The true value of human-centered research in medical technology

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Hollie Johnston, Principal and Head of Humanities Capabilities at PDD, explains the specifics of Human Centered Design (HCD), discussing how it can improve patient experience, fill innovation gaps in the field health care and eliminate systemic biases.

With recent statistics suggesting that 70% of all projects fail, it’s critical that we do everything we can to set ourselves up for success when embarking on a new design or product development. Every day we are surrounded by products and services that don’t work as expected. Whether it’s a hard-to-follow set of instructions for a new medical device or a complicated setup process, people are constantly forced to develop workarounds to compensate for poor design.

The practice of human-centered design (HCD) was created to combat these issues and is now widely recognized as a tool to create products and experiences that work for their end users and positively impact their lives. .

However, despite the acceleration of the HCD and the broader general understanding of its benefits, trying to fully grasp what people really need remains a challenge, especially when you’re exploring something that didn’t exist before, and the end user may not know what they are missing.

Action speaks louder than words

Although market research techniques can help us explore a defined market segment or identify who might use a new product or service, they are rarely effective when evaluating innovation and implementation. realistic by the end user, in particular in the field of health.

Asking people their opinion on something they use daily doesn’t often translate to insightful results. Asking them questions about something they have never seen or experienced in real life presents even greater limitations.

When you ask someone what they need or how a product or service can be improved, they may be talking about micro changes – something small they want, or what they think they want. Often people find it hard to express what they really need, either because they can’t imagine doing anything differently from the current “norm” or because they accept the flaw in a product. as something they have to live with to improve their condition. Through no fault of their own, most people lack the technical knowledge, insight, and foresight to dream up breakthrough concepts and better product solutions.

With this, we need to go beyond the questions and observe and explore how people interact with the product or experience in a real environment. We need to look not just at how people are using that product or service, and the specific challenges patients might face, but also at their environment and how the product might fit into their lives. Only then can we see what hasn’t been said, get under the skin of users, and identify what they really need.

Human-centered design, or design research, opens up levels of empathy to help us understand how people can interact with what doesn’t yet exist. Instead of surveys or focus groups, we use observations, ethnography, cultural safaris and a range of other tools to assemble a detailed, human-centered picture of the end user, considering each patient like a human being as opposed to a statistic. Rather than relying solely on what people say, we use the tools of anthropology, psychology, and sociology to understand why people behave the way they do. This allows us to get to the bottom of their unmet needs, define the challenges to be solved and establish avenues for improvement and a better user experience.

Design research focuses on why, giving us real insight into who the users really are, what they do and why and how they do it. This is where the opportunities for innovation lie.

Prepare for success

The success of human-centered design is highly dependent on the tools you use and is a very nuanced task where emotional and cognitive elements are equally important.

For example, when researching the medical industry, you might end up talking to someone who has been through something very emotional or traumatic that has a significant impact on their life. In these cases, you need to have a deep understanding of how best to listen and empathize, while guiding the search to ensure that goals are met and useful information is uncovered to inform the design at hand. the future.

Alternatively, you might be in contact with someone whose condition has resulted in significant physical or cognitive impairment. In these circumstances, you must choose the right tools to achieve the research objectives, but also ensure that the methodologies do not influence or bias the results. Just like in physics, the “observer effect” – the disruption of an observed system by the act of observation – is something we need to take into account and minimize as much as possible in design research.

Flexibility is also key, especially in early stage research. Being too prescriptive in the methodologies you use and in directing the dialogue, you risk missing crucial information and ending up with a narrow or segmented picture of potential opportunities. While it is important to have broad goals for research, following a flexible approach allows for greater spontaneity and the potential to adapt the interaction between the team conducting the research and the research subject. In these circumstances, although the dialogue is guided by a predefined scenario, it allows the facilitator to capture interesting information or observations that naturally arise throughout the research session.

In research, choosing the right tools is important; but selecting the right respondents is also key to ensuring holistic results. A major element of successful research activities is the identification of stakeholders; those who have a vested interest in the product, system or service you are going to develop, from the patients themselves to family members, friends and colleagues.

Look back to move forward

As head of the humanities team at PDD, I have a background in design and engineering, with our entire humanities team a cross section of talent with designers, psychologists, ergonomists and more.

This broad and diverse expertise gives us a clear view of what is going on in the development process. We understand patients and their needs, but also the many challenges innovators face when turning ideas into reality – from the limitations of a manufacturing process to the nuances of building digital interactions. At PDD, we tailor our research to produce the best results and ensure the results are always actionable, with insights our clients can use to drive impactful innovation in the real world.

Also, as we go through the development process, we keep looking back. We look at the data to see how things fit together, identify user issues, and frame the most appropriate areas of opportunity. And we never lose sight of users to ensure that the products and services we create can have the market impact we aim for.

Building confidence in times of change

In a world where people have increasingly high expectations of what a product and service should do for them, and the right for a medical device to work effectively and in a way that integrates in their daily lives, being rigorous and having a clear understanding of people’s needs and aspirations is more important than ever.

Innovation requires significant investments, both in terms of time and money, and it is only by developing experiences that truly meet the needs of people that organizations can gain a competitive advantage. Additionally, they can also achieve a better return on investment and stand out as drivers of change in the medical industry and more broadly.

All research should always provide real value. Important questions we need to consider include how specific research opens up new opportunities, how can we act on the results, and how will our work benefit our clients, organizations, and societies.

As designers, innovators and creators, we must never stop asking ourselves these essential questions. Ultimately, research is there to give us and our customers confidence – the confidence that comes with knowing that a new product or experience will have a meaningful and lasting impact on people’s lives, bringing value and a better quality of life.


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