Skip to main content
Skip to footer

6 UX Design Principles for Health IT

Published on 12/11/2017

When I tell people that I work within User Experience (UX) at a health IT (HIT) company, I occasionally get a small degree of bewilderment as a reaction. UX is a concept very commonly associated with everything from mobile app design to website interfaces and even the video game industry. What could it possibly have to do with health care?

To that, I will say: everything.

UX is about more than just creating user-friendly applications. It’s a state of mind – a perspective that favors taking a human-centered approach to creating solutions. I can think of no industry better suited to focusing on helping people than health care.

I get it, though: UX design can sound rather abstract – and even a little bit buzzword-y – to anyone who hasn’t had much exposure to it. There are some core principles of UX design thinking, though, that I rely on day in and day out, when I’m considering how to help build a solution, whether it’s making a clinical interface more intuitive or a mobile app that empowers consumers to easily access their data.

I’m a big fan of Stephen Anderson and his UX hierarchy model. From that, here are six key UX principles that I’ve taken from him that we consider when thinking about design:

UX Principles #1: Functional

When we’re designing an HIT app or solution, we’ll typically start with the high-level requirements that have come from an individual client or group of clients: They have a need that must be fulfilled, and it’s our responsibility to think about every step in the process and ensure that the application meets their needs.

For example, let’s say we’re designing a solution for ordering medication. When we consider the functional aspects of this solution, we’re considering the flow: How many clicks does it take to complete the order? How many screens does the user encounter? If we implemented a voice-control option, would that make navigation easier? What have we missed? Have we ensured we’re meeting not only all the requirements this solution must fulfill, but any potential knock-on effects too? That last question is critical, because if the solution isn’t meeting its requirements, both expected and unexpected – in other words, if it’s not fully functional – then it’s not good enough and more refinement is needed.

UX Principle #2: Reliable

What do we mean by “reliable” software? Reliability comes in several areas: software stability, data integrity, the speed that the front-end of the solution interacts with back-end services and, of course, consistency.

From a design standpoint, let’s go back to our medication-ordering solution example: Ideally, we want all clinicians to have the exact same experience across the solution, every time they use it. If there is any continuous variance – in either the time it takes to make it through the workflow, the order of the tasks that need to be completed or even in the interface design – then, sadly, the solution is not reliable.

To help ensure reliability, we must make careful, measured change with a view to continuous advancement and improvement of the solutions. This requires finesse and a deep relationship between our clients and the user research team to test effectively, measure change and reliably improve the experience as we proceed.

UX Principle #3: Usable

When we say our solution needs to be “usable,” we’re talking about taking the functional and reliable principles above and taking the experience to the next level by focusing on intuition and ease of use for the end user.

A clinician will interact with our software throughout the day, utilizing many different components across a massive, complex suite of solutions. It’s our responsibility to not only focus on the functional needs that they have, but to also emulate their way of thinking. We have to anticipate and understand the next step that they would take in the process as if they designed the software themselves.

Not only that, but we also have to ensure that they can move from passive to active states effortlessly, easily moving from reviewing patient data to documenting change and initiating orders before being able to move on to the next patient, all the while making sure that these solutions are safe, reliable and meeting strict regulatory requirements.

Usability applies to all of the above, and the more we focus on it, the better the solution becomes.

UX Principle #4: Convenient

If we’re performing our job well on the previous principles, then by some measure, we automatically get to a place where we’re creating more convenient solutions. That combination of functional requirement implementation, reliable design patterns and enhanced usability leads to a much-improved experience that gets our users through their day a lot quicker.

But in many ways, convenience is an ongoing, evolving goal for UX. We are always looking at ways to improve the design of the software, but we also must acknowledge that the hardware and availability of new technologies are always moving forward, too. As we consider the massive growth of mobile and tablet over the last 10 years, we must now consider the implication of voice control, artificial intelligence and even augmented and virtual reality and determine how many of these new technologies make the lives of our end users more convenient. Which of these new technologies are red herrings that run the risk of slowing the user down or make them more detached from their patients?

A convenient solution is one that has not already been well thought out and designed in the moment, but it also has a long-term plan that’s future-ready.

UX Principle #5: Pleasurable

If I could use a sports analogy: The HIT application should be like a referee at a sports game. How do we know when the ref had a good game? It's because no one cursed at him, complained about him and he didn’t get in the way of the action. That's the baseline for a pleasurable solution: If people are using our solutions and are frustrated by it on an ongoing basis, then that is clearly not a pleasurable experience. When we evaluate an application’s capacity for pleasure, we’re examining – and, more importantly, investigating – what is causing that negative reaction.

This is where emotional design can enhance the experience further. It should be noted that this is a very subjective area of design, focusing on how we want the end user to feel when using the solution as opposed to more functional mechanics, such as measuring performance, clicks, speed and other more tangible constructs. But without taking the extra step and incorporating emotional design, a solution can meet our first four principles and, yet, still not be pleasurable.

Think of it this way: Most of us have apps on our phones that we get a real sense of joy when we use them – there's something almost magical about them that makes us come back to them and wins us over when considering the 10 other variants of the same app that are available. That pleasure principal is what we're looking for in our solutions.

UX Principle #6: Meaningful

What does it take for a solution to be meaningful? This is the most elusive design element. It’s the apex of design, and you must work hard on every aspect of your applications to get into this territory.

For a solution or an app to be meaningful, I believe that all the previous principles must be there, creating an aesthetic “whole” that engages the end user completely. For a clinician, that medication-ordering solution is something they’ll come back to time and time again, because it's part of the job; they have to use it. However, I don’t think the solution should feel like a chore. It should feel like a natural extension of their work and quickly and intuitively help them.

At its core, meaningful design is about focusing on what’s most important to the person using the solution and making that the center point of the whole experience. A clinician has the innate ability to make an extremely positive difference in people's lives, and the solution should help them to do their job more effectively and empower their success, allowing them to spend more time with the patient, accomplish their goals quicker and make the overall experience delightful for them. If we can achieve all those goals, then we’re truly making something that’s meaningful, and our end users deserve nothing less.

Do you want to see Cerner's UX design team in action? Take a look at some of our ambulatory solutions to get an idea of what we're capable of. Learn more here.