How UX Informs Medical Device Design: Making the Invisible, Visible

Jennifer Fraser | December 6, 2018 | 6 Min Read

With the proliferation of connected devices and services, these UX tools become an even more important part of the design process. It’s critical to visualize this system early in the design process to illuminate what elements in the existing system are going to be impacted by the introduction of your new product or service, and what elements are critical to the success of your product or service.

If you are like many other medical device companies today, your organization is looking to “disrupt” the current market. Launching a new connected medical device, changing how you interact with your customers and/or end users, or perhaps by introducing new sources of value by offering a data services wrapper are just some of the ways medical device companies are looking to differentiate themselves.

However, with the introduction of any new product, or service, keep in mind that you are also “disrupting” the existing ecosystem of your target customer. That person already has an existing approach to achieving their goal. Irrespective of if you have found a way to remove a challenge for them, or to satisfy an unmet need, via your new product or service. As a part of your medical device design process, it’s critical to understand your customer’s existing ecosystem, and how your offering will disrupt that ecosystem. This is where user experience design and some of its tools can help.

Part of what user experience design tools do, through visualization, is to make the invisible, visible. The specific tools relevant to this post are ecosystem mapping, personas, and journey mapping.

As a first step at Macadamian, we conduct discovery sessions with our clients. Together, we map out the current ecosystem for the product, including stakeholders, tools, technologies, and the flow of data and information. This is a critical step in the design process, because as Donella Meadows said in “Thinking in Systems: A Primer”, “Missing information flows is one of the most common causes of system malfunction.” Once that existing system is mapped out (visualized) you can better understand what elements in that system are going to be impacted by the introduction of your new product or service. The visualization will also help to identify what elements are critical to the success of your product or service.

Next we “zoom in” a level to the journey of your target customer. First, you need to understand who your customer is, and this is where persona creation comes in. To know your users, you need to understand them from three different perspectives:

  • Their capabilities: “How” they are ie: what is their domain knowledge, cognitive load and physical abilities;
  • Their goals: “What” they are doing ie: what level of precision, efficiency, and effectiveness is required for them to achieve their goals;
  • Their context: “Where” they are ie: what is their physical and postural context, what micro-climate are they working within (both physical and social), and what is their organizational context (which can be within the work, social or familial context).

So what are the best ways to learn this information about users?

Do User Research

What are some of the ways user experience researchers do user research? They get to know the users, and not just by talking to them.  One of the most effective ways to do this is by observing users in their context (otherwise known as ethnographic research). They can also involve users throughout the design process, for activities such as consultation; co-creation sessions; and validation/usability testing of design concepts. Metrics on users and their usage patterns can also be gathered and analyzed as a part of user research.

Involve Subject Matter Experts

In situations where it’s not possible to speak to the target end-users, User Experience Researchers may use Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) as proxies. SMEs have domain knowledge of the target users. They understand their goals, usages, context, and settings; and can share this knowledge in the absence of access to the actual end user. While primary research is preferable, when that is not possible, using an SME as a proxy can still provide valuable information and insights.

Leave the Building

As mentioned above, one of the most effective way to learn about users is by doing contextual research. Observing people trying to get things done, provides a richness in information and insights that research participants aren’t aware of themselves. What people say they do, and what they actually do, are two different things.

But, contextual research is not always possible. However, there are other options for gathering information such as attending a trade show in the same domain you are targeting. This could provide you with access to some of your target customers. It can also help you understand how competitors are targeting your customers, which can help confirm the problem you are trying to solve or the unmet need you are hoping to satisfy. Another option is reading research papers or other scholastic information that is related to the challenge you are trying to solve.

Once that user research has been completed, to provide a data-based understanding of your target customer, you can create a persona. A persona is a tool you can socialize within your company to create a shared understanding of whose problem it is that you are trying to solve and clarity around their goals and needs. Our personas generally include the following information:

  • Skills: a summary of their educational background, experience and any other related training or certification that is relevant to their position;
  • Goals: what aspects of their job do they focus on, and what goals do they have as a part of their job;
  • Role Characteristics: what is their personality type, how is their role perceived by other parts of the organization or are there characteristics of this role that affects their interaction with other parts of the organization?
  • Context: please refer to above to understand the multi-faceted approach to what “context” means

Now that there is clarity around “who” you are targeting with your product or service, and that information has been consolidated into a persona, you can build out a Journey Map for their experience, based on what was learned from the User Research.

A Journey Map is a tool that is used to communicate the story of a journey, from the perspective of the person having the experience, who, in this case, is the person for which you have created your persona. A Journey Map illustrates: what a person “does” (activities and events); across time and place (context); with people and things (touchpoints); and also captures the level of friction during the experience ie: is a particular touchpoint or interaction frictionless? or does it have a high degree of friction within this experience?

These building blocks of activities and events; contexts; touchpoints; and levels of friction, are what you can use to tell the story of your customer’s journey. By mapping out the journey of your target customer, you are making the invisible, visible. You can now “see” the points of friction in their experience, or where a part of the experience is already smooth, but could easily be made even better. These insights would have stayed invisible if you hadn’t leveraged the User Experience Design tools (ecosystem mapping, personas, and journey mapping) to better understand and visualize your users and their needs.

With the proliferation of connected devices and services, these tools become an even more important part of the design process. This increase in the number of connections and sharing of information and data between them means that the objects within the customer’s ecosystem (and their journey) have become even more intertwined. Early in the product design process, it’s critical to visualize this system, with its objects and their connections, to illuminate what elements in the existing system are going to be impacted by the introduction of your new product or service, and what elements are critical to the success of your product or service. This provides you with insights as to where to focus your investment to have the most impact and bring the most value to your customer and your business.

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