizing the most intuitive, fool-proof, valuable, and safest designs for your medical devices.

(If you like this post, check out “What’s New in Human Factors & Interaction Design for Medical Devices” on SlideShare and YouTube!)