How to Break the Curse of Habit

 In Human Factors & Usability Testing, Medical Product Design

Our brains are like a GPS mapping app, automatically adapting to a constant stream of information and only occasionally asking us to choose an alternative route.

That automatic decision-making process driven by our subconscious is both a blessing and a curse for medical product companies.

The good news is that people who repeatedly use your product will adapt to its imperfections and form habits that enable them to accomplish their task on autopilot.  As time goes on, their automated process will become “the rule” for how they will interact with it.  If your product becomes successful, it may become so influential that it establishes the standard of use or care for an entire industry.

Unfortunately, habits, expectations and industry-accepted standards can become barriers to innovation.  The people who use your product the most are so invested in their habits that they can’t simply tell you how to make it better.  For the same reason, neither can the people working at your company.  While your staffers may be some of the smartest people in the world, their deep domain expertise limits their objectivity and hampers their ability to think outside the box.

For example, while observing veterinarians in the field x-raying horses, we saw how everyone kneeled in the dirt to view equipment images.  When we asked vets about it, most said that it was no big deal and that it was just the way it had always been.  An entire industry had adapted to an uncomfortable and awkward way of working.

I offer a three-step method for breaking the curse of habit. This method will help you see through your customers’ eyes and transform their pain into innovative solutions for your company.

Watch People

In battling addictions, we have heard that the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one.  In business innovation, the first step to solving a problem is to identify the problem itself. This is done through a process we call opportunity mining.  I’m not talking about mining easy-to-find informational nuggets from customer complaints or sales team intelligence. Heck, startups launching their first product wouldn’t even have access to this type of information.

I’m referring to the really hard-to-find stuff, the invisible challenges your customers have just simply “gotten used to” and turned into habit. In some cases such as the portable x-ray example, an entire industry “got used to” awkwardly bending over to use their equipment.

The key is to become a fly on the wall and watch people during their daily routine. It might be observing trained surgeons in the operating room or following around diabetics through the day as they monitor their condition.

Seeing what’s invisible requires a fresh set of eyes, which is a problem for most companies. As I’ve indicated, it’s virtually impossible for your team to be objective and unbiased.  Their constant exposure is blinding them in the same way it blinds your customers to their own problems.

Optimally, you should find an expert in conducting ethnographic research who is not surrounded daily by your product or service.  An outside human factors team can do this or at least bring in someone from a different division of your company to help diagnose the situation.

Consider the Big Picture 

You will be tempted to send back the insights to your team as they are uncovered, but that’s not the best approach.  More than likely, the challenge(s) you’ll witness are symptoms of a bigger problem.  A design team that scurries off to apply band aids is covering up the opportunity for innovation that might require surgery.

For example, the research we conducted for the x-ray device yielded about 10 key findings, each of which caused the clinician pain.  If our client had opted to solve just a couple of them, their customers would have been happy with the incremental changes and it would have been back to business as usual.  They decided to solve all 10 instead, fundamentally changing the clinician’s standard workflow.  This resulted in the industry’s bestselling digital x-ray system of all time!

Take the time to carefully review individual findings in the context of each other.  Group, sort, and compare them until the truth reveals itself, a topic I cover in The Quest for the Truth in Medical Product Design.

Try Something Entirely New

Don’t be afraid to think big initially and follow your “what if’s” to something disruptive and potentially game changing.  After all, that’s exactly how your industry’s possible future market leader – toiling away in some garage – is thinking right now.  A big idea with tons of potential can always be trimmed down but escalating a small idea into a big business opportunity is nearly impossible.

Regardless of whether you’re going to transform your industry or simply make an incremental change, finding the best solution involves collaborating with the people who use your product the most.  Look beyond the immediate users to include the folks who will service, clean, store, or purchase your product in bulk, for example.

A critical early step in designing the x-ray system for our client was to generate solutions, from mild to wild, that were based off our key research findings.  In short order, they materialized and we took low-fidelity mockups back out into the field for clinicians to physically interact with and evaluate.  The secret was structuring the evaluation sessions in a way that encouraged them to build on the ideas and make them better.

One common pitfall to avoid is designing in a silo and spending way too much time perfecting the perfect prototype for customer feedback.  A better way is to quickly generate solutions, create serviceable mock-ups  and effectively engage users to evaluate AND build on your ideas.  But wait there’s more…. once is not enough!  If you truly want to replace your customer’s pain with delight, you might need to repeat this step a number of times.

Bad habits are like a ticking time bomb.  Someone, sometime, is going to see past the obvious to offer your customers and the industry a better way. To create or maintain a business advantage, wouldn’t you want that someone to be you?


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