Last year I gave a short talk about designing for both physicians and patients at a Design + Healthcare event hosted by John Maeda and Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. Prior to this, most of my time as a designer working in the healthcare industry was spent at Spruce Health, where I designed a mobile application that enabled patients to be treated remotely by a dermatologist. Shortly after that talk, Spruce shifted the direction as a company and turned the technology behind the dermatology clinic into a platform any physician could use in their practice. Very quickly, I went from designing an experience focused on patients to one that was focused on physicians. As a result, I was forced to rethink how I approach problems through design and redefine what it means to drive change.
Innovation isn’t in the UI
As a designer, it’s easy to get caught up in the desire to create something new and innovative, especially in a space that’s just starting to uncover the value of design. After making the switch to designing a product primarily aimed at physicians, I discovered that in healthcare the opportunity for innovation goes far beyond the user interface. For the Spruce dermatology clinic, the experience relied heavily on the interface to build trust and inspire confidence that a medical visit through an app could be just as good, if not better, than an in-person visit. As I began to design more for doctors, I found myself spending less time designing a user’s interactions with an interface and more time designing interactions between people. It takes more than a physician to care for all of a person’s health needs — every patient interaction is a flurry of coordination between doctors, nurses, specialists, medical assistants, office managers, and the front office staff. In this context, the product design takes a supporting role to facilitate those interactions to help clinicians and medical staff be more efficient and effective, allowing them to keep their focus on their patients.
It’s okay to be obvious
The next thing I learned came through the humbling experience of having to explain to a customer how to use something I had designed. At Spruce, we rotate through a daily customer support shift. During one of these shifts, I found myself on a support call trying to describe to a customer how to configure their account:
“Just tap the settings icon,” I told them, “and then-“
“I don’t see a settings icon” they interrupted.
I trailed off as I looked at the icon we used to access the settings screen, thinking both how best to describe it and wondering why we didn’t just use something simpler and more straightforward. This interaction is the reason that now when embarking on a new project, I’ve made a habit of writing down how I would describe what it is I’m designing for the customer. I’ve learned that if an operation can’t be described simply and easily, it’s likely more complicated or overwrought than it needs to be. That doesn’t mean just limiting yourself to using native components or tried and true patterns without exploring other options. Novel solutions come at a cost, and it’s important to understand ahead of time whether what you’re working on justifies something new (or if you’re possibly just doing something different for the sake of being different).
The third lesson learned was that I needed to redefine what it meant to have impact as a designer working in healthcare. Sometimes, working in healthcare can feel like you’re not making any progress, especially compared to the shiny new internet of things gadget of the week. Day to day, much of the work seems incremental, even if you’re working at a startup that’s shipping regularly. Over the past year, I’ve come to realize that these incremental changes add up, and the culmination of these minor improvements are what have the ability to drive meaningful change. Working on the tools that healthcare professionals use everyday means that your contributions have a multiplying effect to create a meaningful impact in lives of not just the people using your product, but also the patients they serve.
From the outside, the healthcare industry seems to be a potentially messy and unappealing tangle of insurers, hospitals, laws, regulations, bureaucracy, and antiquated technology systems. It’s not surprising that many designers shy away from the work because of regulations or slow moving institutions with little appetite for change. There’s never going to be a single product or app that can solve all its problems; trying to use design or technology to “fix healthcare” is like boiling the ocean. But these seemingly endless challenges offer unending opportunities to contribute to improving the lives of healthcare professionals–and in turn their patients–which is what excites me most as a designer today. In just three short years, I’ve learned these three lessons that have made me a better designer, and I’m looking forward to what I will continue to learn in the future.
Megs Fulton is a digital product designer and currently leads design at Spruce Health, a company focused on improving health care experiences for doctors and patients. She lives in Berkeley, CA, with her husband, bird, dog, and two cats. The color of her hair is always changing.