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How to Build Human-Centered Digital Health Experiences Using Design Thinking

Patient and doctor looking at healthcare app on phone

Design thinking helps decision-makers empathize with users—leading to innovative, user-centric solutions to persistent problems. Odds are, we can use more of it in healthtech. 

Healthcare is human-centered. Healthcare technology should be, too.

All it takes is a bit of faith, trust, and a whole lot of… “design thinking,” a human-centered approach to innovation. Design thinking transforms products and services primarily through empathy. Here’s a quick three-stepper on why it works and how you can implement it. 

(Check out the image below, it’s a good synopsis). 

Graphic showing the process flow of design thinking

A simplified look at the design thinking cycle.

1. Empathy & Definition

Empathizing with the user, also referred to as needfinding, is the critical first step of the design thinking process. By focusing on the needs of users—be it patients, providers, members, and/or other key stakeholders—you’ll naturally increase their satisfaction, which inevitably increases adoption and retention. 

Exponential HealthThis process goes beyond asking someone a few questions about how they are feeling and writing it on a clipboard. You need to dig deep, learn their pain, understand their journey, and double back to get their wishlist. As I like to frame it: “put on your unicorn goggles,” by which I mean visualize a dream future state. This can be a very therapeutic process. ;)

For those that want some structure in how they can approach and document this phase, here are some of my favorite exercises to conduct:

  • Persona definition 

  • User interviews / surveys 

  • Stakeholder interviews 

  • Focus groups 

  • Market research / comparative analysis 

  • Narratives 

  • Empathy maps 

  • Task analysis 

  • Journey mapping 

Once you have an understanding of the need (e.g., the pain you need to solve for), you will be better equipped to translate the solution into a digital format. 

2. Ideate, prototype, & test

Ideation is the magic that makes your product standout. Working collaboratively to brainstorm ideas and prepare for prototyping enables an agile and conducive documentation of your vision. Be prepared for back-and-forth because not everyone will think the way you and I do (and that’s part of the magic!). Diversity in thought, collaboration in ideation, and of course rigorous testing as a unit leads to awesome applications. 

Some key steps your team should include in the process are: 

  • Storyboarding 

  • Site navigation maps

  • User journeys 

  • Workflows and integrations

  • Wireframe / mockups 

  • Prototypes and MVPs

Depending on the development approach and technology you use, some of these steps may not be necessary or can be greatly accelerated (*cough* Unqork *cough*). 

If you use a visual development approach (oh idk—a no-code platform, per say), you can whip up a mock-up for business and tech teams to offer actionable feedback within a few minutes (some variability depending on complexity, obv). Your stakeholders can get their hands on a functional application, but with far fewer headaches than using a traditional code-based approach. You can of course use a more traditional approach, but modern visual development tools allow you to build and test high-fidelity prototypes with unprecedented speed. 

3. Implementation & Iteration

Ensuring that your solution is ready for go-live is not the end of the process. Once you have suffered the anxiety of going to production, it’s important to have a feedback loop that facilitates ongoing improvement and iterations. 

The short of it is this: times are a-changing people, and your products and services need to keep up with user and marketplace expectations. To keep ahead of the curve, you need to continuously gather user feedback and monitor utilization analytics. This will help you identify challenge areas and build a roadmap to iterate, tailor, and impactfully improve your product suite. This can be done in the form of:

  • User feedback 

  • A/B testing 

  • Metrics analysis 

  • Performance monitoring

  • Heuristic evaluation 

I’ve used a design thinking approach for years and it works. Actually, it’s a pretty standard MO (modus operandi) for many consultancies. 

Let me know if there are any other exercises you’d add to the ones listed above.

To learn more about the nexus of healthcare and technology, check out other recent entries in Exponential Health or email Olya

About the Author

For the better part of a decade, Olya Ossi has focused on digital transformation and innovation in healthcare. Prior to Unqork, Olya was the head of operations at a healthcare technology consulting firm, serving as general manager and consultant for clients in the healthcare, government, and nonprofit sectors.

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