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10 principles for designing patient-centric UX for healthcare

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Jan 31, 2024

8 min read

For too long, the healthcare sector has left patients grappling with opacity, frustrations in access, and a system that feels like it prioritizes institutions over individual needs. This article delves into the pivotal transformation towards patient-centered care and the role of product design to move the needle toward better healthcare UX or user experience. In the paragraphs that follow, we detail challenges like misaligned incentives and we outline 10 principles or best practices when designing software for patients. But first, a definition of what we mean when we say “user experience.”

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Defining “User Experience” in healthcare

In the world of software, “user experience” has evolved as a field focused on not just how something looks (more typically referred to as user interface) but more broadly how humans interact with it.

You may have had an experience on a website or application where you tried to click a link, only to find out that it wasn’t a link at all but just blue underlined text. You may have gone through a long series of onboarding questions only to find out you are not eligible for the service being provided or that you need to enter credit card information to finish reading an article. You may have spent several minutes clicking around a navigation menu trying to find the information you need. These small moments of friction impact the overall experience with a piece of technology (and therefore the perception of the broader company or product attached) and can lead to frustration or even resignation from an end user.

User experience has also come to describe the broader human experience—both digital and physical and everything in between—that a person has with a product, service, or brand. While user experience is key in the design of any product, it has an especially important role to play in healthcare, which brings with it heightened emotion, urgency, and stakes for end users who are often patients or providers of care.

While the technology experience of clinicians is crucial to consider, this piece focuses on the patient as the primary “user” of healthcare technology. It is no secret that patients are plagued with frustration when interacting with the healthcare system. There are many industry dynamics at play here, but simply put, it can be incredibly challenging to complete even routine tasks outside of the doctor’s visit itself:

  • Figuring out who and where to go for care or medical advice
  • Finding a provider who has the knowledge or empathy required to treat a particular condition or medical situation
  • Understanding the brain-bending details of insurance plans, what care is covered, and who is in network
  • Negotiating with an insurance company or provider office when things that should be covered are not
  • All of the logistics of seeing a doctor including booking, checking in, and completing follow-ups connected to a particular appointment

While many of these pain points are not limited to digital experiences, technology has an opportunity to either simplify or further complicate the patient experience. These patient experiences can directly impact access to care and even health outcomes: A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that patients who reported a positive patient experience were more likely to have their blood pressure and cholesterol under control. Another study, published in the journal Health Affairs, found that patients who reported a negative patient experience were more likely to be hospitalized and to have higher healthcare costs.

Why is healthcare UX (often) so bad?

Though there may be many answers to this question, two important reasons for the lower-than-ideal standard for healthcare user experience include:

  • Healthcare’s slower adoption of consumer technology trends and best practices
  • The misaligned incentives or objectives of the buyer versus the user of healthcare technology

Slow technology adoption and progress

Healthcare has historically lagged behind other sectors in its adoption and adherence to trends and best practices from consumer technology. There are a lot of very good reasons for this: healthcare brings with it a much more crucial need for data privacy and security, testing to reduce the likelihood of system errors, and overall bulletproof information for patients that might influence health or safety. However, this lagging adoption also means that consumers come to expect a certain level of experience in other parts of their lives—calling a cab, booking a hotel, ordering coffee filters, signing up for a new credit card—that is not met in healthcare.

The system is also so complex and competitive that it is often difficult for new entrants to the sector (e.g. those coming from a consumer tech background) to break through and navigate the web of healthcare business considerations. The relative silo of healthcare limits the influence of other sectors.

Misaligned incentives between buyer and user in healthcare UX

One of the main challenges with improving patient satisfaction and UX in the healthcare industry is the misalignment of incentives between buyers (those who pay for healthcare and healthcare technology in a broad sense) and users (those who interact with the system directly as patients or providers). For instance, the buyer in some cases may be an employer or an insurance plan, while the person who ultimately uses the services is the patient.

