Empathetic app design encourages patients to stick to a treatment plan, empowers them to participate in their own care and improves their health.
Rex Chekal, TXI
Adoption of digital health tech has exploded during the pandemic, but the story is different for digital health apps.
Just 18 percent of patients used a digital health app in 2021, a major drop from previous years. One reason for lagging adoption? A lack of empathy in design.
Using a digital health app can be a highly personal experience, and patients want an app that makes them feel cared for.
With an empathy-first approach to app development, digital health leaders can boost app adoption, which helps patients adhere to treatment protocols and leads to better health outcomes.
Listen to your users
Many digital health apps have two user groups: patients and providers. To design with empathy, it’s important to understand each user group’s unique needs.
In many cases, the needs of patients and providers align. But digital health companies can’t assume they know what users want. The result could be a product that’s unsatisfying to use — or worse, an experience that’s emotionally harmful.
Instead of leading with assumptions, it’s important to interview users so you can understand their needs. During these interviews, listen to what users are saying as well as what they aren’t saying.
To illustrate, here’s an example from our own product design. We worked with digital therapeutics company Renalis on a digital health solution for patients with overactive bladder (OAB). When we interviewed patients, many said their condition wasn’t a big deal before sharing story after story about OAB’s impact on their daily life.
These interviews showed us two things. First, OAB is a serious and disruptive condition for these patients. And second, the embarrassment people often feel about their symptoms can cause them to downplay that impact. When designing Renalis’ digital health app, we needed to be sensitive to both these concerns.
When we spoke to providers, we learned they most valued actionable, easy-to-read patient data and apps that inspired adherence.
The takeaway for digital health leaders is that deep user research means reading between the lines so you can fully understand user behavior and emotions.
Enable open communication and storytelling
For many patients, it’s sometimes easier to communicate about their health digitally versus speaking with their provider face to face. But in-app communication can still be an emotional experience, especially for patients with stigmatized health conditions.
To encourage app adoption and treatment adherence, it’s important to ensure digital communication is clear, open, and sensitive. In my experience, tools like in-app chatbots can achieve this.
For example, in our work with Renalis, we found that patients responded well to a chatbot that:
- Has a name — This helps humanize the chatbot. Renalis named theirs “CeCe.” Users are more likely to feel like they’re communicating with someone they can trust.
- Exists as a top-level app feature — Patients should be able to easily engage with the chatbot without sifting through menus.
- Uses plain language instead of medical jargon — Complex, technical language can be confusing and alienating.
- Uses gender-inclusive language — This makes the app feel more welcoming to women and nonbinary individuals who are often underrepresented in medical research.
Alongside chatbots, digital health apps can also use stories and data to help chip away at shame and embarrassment patients may have around their conditions.
For example, when patients enter a bladder leak in the Renalis app, it offers context such as, “Did you know 35% of users have leaks after similar activities?”
Timing matters a lot. Sharing stories when patients are at their most vulnerable means the stories function as extra support in the form of empathetic communication. What’s more, each story shows users that their experience is more common than they thought, which helps them develop empathy for themselves over time.
Create simple tools, not extra work
A clunky interface can make any app hard to use. But with digital health apps, a poor UI can have serious consequences for users.
For patients, using the app can become an additional stressor on top of existing health challenges, which can hurt adoption and any benefits the app is supposed to offer. For providers, a hard-to-navigate app can steal valuable time from their packed workdays.
Poor UIs are often a byproduct of insufficient user testing or untested feature stuffing. The result is a user experience that’s more of a burden than a benefit. To design with empathy, digital health leaders should prioritize simple app design that’s useful for patients and providers.
On the patient side, the right design often includes features like clean lines, friendly icons, a mixture of images and text, and metrics visualized over time, like pain levels tracked over weeks or months. For providers, it may help to provide customizable, one-sheet charts alongside clearly highlighted correlations and trends.
The most useful design, though, is the one that users tell you works best. Make sure to get user feedback on every mockup and prototype so you can ensure you’re headed in the right direction.
When digital health leaders design with user needs in mind, they can smooth the path to adoption.
Lead with empathy to boost patient outcomes
Empathetic app design keeps user needs front and center. For patients, the right app can make a tangible difference in treatment outcomes.
A friendly, easy-to-use app can encourage patients to stick to a treatment plan. With consistent app usage, they’ll feel empowered to participate in their own care – and improve their outcomes as a result.
Rex Chekal is a principal product designer at TXI (formerly Table XI), a product innovation firm based on one big idea in three small words: tech done right. Since 2002, TXI has partnered with Fortune 100 companies, startups in Singapore and Tokyo, industry leaders in London and Los Angeles, and mission-driven nonprofits in its hometown of Chicago.
The opinions expressed in this blog post are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect those of Medical Design & Outsourcing or its employees.