healthcare user research


User research is typically reserved for digital designers building apps and websites. it’d not be where it came from, but today it’s often thought of as a digital-only field.

In reality though, understanding how people navigate complex systems — be it an internet site , an airplane cockpit, or the healthcare system — is usually getting to make the system better.

With COVID top of mind and more eyes (and awareness) on our healthcare system than ever before, we thought it’d be worth watching how user research is often wont to improve patient care.

Here we go!


What is user research?

Before we start, let’s just get this out of the way.

User research is once you study the users of your product, system, or service and use that information to tell your design or solution. You study their needs, wants, and behaviours, then build specifically for those personas, use cases, or challenges you’ve uncovered.

There are plenty of methods utilized in this broad framework, but they’re generally bucketed as qualitative and quantitative. 

Quantitative methods are focused on learning the user behaviour that’s happening already, or what would happen if presented with a group of problems. It’s about filtering out opinions and getting right down to the hard facts of what users actually do (or would do). Methods include:

  • Surveys
  • Formal experiments
  • Guided usability tests

Qualitative methods are more focused on the who and therefore the why. Who are the people using this technique, (beyond demographic data), how do they think, and what do they need? Second, why are they doing what they do? What motivates their behaviour? Common methods include:

  • User interviews
  • Ethnographies

Regardless of how you are doing it, the purpose is to place your users at the core of your product or service, and build and style accordingly.

Now that we’re clear on what we’re talking about, let’s dive into how it can improve healthcare.


  1. Designs out medical errors

Medical errors are an enormous problem. Medical errors run the gamut from the harmless mistakes just like the wrong bandages being applied to the incorrect surgery being performed. In 2019, they accounted for 28,000 deaths in Canada.

They’re a really significant issue.

And they’re not an easy problem to unravel. The healthcare system is immensely complex, and nurses and doctors are under huge cognitive loads for very long hours.

An easy example is medication. Drugs are available in pill or liquid form and, barring some examples, are beaten just about identical boxes and appear just about an equivalent. Apart from the challenges of probably prescribing the incorrect medicine, it’s very easy to accidentally administer the incorrect product. 

This features a huge impact on patient wellness, and potentially even patient outcomes.


  1. Uncovers non-medical healthcare challenges

Most of the interactions between patients and therefore the hospitals they use are (understandably) about their treatment and healthcare.

But there are plenty of other factors, particularly in hospitals, which will impact quality of care which will be simmering under the surface. 

These could also be impacting patient outcomes, and almost definitely are impacting the standard of care. User research could also be helpful in uncovering a number of these challenges, especially for specific user groups who the system wasn’t designed for (e.g. non-native English speakers).

Of course, with any user research in an incredibly complex system, you’re likely to seek out some things that are awful — and really difficult to vary . But you’ll also usually find quick wins which will improve the standard of care without making major changes to the system.

User research can assist you find those quick wins and quickly juice your quality of care.


  1. Increase pre-patient selfcare / triaging

There are two significant problems that user research could also be ready to address in healthcare. 

First, the experience of being a patient are some things that the majority of people don’t do often. It’s not a system you recognize or a world you’re conversant in , and since of that, it’s difficult and stressful to understand what to try to do .

Overlay that with the strain of an illness, and you’ve got an ideal storm for a poor experience.

At an equivalent time, tons of what the healthcare system does is reassure and validate deciding . It’s there, in part, to form experts available to people in order that they can observe decisions about their health. For instance, once you attend the doctor to urge something “checked out” and they say do nothing, it’s not a wasted trip. You’ve validated that you’re doing the proper thing.

Second, the time that valuable medical staff spend collecting essentially routine information makes wait times longer and healthcare costlier. And if Chris Kiess’s experience is anything to travel by, this routine information is collected multiple times. 

User research could potentially address these problems by: 

  • Helping patients understand what experience to expect
  • Helping patients know what information goes to be expected
  • Streamlining how that information flows into the system to the proper people at the proper time
  • Understanding what information is required and when
  • Mapping the general user flow and finding friction points or problems and designing better solutions to deal with them


Quality of care may be a patient-centric question

Quality of care is fundamentally about improving the experience and outcome for the patient. It’s a user-focused question, and thus a user research approach is the natural fit.

From addressing challenges that have direct impact on health outcomes like designing out medical errors to challenges that have an indirect impact, like improving how information flows to the proper doctor at the proper time, user research can do tons within the background to form a stressful experience a touch bit easier.

Because like anything, the medical apparatus didn’t just happen. it had been designed, deliberately or not — which suggests that style could be one tool to repair it.