Missing at HIMMS: Human-Centered Design in Health Tech

By Lisa Helminiak

March 15, 2014

Health tech struggles to put users at the center of the design process. What gives?

We recently got back from our first whirlwind trip to the HIMSS conference, held this year in lovely but still recovering New Orleans. While we saw much improvement and recovery throughout the city, we were disappointed to see a lack of improvement in most of the health care tools and services that were on display.

HIMSS is a health information technology industry organization founded to provide leadership and management practices to improve heath care. This is the show where everyone struts out their latest electronic medical records (EMRs), health information exchange systems (HIEs) and other technical tools designed to bring down medical costs and improve efficiency and outcomes of care.

Across the board, it was apparent that the technologies we saw at HIMSS were designed from the inside out, meaning that engineers took a data-centric view towards functionality rather than observe how these tools are used by real people. As we sat through multiple software demos, it was clear that much of what we saw was not intuitive to use. While there was a lot of gleaming hardware that looked modern, ergonomic and patient-friendly, the software either had a late last-century aesthetic or looked like a spreadsheet meant to manage data for the bean counters. Most designs didn’t even follow basic hierarchical practices like guiding the eye toward the most important information on the screen—a critical consideration for tools used in medical environments.

We understand that these are complex systems. They manage a great deal of data for diverse audiences, sometimes in life and death situations, but the same can be said for air traffic control systems. The financial services, logistics and retail industries are managing incredible depths of data that connect to regulators, consumers, and risk assessors. Not that these industries have mastered everything, but there are players within who understand that the management and transfer of information needs to be designed from the outside in. Most people working in North America are now frequent users of technology. Google, Facebook and YouTube are used ubiquitously. We demand a high level of design and intuitive functionality that doesn’t require technical manuals and extensive training to understand.

EMRs, HIEs and other health care technologies can improve care outcomes and reduce costs, but only if they are more widely and effectively used. To encourage adoption, technology companies need to start adopting human-centered design processes. Systems have to be designed for the environment they will be used in and for the people who will use them. How can we help get health providers away from a keyboard in an exam room? How can we ensure they can get the right information into the system without sacrificing eye contact with their patients? How can we make providers’ jobs easier, not add another administrative annoyance to their daily schedules?

Health care technology developers should beg, borrow and steal all they can from the best-designed, consumer-focused software, apps and web services we are surrounded by every day. Designers should be in the room from the very first discussions about a new health technology. Users should be observed working with technology in their jobs as heath providers or administrators. Product development teams need to be intimately aware of where their technology will be used, by whom and in what context. This orientation would go a long way toward correcting the issues with health technologies on the market today.

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