Human-Centered Design Delivers Effective Care Solutions

Author: Rachel Weatherly, Digital Strategist

Originally Published in Health Innovation News
Volume 3, Issue 8
April Second Edition 2016


Increase satisfaction with care. Improve patient outcomes. Reduce costs. The directives for the healthcare industry are clear. The scalability, flexibility and reach of digital solutions combined with innovations in the current healthcare landscape present an unprecedented opportunity for meeting those directives.

At the recent 2016 HIMMS Conference focused specifically on healthcare innovations, the conversations happening across the industry about human-centered design and design thinking were encouraging. Digging deeper, however, revealed most health technology vendors are still focused on features and functions and not on the outcome of improving the human condition. More than talk is needed to deliver impactful care solutions.

Digital health interventions require a strategic, holistic approach, optimized to capture the full human experience of helping and healing through human-centered design and development. Shifting focus to human- centered solutions is a start, but better methods of capturing and using the thoughts, feelings and motivations when defining target audiences for those solutions are essential to their success.

For decades, marketers have used personas to describe target audiences. Personas are an amalgamation of demographic information with some additional information on user goals and lifestyle attributes that paint a picture of a fictitious, typical user. Better examples also include a user story and quote for additional color. While personas have become more graphic in their presentation over time and include more than just demographic descriptors, they still have all the dimension of a cardboard cutout. Marketers can analyze details to draw conclusions about each audience segment, but the need for that analysis just goes to show that this method for defining audiences doesn’t go far enough.

The cornerstone of the human-center design process is empathy. It’s the human element of design thinking, breathing life into the profiles of a target audience. Using empathy not only defines a target audience, but also its perspective—a lens through which an audience could interpret the world. Why do different audiences do things and how do they do them? What are their needs, both physical and emotional, especially as they relate to potential solutions? What is meaningful to them?

Okay, that’s heady stuff and might seem overwhelming. Two key considerations could bring the task down to size: parameters of a potential solution and behavioral analysis of a target audience.

An empathic approach to digital healthcare solutions requires designers to consider user behaviors, attitudes, beliefs and feelings, specifically as they apply to technology and health. As pervasive as technology has become in everyday life, some people view it negatively. It’s reasonable to ask why.

Think of teenagers or college students who believe they are invincible. Unless they’re sick or injured, general health and well-being aren’t on their radar. Second, fear and frustration should not be discounted when considering attitudes toward health. Fear of being ill or frustrated with the healthcare system could lead a person to avoid dealing with his/her health—as if ignoring the problem will make it go away. Analyzing audiences’ affinity for and access to digital healthcare solutions creates a framework for segmentation based on multiple dimensions.

As an example of an organization that homes into defining its audiences, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) bases profiles on the intersection of an audience’s comfort with and access to technology — “tech savvy” — and its comfort with and access to health information — “health savvy.”

NHLBI’s broad audience made it unmanageable to segment based on condition or demographic information or on interest in its four focus areas—heart, lung, blood or sleep science. Using primary and secondary research, along with website analytics and other user metrics, NHLBI could draw reasonable conclusions about how people interact with health information across digital platforms.

NHLBI’s method produces an attitude spectrum that ranges from open to resistant with three distinct groups. At one extreme are people who are both tech savvy and health savvy; call these people “ready and willing.” At the other end are those who put up barriers to both technology and health; call them “out of reach.” The middle ground covers those with a barrier to either technology or health; they are “discouraged.” NHLBI’s model enables the organization to better understand how audiences consume and interact with digital health information.

These general attitudes set the stage for diving into more detail about motivational drivers, communication and connection needs and other more psychological influences that shape how a person interprets his/her experiences. Insights into that perspective allow designers to strategically engage users in ways that improve responses.

While attitude is a good starting point, a person’s physical environment plays a significant role in shaping engagement. Overlaying a person’s access, in this case, to technology and health information, produces further distinctions that could be used to add dimension to audience profiles.

Defining the tech savvy of groups gives additional detail about how they use technology in daily life, including the sites they visit, gadgets they use and ways they interact socially. Each of these details tells designers how to reach persons in their own space where it is more convenient and more comfortable, where they are more receptive to engagement. Furthermore, showing empathy with users’ situations builds connections and trust that amplify the influence of every engagement.

The power of this approach emerges in the design phase because patient journeys are no longer just focused on accomplishing a particular administrative or care task. Instead, they are focused on how to move a real person with strengths and limitations, from where they are to a healthier, happier future. For example, taking the time to educate patients with low- tech savvy and high interest in health information via early one-on-one encounters is likely to pay significant dividends for both patient and care provider over time. The increase in engagement, self-efficacy and transferability of new technology skills are beneficial to a patient and provider and most importantly, to overall treatment quality, effectiveness and cost.

Finding commonalities in how people act and react to stimuli and building audience profiles on those data transform a cardboard cutout into a living, breathing user ready to engage. It’s empathy that leads designers to this heightened understanding of their audiences to help them create better solutions. Empathy is the lifeblood of digital health solutions. It’s the vital sign designers can no longer afford to ignore.

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This article was originally featured in Healthcare Innovation News