Think of the times you’ve wandered around a healthcare setting. Whether you were on the way to meet a best friend’s newborn, dropping flowers off for a post-surgery pick-me-up, or preparing to navigate the patient experience yourself, chances are your anxieties were running high.
You were likely struggling to deal with foreign information: unknown locations, clinical terminology, or confusing maps.
Maybe you were fumbling with your car keys after parking in a rush, struggling to hold gifts, or generally in a state of distress, excitement or confusion.
Any of these reasons are perfect examples of why—when an audience navigates to a healthcare website—a good user experience is critical. Information should be easy to find, easy to understand, and easy to incorporate into your lived experience as a patient or visitor.
Welcome to the healthcare sector, where good UX can be a matter of life and death.
When it comes to digital user experiences, the health sector is one of the more complex environments you can find.
Audiences run the full gamut from birth to end of life. Content covers everything from basic wayfinding directions to in-depth research papers. Information is vast, sprawling, time critical, and often provides essential insight for people with relatively low health literacy. Even basic clinical terminology can be confusing for a lay person.
Try explaining the practical ins and outs of inpatients versus outpatients. It’s surprisingly tricky.
There are thousands of daily challenges in the health sector which can be alleviated, in part, by a well-designed digital experience. It takes knowledge and expertise to navigate them all.
In this piece, we focus on three key practices which should always be prescribed as part of any digital project in the healthcare sector.
1. Take the time to understand. Deeply.
Healthcare websites offer an incredible opportunity to create better patient experiences. Done well, they can inform and reassure patients, and give clinicians more effective tools to inform and advise.
However, each side of the treatment experience is multifaceted. It’s critical to run a full and comprehensive diagnostic before you make any decisions whatsoever.
You’ll have at least two overarching user journeys to learn (and likely many, many more within each stream), because there’s a duality to most healthcare experiences: the patient’s perspective and the clinician’s perspective.
For example, when we partnered with Mercy Health, we had to map and understand the nuance of multiple referral pathways from both viewpoints.
For context, Mercy Health is a dynamic and rapidly growing Catholic healthcare organization with over 10,000 employees throughout Australia. They provide public healthcare across every stage of life: from pregnancy to palliative care, running everything from mental health to multicultural health engagement programs.
As the organisation grew, Mercy Health saw the opportunity to create a clearer, simpler, and more intuitive experience for all audiences, across six different websites for each unique business unit.
Our first insight comes from the planning of the Mercy Health project. This is a process that can’t be rushed and collaboration is key.
Try these techniques:
- Make sure you get the people that matter involved.
Medical professionals are busy and often time-poor, but it is crucial they are included in the design process. They understand their clinical setting—and their patients’ experience—better than anyone. Involving them in workshops will give clarity to the project and the challenges or opportunities it needs to address. It also allows the medical team to understand the endless possibilities a digital solution can facilitate.
- Ensure everyone understands what you are saying.
Doctors and health professionals can often appear to talk a different language. It is important to spend time understanding key definitions, terminologies, and common phrases – and how different terms will resonate with different audiences. It’s the distinction between ‘neonatology and paediatrics’ and ‘newborn care’: which do you think an expecting mum and dad will likely gravitate towards?
- Be prepared to adapt.
By cultivating a deep understanding of your subject matter, you develop an initial direction for the project. However, user testing can completely alter the dynamic and your approach along the way. Many healthcare organisations will have consumer advocacy groups—representative bodies who act on behalf of patient cohorts—who are particularly valuable throughout user testing processes. This is an important stage of the process and one where everyone has to be prepared to adapt.
2. Become an advocate for accessibility.
Imagine a hospital without access ramps for wheelchairs. It’s never going to happen, because when we design physical health environments, we’re fully aware that 15% of the world’s population are people with disability.
It’s strange, then, that so many digital environments only meet the bare minimum for accessibility requirements.
Most of us have never considered how to even use a computer without sight, let alone navigate to a specific website to find the relevant content for a novel personal experience.
Digital accessibility is a crucial prospect for the 2.2 billion people on the planet with blindness or partial sight. Beyond being fundamentally equitable and inclusive, embracing accessibility also means more people can interact with the product you create. It’s a win/win situation.
With the aid of assistive technologies—like screen readers—website contents can be translated into audio material.
To ensure a site is truly accessible, it’s crucial that we approach every aspect of a digital product with a sense of empathy; considering the perspective and experience of people with different abilities.
