'When emergency doctors are saving lives, UX can help'

umlaut expert Teresa Brell on the opportunities presented by good UX in the healthcare sector – and the responsibilities of manufacturers of medical devices.

Ms Brell, why is it that fitness apps are getting smarter and smarter – and yet some medical devices still function in the same way as they did in the year 2000?

I can be quite honest here: I feel the pain that users experience. Of course it's frustrating when the interface on their insulin pump is less straightforward than the one on their smartphone. Or when devices in the work environment – for example, hardware and software in the hospital – are not intuitive enough or fail to meet the requirements of the processes being handled. However, it's difficult to make a comparison. The hype surrounding fitness apps is still relatively recent, and the interfaces are often correspondingly up-to-date. Also, apps that are designed to improve training are not classified as medical devices – and this means they are subject to fewer regulations.

Why is the user experience nevertheless important for manufacturers of medical devices?

Many companies assume that UX will first of all mean a reduction in what is provided. This raises concerns because, particularly for software, the evaluation criterion is often: has everything been included to ensure that we are covered from a legal point of view? But ensuring completeness doesn't mean that you can't provide a good UX or usability – quite the opposite. In situations where I need to structure and communicate a great deal of information, the UX in fact becomes especially important.

This reminds me of a widely held prejudice: elegant design but no substance.

That's right – with medical devices, trust is paramount, and accordingly also habit. In this situation, it is easier to decide in favour of the "old and sturdy" device, and providers are understandably cautious about changing anything in a product's design. However, usage habits also change in a rather dynamic fashion and, at some point, "old and sturdy" becomes simply "old". We are therefore trying to establish other ways of building trust. For example, by making it clear to users that their needs are being taken seriously. Furthermore, by employing user-centred design, simple methods can be used to avoid serious mistakes before proceeding further – and this ultimately also saves money in the development process.

What does a UX-focused development process look like?

A project that we are currently working on is the redesign of the "Telenotarzt" (remote emergency doctor). The system makes it possible for an emergency doctor to be connected up to the ambulance via video and data transmission, i.e. there is no need for them to drive to the location where the patient is being treated or to be present in person. This saves time and can therefore save lives. The first thing the project team focused on was defining the requirements – and then we started talking to the end users. Firstly, to get a clearer idea of the possible user scenarios and to find out which functions users would like to have. But also to discuss how mistakes in using the system can be avoided. On this basis, we are now building a new prototype, for which we are developing information architecture and a navigation structure supported by iterative testing.

What have your findings been in this project?

The predecessor product is already in use, but in some areas we plan to focus more strongly on the user-related scenarios for application. This means that we will collate information in the places where it is needed. We will get rid of superfluous visualisations – and instead give more emphasis to critical values. We will cut down on the number of interactions needed during use. After all, we are talking about a setting in which saving a few seconds can be critical.

You have already touched on the subject of "avoiding mistakes" – why does this play an increasingly important role in UX decision-making?

Depending on their classification, medical devices are subject to various different requirements. "Usability errors", meaning errors in terms of suitability for use, have become even more significant through the harmonisation of the FDA regulations in the USA and EU standards. Companies are in many cases obliged to provide documentation to show that they have made active efforts to address the subject of usability – even retrospectively for products that are already on the market. Transitional regulations in this area will be phased out in the coming years, and there will be great demand for recertification. Why not use this opportunity to improve your own product?

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Teresa Brell

Teresa Brell