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Entrepreneurs tips for designing successful new health apps or devices

on January 20, 2012

Health and medical companies should spend just as much time designing how a product will be used as they do developing how it works, said healthcare designer and researcher Maggie Breslin during designer day of the 2012 Healthcare Innovation Summit.

This was just one of the takeaways from day two of the summit, which was packed with design experts sharing their lessons learned in developing and bringing to market new consumer health products.

Below are five other key points of advice that kept coming up throughout the day for designers and entrepreneurs working on a new product:

1. Make it simple

Usability is key. A new device, app or platform can’t just work fundamentally; it must also be designed with the user in mind.

“Most of healthcare is after efficacy in the lab,” said Arna Ionescu, the director of product development and user experience at Proteus Biomedical. “The problem is it may or may not be effective in the real world.”

Proteus has developed a system that includes a skin patch and an FDA-approved, ingestible, sensor-enabled chip to help patients remember to take their medication on time.  Ionescu said the company’s design team fought resistance from engineers, who had originally designed something more complex that showed off the systems’ technology.

“We made all the technology invisible,” she said. “What we made visible was the experience.”

2. Make it social

To solve the adaptability problem, new consumer products should not only be usable but desirable. People are ready to engage, especially when they’re diagnosed with specific rare conditions.

“These patients are aching for someone to design something for them,” said Sean Ahrens, co-founder of Crohnology, a mobile information sharing and support network for people with Crohn’s disease and other autoimmune diseases.

Proteus’ Ionescu told the story of a test of a device that measured biometrics including heart rate, steps taken and hours of sleep recorded. When the test was made competitive, a group of business executives changed their behavior drastically to win various challenges against their peers.

3. Make it evoke emotions

“There’s so much pain and fear in healthcare, and we need to figure out how to elicit different emotions,” said Enrique Allen from Designer’s Fund.

A user experience that makes a consumer feel excited, cared for or empathetic is more likely to stick.

4. Create a feedback loop

Massive Health, the company responsible for the Eatery app where users snap and upload pictures of their meals, is aiming to help fight obesity by creating what co-founder Aza Raskin calls the feedback loop.

The reason so many people are overweight is because they need immediate gratification over delayed gratification, Raskin said, like the immediate taste of chocolate cake rather than the delayed lack of weight gain from not eating it. The Eatery gives them that immediate gratification by letting other users rate the healthiness of their meals.

5. Involve the patient early on

“The industry has spent decades ignoring the patients,” said Amy Tenderich, founder of DiabetesMine, a blog that provides support, resources and product reviews for blood glucose and insulin delivery products.

Developers and designers should utilize not only the input of clinicians who work with patients, but with patients themselves as partners during the design process, she said. “Doctors can say, ‘Patients love this device,’ but have they ever taken a shower with it on?”

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