Healthcare Technology
Tue Jan 31, 2017

design-thinkingIf you were asked to determine a theme for healthcare today, chances are you would identify something along the lines of change, reform, or growth. It seems that most discussions related to healthcare seem to focus on how it can be expanded and improved. How can we make healthcare more cost effective, more efficient, and most of all, more useful for patients?

While there are as many different ideas about how to approach change in healthcare as there are patients, one area that shows a great deal of promise is mobile apps. Apps represent an opportunity to find new and better ways of providing care; they can also be powerful tools for both providers and patients in reaching the goals of the modern healthcare landscape.

With great opportunity, though, comes great challenge, and the realm of healthcare app strategy and development is no exception. Developing a healthcare app presents a number of challenges that aren’t present in the development of other apps. For instance, medical and health apps face greater scrutiny in terms of regulatory compliance and data protection.

There are certainly a number of approaches that developers can take to overcome these challenges, but one method that consistently garners results is design thinking.

What Is Design Thinking?

All too often, healthcare app designers (and truthfully, developers in all industries) develop solutions that only solve part of the problem. It’s only natural; in healthcare in particular, there are generally so many stakeholders, each with their own priorities, that their focus naturally shifts to the areas that they can fix.

At the same time, many medical app companies face the problem of having so many options of how they can address problems or improve a service that they become distracted, and focus on features that don’t actually bring any value to the customer. In either case, the final product is rarely what one might consider a success, and doesn’t meet everyone’s needs.

By using a design thinking approach, though, developers have a more structured process that allows for the discovery of real solutions that are both innovative and useful. Design thinking is a human-centered approach, one that is driven by a thorough understanding of what the customer needs and wants, how they can and will use a product, their preferences, and what they expect in terms product packaging, delivery, and support.

Instead of treating user experience as an afterthought, and seeking feedback only as the solution is in the rollout stage, design thinking puts the user front and center from the start, and incorporates a continuous feedback loop to ensure that the final product actually solves the problem it is intended to solve.

Design thinking can best be described as a five-stage process. While the terminology may vary, the general principles do not. The typical process follows this pattern:

  • Learn
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype or Build
  • Refine

Learn. Sometimes referred to as empathizing, learning is the first step in design thinking. In this stage, you seek to gain understanding of user or customer needs, and the “why” of their actions. At this point, you observe your customers, listen to their needs and problems, and watch how they use existing solutions.

Define. In this stage, you use the knowledge you’ve gained in the Learn phase to define the problem. A solution is only as good as the definition of the problem, and in this stage you define both the problem and solution requirements. You might create user personas in this phase, or develop different scenarios to get a better sense of the problem.

strategy-ideateIdeate. Only after you have learned and defined the problem can you begin to develop solutions. In this phase, you look beyond the obvious solutions to find new and innovative ideas. This is when you bring in the technical team, who can bring a fresh perspective to the problem and begin experimenting with solutions.

At this point, the priority isn’t whether or not a solution will actually work — in fact, the wilder the ideas, the better. As time goes on, the team narrows these ideas down to the most promising, but for now, it’s time to be creative.

Prototype. This is the testing phase, in which the most promising ideas are brought to life as prototypes. The goal here isn’t perfection, but rather the opposite: to determine which ideas will not work, and make changes and refinements that will improve others. Some call the products created at this point the “minimum viable product,” which is a fancy way of saying that the app is bare bones, as a means of testing to see if it will work as expected, and if it works how your customers want it to.

Refine. Finally, the last stage of design thinking is refinement. At this point, you gather feedback on the prototypes and make changes as needed. The building and refining stages take the longest, but they are the most crucial. As you move through the prototypes, you can identify and correct issues, eventually coming up with a viable finished product.

Design thinking operates under the assumption that you will not get your app right the first time — and that you shouldn’t get your app right the first time. It also requires a great deal of collaboration and teamwork. However, the payoff is a better finished product that actually meets your customers’ needs, and better aligns with the goal of improving healthcare.


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