Working in close conjunction with Guide Dogs Victoria, we’ve picked up a couple of best-practice techniques for accessible content and design:
- Make all images accessible.
Always include alt tags with simple descriptions when uploading images. This ensures that screen readers can identify and articulate the content for people with partial sight. The more specific you can be, the better. Rather than saying ‘the image contains a dog’, ask yourself; would that be enough information alone? What breed of dog? In what setting? Doing what? If a picture’s worth a thousand words, you can surely offer more than a short sentence.
- Imagine your text being enunciated by a screen reader… then make it interesting.
Take a second to think about how you write content. Do you read the words aloud in your head? Does your writing necessitate the right action and emphasis, with the correct pitch and inflection? Although screen readers are constantly improving, they can still struggle with the nuance of written language. As a test, try reading a page of content without any variance in tone; no highs or lows in your vocal pitch. Is it still welcoming, informative and engaging? If not, how can you improve it?
- Consider UX from the perspective of people with partial sight. And always refer to WCAG.
In a healthcare setting, many people will have experienced low vision, blindness, or a change in sight. There are many design practices and principles to adopt in order to create a better experience for people with low vision, like avoiding text over images, maintaining a strong colour contrast, and more. You can find more comprehensive guidance in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
3. Adopt an adaptive bedside manner: change your communication based on who you’re talking to.
We’ve already acknowledged that healthcare websites tackle a wide range of sophisticated topics. To make things even more complex, the patient experience is usually an evolving proposition. That is, different referral and treatment pathways will warrant varying information throughout the patient’s journey, presented in different tones and formats based on their progress in that experience.
For example, if you’ve just found out you’re pregnant with your first child, you may want to consume a lot of information. Initially, you might be looking to learn broadly about the experience or processes associated with having your baby. As you move through the experience, you’ll likely become more familiar with terminology and the type of information you consume will change. It might become more detailed and highly specific.
On the other hand, if you’re referred for surgery and you’re feeling anxious about the procedure, you may only want minimal, basic information delivered with empathy. You may not want to dive into any exacting details, aside from when and where you need to arrive, and what to bring.
In the real-world, a health professional would manage each of these conversations differently by tailoring the way you articulate things. The same needs to happen for a good digital user experience.
In working with Generation Victoria (or Gen V), one key consideration for the project involved communicating varying information to distinct audience groups. As a longitudinal research initiative designed to improve health prospects for a generation, GenV involves different concepts and value propositions for the interconnected audience groups who bring it to life.
In their interactions with GenV:
- Parents of newborn babies: provide their consent for GenV to collect and combine information about themselves and their baby, which forms the basis of the research.
- Health professionals and hospitals: can act as key advocates in supporting parents to participate in GenV, and better understand the long-term impact of their healthcare practice.
- Researchers and policy makers: can use the insights to develop long-term strategies and improved approaches to service delivery.
For parents, it’s about reassurance; they’re entrusting their new born baby’s data to a safe environment. For health professionals, it’s about simplicity: busy health clinicians need to understand and get on board with the project and promote it within their clinical settings. For research and policy influencers, it’s about robustness of practice and detail of information: what methods are being adopted? What information is available?
Each audience needs to access different levels of detail, while not losing trust. And each audience warrants a distinctive approach. Gen V employed three strategies to achieve this.
- Design to communicate confidence.
A clean design style creates a welcoming aesthetic for each of the audiences. Colour choices are bright and warm, while still feeling professional and trustworthy. Icons and animations create interest without distracting from the overarching message, while providing an alternate way for people to understand key concepts.
- Create clear and distinctive pathways with relevant content.
There should be clear and simple cues directing people to the right information for their context or motivation. Creating distinctive audience-based navigation paths allow you to tailor your user experience precisely.
- Set the tone.
Once the pathways are set, it is much easier to ensure the tone, imagery, and content is relevant for each demographic. Warm, open and reassuring for parents; more factual and objective for health professionals. With varying levels of detail required based on audience group, all content needed to come from the same consistent voice, but with differing levels of empathy and information.
Getting your healthcare right is crucial; both off and online.
Just like a physical medical experience, the digital experience takes care, consideration and deep expertise to achieve a positive outcome.
There are several stages to consider.
Miss, or mismanage, any one aspect and the ultimate result won’t be as effective: you might even end up asking for a referral to another practitioner. Done correctly, a healthcare website can be rewarding and inspired, leaving everyone feeling better for the experience.