The Future of Medicine: Easy to Use

medical images displayed on a mobile phone

We've been working on creating set of best practices for mobile healthcare solutions during the past few months, and it has made us think about the evolution of user experiences and their underlying technology.

Back “in the old days,” at the beginning of our HCI careers, several of us were designing and testing screens at IBM for mainframe Database Applications. These applications ran on 3270 terminals—you know those green screen monitors that you see in 80’s movies. A group of “Human Factors Scientists” applied known best practices and our knowledge of theories of cognitive psychology to help developers create the best interfaces possible, given the technological constraints.

When Graphical User Interfaces, or GUIs, came out in force everyone was scrambling to get existing applications ported to this new platform. This was an exciting time, as the Personal Computer was really taking off. The Windows 3.x environment was exploding and personal computers were slowly becoming more and more available to the masses.

We (user experience professionals) made some serious mistakes in the first few generations of the User Interfaces that were designed for this emerging platform. We did not have a full understanding of the capabilities of the new environments (who did?) so we ended up “porting” the existing interface to the new platform. It wasn’t until the third or forth release of these products did we start to take advantage of the more interactive nature of the Windows-based client GUIs (actually I was working with OS/2, but that is a different story all-together.) As this platform grew and became more and more powerful, we began to focus on the graphics, and included multimedia computing—namely audio, video and touch into our designs. Good stuff!

At around the same timeframe desktop publishing was taking off, as companies like Aldus (Pagemaker) and Ventura Publishing were reshaping the print media industry. Page layout and print design became common tasks performed by graphic designers, technical writers and others who no longer had to rely on expensive outsourcing their print needs.

Then the web changed everything.

We built our first client website in 1995 or so for a divorce lawyer in the Silicon Valley (I think it was Desktop publishers that, perhaps, had inkling for something different created many of the first commercial websites. These early sites, much like the 3270 applications ported to the GUI platform, were mostly online versions of print brochures. Just like the situation a few years back, we didn’t know the technology, and pretty much “ported” yellow pages ads to an HTML format. Eventually as browsers became more and more powerful and scripting languages, such as javascript, became prevalent websites became web applications and the DOT COM boom (and bust) happened.

A few years later, when broadband Internet became widely available the web took off again, but this time, with a deeper understanding of its technology, limits and an understanding of users. It launched the real Internet revolution. Companies like Yahoo!, Google, and Facebook made billions connecting us to information and to ourselves by re-inventing ways that others thought of long ago, but the technology was not able to support.

Enter the mobile ubiquitous Internet. The first set of mobile applications, or “apps” were websites that were “ported” to the handheld device. Because of the smaller form-factor, these apps were made smaller and simpler, not because of some usability or functionality issues, but mostly so that the information can fit on the screen!

At some recent UX conferences we've attended sessions outlining best practices in mobile UX design that provided some great Mobile App design information. But, to us, this information lacks the wisdom gleaned from the many mistakes of the past.

We are currently at the “elbow” of an exponential growth curve of mobile, connected applications. For a mobile application to be successfully in this new world, it needs to fully embrace the connected mobile technology and the power that a ubiquitous high speed network, that connects to a light weight, vibrating, touch screen, GPS, an accelerometer, camera, speakerphone, microphone, Bluetooth enabled device, along with serious amounts of computing power and data (and cloud) storage.

Some thoughts on mobile applications for healthcare:

Location aware is a must. Connecting to the fastest network available given the current location seems doable. Updating things in the background while the clinician is walking down the hall—sounds nice. Why not provide coordinated haptic and auditory feedback for notifications and select user activity? Using barcodes, and/or QR codes for linking to databases, okay that sounds right. Wirelessly connect to various medical devices via Bluetooth and analyzing the data in real time (like an EKG) – awesome.

There is a lot on great technology that we can exploit but we really have to make sure that you don’t use technology for technology’s sake. Don't most of us remember all those websites that had a fancy flash introduction—of which most of us just clicked on “skip.”

When you designing mobile applications for healthcare, or any other domain, we need to make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes as in the past. Figure out what the device can do and design to fully exploit it—don’t settle for the least common denominator port to the new platform. We know the past, we know the technology, and so lets make the future!

More than 50,000 healthcare IT jobs have sprouted since passing the HITECH Act, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates they’ll grow by 20 percent from 2008 to 2018 – much faster than all remaining US occupations per industry. For Jobs in Healthcare Usability and User Experience see:

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