4 Strategies to Conduct Better Design Research in Healthcare

Design practitioners can harness the circumstances unique to healthcare to create better experiences for users.
Headshot of Antonio Solano Román
Antonio Solano Román
Expert Columnist
May 25, 2021
Updated: May 26, 2021
Headshot of Antonio Solano Román
Antonio Solano Román
Expert Columnist
May 25, 2021
Updated: May 26, 2021

Conducting design research activities — like interviews, contextual inquiries, and usability tests — is a key component of user experience and service design and its generally practiced across all industries. However, healthcare and clinical research spaces pose particular challenges for designers.

In a healthcare context, such as a hospital ward, an ongoing clinical trial, or a research laboratory, special rules are in place to protect patient and practitioner privacy. Beyond national and international compliance and security regulations, target users for a healthcare product also often face unique circumstances. They could be individuals with a debilitating condition, clinicians that are around patients all day and have very little time for questions, or clinical research personnel who have vowed to protect their patient’s information. The outbreak of COVID-19 has only made matters even more challenging.

All of these circumstances make it harder for designers to interview, observe, follow, and obtain access to real users for testing, information gathering, and other forms of qualitative research.

Additionally, some of the target users could be people with specialized knowledge or skills that cannot be found outside of these restrictive settings: Typical business-to-consumer (B2C) digital services, like Spotify or YouTube, cater to a large audience, and, in general, you will never run out of users to help you do your research. But when you design for medical doctors, nurses, clinical trial managers, research scientists, and other life sciences professionals your pool of participants is already much more limited, their days are extremely busy, and they may not even be familiar with terms like “user experience” or “service design.”

 

Strategies for Tackling These Challenges

Designers need to be able to gather enough information about users, their context, what they need to do, and why they can’t do it today. They also have to be effective, extremely respectful of users’ time, and sensitive to their concerns and limitations.

These unique circumstances in the healthcare space offer special opportunities that design practitioners can harness. Below are four strategies you can adopt to get the job done.

 

1. Forget About the Lab

Having users come into a controlled space like a usability lab built into your office is an ideal scenario: You have the space and resources set up in the best way to collect as much information as possible. However, you will rarely be able to get a doctor or a clinical trial participant, who may have health problems, into your office. Your chances of getting participants will greatly increase if you can do a virtual session, share a link to a prototype, and have participants share their screen. Tools like Axure and Mural are great for these types of sessions.

In many cases, you won’t be able to record a session because users may worry about exposing sensitive data. Or you might need special authorization from a review board to do so, which could take longer than what your roadmap would allow. Therefore, consider having additional note takers with you to collect as much information as possible.

 

2. Know the Lingo

Specialized users talk in specialized language, but this almost obvious premise can often be overlooked by designers. In practice, this means that you should familiarize yourself with the terms and concepts commonly used by the population for whom you’re designing before you engage with them.

For example, in a project I recently did to learn about how investigators recruit patients for clinical trials, I looked up articles about the software they use and the processes they engage in, and found many recurrent concepts such as CTMS (clinical trial management system), EDC (electronic data capture), and endpoint (a measurable outcome of a trial). Based on this information, I was able to ask better questions, quickly develop a rapport, and show real interest in their work. A simple search in Google or PubMed can do wonders.

 

3. Treat Every Session Like an Elevator Pitch

When your population is focused on saving lives (sometimes their own), notions such as “seamless experiences” and “delightful interfaces” matter very little to them.

This means that, in every communication with your users, you need to clearly state how and why they can benefit from your research and from the services that you’re helping develop. Maybe you’re working on a tool that will help clinicians save time filling out paperwork so they have more time to actually treat patients. Start there and make sure users understand how their unique input and perspective will shape the development of the project.

This also means that, generally, unmoderated usability tests are out of the question. In my current position, most of our usability tests are moderated because we always need to answer questions about privacy and justify stealing someone’s life-saving time for an hour or so.

 

4. Consider Users as Co-Designers, Not Just Sources of Information

When you work with such a specialized population, your users can become co-designers of your tools. The ones that will be willing to help you may be highly intelligent, curious, and creative people who probably already had thought about solutions to their problems, but don’t have the know-how and the resources to bring them to life.

In practice, this means that you should invite users to more actively participate in ideation sessions, carefully study how they attempt to solve problems today, and operationalize their mental models into a workable solution.

 

A Silver Lining: Existing Research

The reality is that all these situations still limit our ability to do design research under tight deadlines. This means that we may need to provide recommendations with less data than we would like.

Thankfully, in this field, designers have a competitive edge. I briefly touched upon this in a previous article, but it all boils down to having access to a breadth of existing user research conducted in a more structured, formal way and published in peer-reviewed articles. This research, which can be found through sites like PubMed or Google Scholar, is oftentimes more comprehensive than what we could do with the resources and access to users we typically have. This is because these studies often take a long time, capture a large number of participants, and are done directly at hospitals or during clinical trials.

The insights you can expect to find include detailed descriptions of obstacles and challenges for your target audience, demographics and factors that affect motivation and turnover, comprehensive task analyses, user satisfaction and usability score benchmarks for a group of software, and sense-making mapping for specific research scenarios. In many ways, as designers, we are privileged to have access to such research, and it can even help us establish rapport with those users because they will find this information trustworthy and robust.

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