The Frustrating Pursuit Of Experience Design Excellence In Healthcare

I had a meeting yesterday with a very well-respected experience design agency. The purpose was to try to identify opportunities within the healthcare sector (writ large) for the kind of work that they do. Its approach sits between what a traditional agency does (which focuses on campaigns and visual design) and what a consultant/systems integrator does (which focuses on technical architecture and systems design). Its focus is on designing technology-based experiences that are engineered — from the back end to the front — to meet users’ needs.

We could collectively identify a plethora of opportunities where healthcare firms (payers and providers) could benefit from its services: health insurance member service sites that need a user-centered re-engineering to achieve their self-service mission; wellness initiatives that need to engage users in difficult and sometimes-unappealing tasks; patient communication platforms for hospitals; and even EMR interfaces to streamline clinician workflow.

Where we struggled was to find the buyers with the vision and appetite to undertake the kinds of changes these experience overhauls would entail. On the health insurance side, we stumbled up against the fact that the typical website/mobile solution owner has no control over the content presented on digital platforms (and most of that content can best be described as inscrutable). She also often has little ability to access the kinds of source data (read claims, billing, and benefits data and rules) that would enable her to display meaningful information online — as opposed to simply regurgitating the incomplete content that is distributed to health insurance consumers in offline media.

On the hospital side, we found a little more optimism — mainly because pending changes in reimbursement models are pushing hospitals to consider new digitally-based workflow and communication platforms. But we feared that a focus on installing the plumbing (EMR platforms, clinical decision support tools, data management and analytics platforms, etc.) would cause all but the most enlightened hospital systems to overlook the importance of the interface and broader user/customer experience processes. We thought about technology vendors — goodness knows EMR systems are not known for their usability or user empathy. But there, too, we feared that the vendors are not ready to embrace the fact that they could benefit from employing outside expertise.

Of course there are exceptions to each of these dire assessments of healthcare’s level of user experience enlightenment. But are there enough exceptions to build a business, or at least justify investment in the kind of healthcare know-how and regulatory expertise that helps win contracts? That remains a frustratingly difficult question to answer. And it means that talented design experts like my client don't get to apply their skill sets in an industry that could so benefit from their expertise. I’m in search of stories of directors, managers, and executives in healthcare that have the courage to buck the bureaucracy. What sets these visionaries apart, and how do we find more of them? Your input is most welcome!


Very true...but theres hope..

I can tell you that in my organization we are spending quite a bit of time thinking through many of the items that you discussed with that agency. There is no doubt that getting the cultural shift towards thinking in a more customer-centric way is a marathon and not a sprint, but we do have leadership on the business and IT side that believes its the right way to do. We are attempting to do it in smaller steps rather than larger ones but know that in the future this is where we need to be headed.

Experience Design in Direct to Consumer Healthcare Business

I am the founder of a direct to consumer healthcare business startup that needs experience design experts to help us transform the data collected by wearable, "body computing" devices and personal home medical monitor systems (like the Zeos Sleep Monitor). I would love to discuss this subject with you.

Jim Meehan, MD