Sometimes there is direct tension between these two parties, but in many cases, it is a more nuanced difference of perspective. For instance, an employer might look for something quite different out of an employee health benefit platform than a patient. And because the employer is the one vetting and selecting a platform for company use, their own bias or perspective will be weighed more heavily. A similar dynamic is true among hospital leadership versus clinical team members like doctors or nurses. The things a buyer in leadership is looking for in an EHR is most likely not the same as what a doctor would deem important. This is one of the reasons why we end up with so many technology experiences that just don’t seem to make sense or feel intuitive to the end user in healthcare.

However, the rise of consumer medicine or direct-to-consumer healthcare (care services marketed to and paid for directly by patients) in parallel with increasing consumer technology expectations has created an opening for digital health disruptors to win patients over with easy, clear, and even delightful experiences. This, in turn, starts to turn up the pressure on incumbents to follow suit so as not to lose patient populations to these new competitors.

How to design a better patient experience: 10 principles

Healthcare is full of software experiences. From all-in-one virtual care platforms to digital front doors for EHRs, the “what” of a piece of technology depends entirely on its use case. However, the “how” remains relatively consistent when it comes to designing with patient needs and experience in mind. The following principles are rooted in the fundamentals of user experience and user-centered design.

10 Best practices for designing patient-centric UX for healthcare

1. Know your patients

Understanding your patients is not just about demographic data or medical history—it’s about empathy. By conducting user research, digital health organizations can gain insights into patient behaviors, preferences, pain points, and needs. The better you know the people who will be using a piece of technology, the easier it will be to design something usable, clear, and compelling. Research methodologies early in the product development process may include qualitative activities like in-depth interviews, focus groups, or usability tests. Findings are often compiled into user personas, or categories of users defined by a set of shared characteristics and represented by a fictional “person.” Empathy maps can also be created to document what a user thinks, feels, sees, says, and does.

Continuous discovery doesn’t end at product launch: it’s an ongoing process that adapts to the changing needs and feedback from patients. Later in the product cycle, user research may continue to draw from qualitative methods while also layering in quantitative methods such as surveys, A/B tests, or product analytics to better understand users’ reactions, behaviors, or levels of engagement with a product.

2. Understand the patient journey

Recognizing that the path patients take with their health is a continuous journey rather than a series of isolated events can dramatically alter how digital patient experiences are designed. In fact, failure to think about what happens before and after a particular solution can lead to siloed and disjointed care. Think about where a patient is—physically, mentally, emotionally—before and after your product comes into play. What does that ideal journey look like?

User Journey Mapping is a common design thinking exercise whereby a product team visualizes this journey through a series of plotted points that take into account patient emotions, patient goals, and opportunities for improvement. Journey Maps can be a useful tool before and during product work as teams start to better understand where a particular product or service fits into this journey.

3. Set clear expectations

One key to avoiding moments of friction or frustration in the patient journey is being quite explicit about what patients should expect from a platform or solution. Communicate at every touchpoint what has just happened, what is happening now, and what’s coming next. This is true from early marketing materials where overpromising inevitably leads to letdowns further into the process. However, it is equally important when a patient navigates through a series of steps in a complicated process.

4. Reduce the patient burden

Creating a healthcare user experience that delivers value efficiently will reduce the patient or treatment burden, which is defined as the “workload of healthcare and its effect on patient functioning and well-being” or “the self-care practices that patients with chronic illness must perform to respond to the requirements of their healthcare providers, as well as the impact that these practice have on patient functioning and well-being.” Simplicity is key: Focus only on the most important pieces of information at any given time to avoid overwhelming the patient and take steps to automate or eliminate processes that require repeated manual effort without clear value or payoff for the patient.

5. Help patients see where they are in their journey

Helping patients visualize their progress is a powerful tool in medical UX and design for fostering engagement. Whether it’s through a progress chart or a status indicator within a treatment pathway, such visual aids can offer reassurance and motivation. Adherence to healthcare UX design principles ensures that patients not only see where they are but also feel in control of their journey, with the ability to anticipate and prevent errors.

These visualization approaches can also play an important role in shaping patient behavior to form healthier habits, positively reinforce steps in the right direction, and provide accountability for the patient. Seeing how far they have come—whether in milestones reached, treatment efforts taken, symptoms altered, etc.—can motivate patients to continue an often uncomfortable or challenging healthcare journey.

