Medical Device Workflow Is Not The Same As User Experience

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People use your medical device differently than you think they do.  It doesn’t matter what you say during training, or write in a manual or formal “instructions for use” document.  Personal experiences influence our expectations and how we will approach interacting with your product.

This truth is compounded as medical devices and care shift away from hospitals and into the hands and homes of people like you and me.  Medical device makers will no longer be able to expect instructions to be heeded based upon the premise that their products are being used by highly trained technicians or physicians.

Being surprised is often the norm, as when a client asked us to design a next-generation diagnostic instrument for greater ease of use than its predecessor.  The client sought the much coveted CLIA  waiver from the FDA that would allow sales to all the doctor offices out there, not just laboratories and hospitals.  That’s like simplifying a printing press so it can be used as a desktop printer in every office by people like you and me.

Our first task was to learn how the current product was being used in laboratories by observing its use at multiple facilities.  While we were presenting to our client what we had seen, reactions included “they’re not SUPPOSED to do that” or “they CAN’T do it that way” or “no way, that’s NOT possible”. To persuade the client to believe what people were actually doing, we had to play back user interaction videos from those design research sessions.

Folks, this happens on all our projects.  The question is, why are industry-leading domain experts so surprised at how their products are used?   What we’ve found is that clients don’t always understand that prescribing workflow instructions does not settle the question of how the device actually will be used.

We like to think of workflow as a recipe that includes the ingredients and steps required to accomplish a task.  If you are making pancakes, it’s the procedure for adding the dry mix, eggs, oil and milk according to the instructions on the box.

But when my six-year-old daughter and I make pancakes together, we leave out the oil, pick out the eggshell pieces together, add chocolate chips, create heart shaped pancakes for the girls and dinosaurs for the boys, make a fantastic mess, laugh, take pictures and share them on social media.

Prescribing Workflow Is Just A Starting Point

It’s important to realize that the prescribed workflow is just a starting point. A recipe for a robot working in a controlled environment. Yes, you can plan and to some degree dictate the experience you want customers to have with your product. This requires understanding how a user thinks, how past experiences will influence usage expectations, and the context of the surrounding environment. Building this foundation through observation, and incorporating feedback loops into the design process, are essential.

One difficulty is that designing a user experience is “soft and fuzzy” compared to designing the physical product itself that you can touch or a graphical user interface you can see.

User experience typically doesn’t get the same level of attention, support, or respect that’s given to other aspects related to the planning and design of a product.  To avoid this fate, I recommend creating a user experience strategy and plan at the beginning of your project.  The same way you do a product strategy.

We recommend translating it into a physical artifact or map that hangs in plain sight on the wall at your company.  The value of having a physical reminder of the way people actually experience your product, with reference points, is immeasurable. That’s because it’s everyone’s responsibility to understand how their daily decisions impact the experience customers have with your product.

Not creating and using a user experience map during medical device development carries as much risk as not creating prototypes during engineering.   Doing so will increase your team’s empathy, promote important conversations, and lead to better solutions.

Paying attention to the user experience is an essential ingredient in any recipe for a winning medical device product.

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