Better Health By Design: Making Healthcare Tech More Usable, Understandable And Profitable

The interplay of health and design isn’t new. In 1857, Nurse (and Data Scientist) Florence Nightingale used design principles to illustrate the casualties of soldiers in the Crimean War and changed national policy.

Nightingale showed that soldiers weren’t dying mainly on the battlefield, but instead they were dying in the hospitals due to the poor sanitary conditions there. Nightingale used this now famous diagram to influence hygiene practices in military hospitals, which resulted in lower mortality rates. The kind of design that Nightingale used can be thought of as, “Design to improve understandability.”

The eponymous design firm IDEO is another organization for which the intersection of health and design isn’t new. Back when I was at MIT, I first came to know IDEO in the late 90s through their medical device practices formerly based in Massachusetts.

If you look at IDEO’s long list history of design for the medical space — ranging from a kidney transporter to a heart monitor — you can see that IDEO’s vaunted “design thinking” has long been grounded in a lot of “design doing.” The kind of design that IDEO has brought to bear in this space is, “Design to improve usability.”

Today, designers in the technology industry are working hard to speak of design in these terms of Nightingale and IDEO’s intentions to use design for understandability and usability.

And with the publication of the 2015 Design in Tech Report, I showed the intersection of design and profitability by highlighting designer co-founded startups like Airbnb and Pinterest that have collectively raised billions of dollars in the last decade.

However, it’s difficult to distinguish the word “design” from another common use in the consumer world – which is to seduce consumers with perfectly polished surfaces and comforting aesthetics.

As someone who studied traditional electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, I don’t find it surprising at all – because a traditional technical education, or business education for that matter, doesn’t go deep into the history of art and design.

The role of design in doing the job of making something more attractive — “Design for getting noticed” – is an ancient craft that goes back to the symbol of the cross all the way to the brightly lit apple logos on the lids of many laptops today.

Design for Understandability and Usability

Back to the present, we had a full room at a recent KPCB event – my partner Lynne Chou led a fantastic panel with Michelle Kim, Patrick Morrow, and Megs Fulton. They all addressed design as framed within the aforementioned spaces of understandability and usability.

Michelle Kim, lead designer at Mango Health, thinks designers should be gamifying healthcare apps so they are fun to play. Kim posits that the same person who enjoys playing Candy Crush Saga, should also have as much ease managing their chronic illness.

The difficult design problem sits within the fact that each user is different depending on the patient’s diagnostic history – so one size can’t fit all, as would be the case of a videogame design.

Kim enhances understandability by leveraging a patient’s familiarity with something they already know. Designers tend to have a broad vocabulary of objects and experiences in the world that they use to help a user “rhyme” something new with what is already old to them. In doing so, they create a context for a new user to be more apt to feel they can understand something new.

Practice Fusion, the cloud-based electronic medical system, mirrors the real-life workflow of a doctor’s office. Patrick Morrow, principal visual designer at Practice Fusion, explained that the front desk person spends a lot of time in the calendar system, while a nurse requires charting workflows for one-on-one meetings with patients.

Morrow’s example illustrates how usability cannot be designed for without understanding the social and physical mechanics of the context for a real-life user.

In the past, many health technology IT services that were primarily designed by engineers lacked this empathy for the user because it was simply impossible for engineers to sit within a hospital waiting room or in a doctor’s office. That is now changing as designers are being brought early into the process of designing digital health services to ask the question, “How many of our potential users have we talked to, or visited?”

Design for Profitability and Performance

After Lynne’s panel I hosted one with Misfit founder Sonny Vu and Jason Mayden, a professor at Stanford’s and the former global director of innovation for digital sport and former senior global design director for the Jordan Brand at Nike.

From Jason, came what I think is a key aspect of design that is implicit and important in business today: Design for performance. Mayden’s design mentor at Nike, Tinker Hatfield, taught him that great design comes from working within extreme constraints.

Mayden learned from Hatfield how the material choices in a shoe design could cost an athlete the gold medal if the extra weight slowed the athlete down. As Mayden said that evening, “Great design is great restraint – every ounce, every stitch, matters.”