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6. Reduce friction in clinical appointments

While the relationship and interactions with a doctor or nurse are crucial, the small moments of frustration that bookend a medical appointment also cause the most frustration. Just look at Zocdoc or Google reviews for a provider—the majority of the negative comments typically include notes on wait time, front desk staff, and ease of booking an appointment.

Scheduling, attending, and seeing results from a doctor’s appointment should not require immense time and effort from a patient. Virtual care solutions implement many shortcuts including care team chat interfaces, non-clinical care navigator roles, easy appointment scheduling and reminder interfaces, and auto-populated check-in forms to make medical appointments feel simpler and improve the patient experience.

7. Personalize experiences for patients

Personalization is another pillar of patient-centric design in both healthcare website design and app development. Patients are not a monolith, so technology cannot treat them as such. The experience should be personalized as much as possible to ensure that patients see what they need when they need it and are not blocked by unnecessary clutter (see: patient burden). There are many aspects of the patient journey that can be personalized, but some key areas to consider include:

  • Giving patients the ability to personalize reminders to come through channels (e.g. text, email, push notification) and times that are most convenient for them
  • Visualizing where the patient is in their journey and what tasks or actions are required of them at any given time
  • Ensuring that educational content is tagged and served to patients based on the relevance of the condition, symptoms, concerns, stage of treatment, etc.
  • Closing the loop on patient questions or concerns through direct communication or answers from the care team

Artificial intelligence is also increasingly being leveraged to further personalize digital experiences in healthcare. This may include AI-powered chatbots, personalized onboarding or reminder language based on patient behaviors or characteristics, and many other use cases.

Healthcare UX

8. Provide high-quality education

There is a growing body of research that shows that better patient education can lead to better health outcomes. Education can help patients:

  • Understand their condition and treatment options
  • Follow their treatment plans
  • Manage their symptoms
  • Make informed decisions about their care
  • Improve their quality of life

Healthcare software design can help prioritize tailored content delivery that is relevant to a patient’s specific condition and treatment plan. Consider where and how this content will be consumed: Offering educational information in different formats (articles, videos, diagrams), languages, and levels of depth can be helpful to accommodate a broader population of patients.

9. Design for accessibility

Accessible technology is another non-negotiable in healthcare application design and development. Your technology should be usable for everyone, including those with differences in vision, hearing, use of the keyboard or mouse, etc. Not only is design accessibility required by law through standards from the ADA and WCAG, but it is also crucial to knowing your users and empathizing with their experience. While these considerations should be part of product design and engineering from day 1, it is also important to regularly test and audit software to ensure that it complies with evolving industry standards.

10. Get smarter about patient engagement

Last but not least, think about how you are measuring engagement with your technology and what a positively engaged patient looks like. Studies show patient engagement is a “significant predictor for…health outcomes and costs in multiple chronic conditions.” However, borrowing metrics from consumer tech can often lead to somewhat empty or even misleading measures of success. For instance, for a consumer technology platform like Instagram, the end goal of the product is to get the user to open and interact with it regularly. However, in healthcare, more is not always better. Adding steps for the patient just to get some engagement data points can actually add to the patient’s burden.

Instead, use clinical best practices to understand what success should look like for your particular solution and area of care. This may be weekly or monthly check-ins, or this may be some routine screening related to symptom severity or mental state. It may even be actions happening entirely outside of the software interface that are automatically tracked by a wearable device or phone.

Looking to transform your patients’ experience and accelerate healthcare UX?

Centering the patient in healthcare technology is key to improving overall satisfaction and outcomes. Adherence to the principles outlined in this article will help ensure that your part of the healthcare puzzle improves the overall experience of patients and contributes to a more patient-centric sector.

If you are looking for support designing a new software experience or altering an existing piece of technology to optimize patient engagement and improve UX, HTD Health consults and works with clients to design digital health UX/UI and implement patient-centric solutions. The HTD team has over eight years of experience strategically planning, designing, and engineering virtual-first care delivery platforms. Reach out about a project or to learn more about our approach.

This article was written with expert insight from HTD's Senior UX/UI Designer Anna Rzepka and Head of Growth Elise Mortensen.

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