Why empathy matters: one unforgettable year in Healthcare UX

When tragedy accidentally gave me insight into my users

Photo by Dominik Lange on Unsplash

What is empathy in design

The textbook definition of empathy according to IDEO’s Human-centred Design toolkit is that:

My unique background

My family works in the ugly side of healthcare, the kind where people don’t come back. I’ve caught glimpses of devastation from cancer diagnoses when my parents had to work. I’ve seen more than enough pained smiles of nice people going in for treatment and never leaving.

What’s different about healthcare UX

First of all, I recommend that you read Chris Kiess’s post on Healthcare (you might as well read his entire catalog, he’s one of my idols). While I can’t speak for the entire industry, I can speak about some of the differences that I encountered.

Growing pains

I had a chance to wear multiple roles, but I wasn’t happy starting out. The problem with a lot of my efforts, was that I didn’t feel validated as a designer.

Mistake #1: Organizational priorities

In retrospect, it was obvious. I didn’t understand the organization.

Mistake #2: Designing for patients like I designed for doctors

In all my experience designing for healthcare, I was designing for doctors. This was the first opportunity I had designing for patients.

Tragedy, close to home

I don’t want to dwell on the details too much. But someone I considered a mentor committed suicide. He was hiding the fact that he been diagnosed with a neurodegenerative condition, and as it got worse, he killed himself. The ugly side of healthcare, where people don’t recover, struck again.

“What’s it like, for patients who are diagnosed with something likely fatal?”

It was a simple question, but one that I hadn’t asked. I had researched the tools I was supposed to design, the patient’s habits, how they look for information online, and what designs would work well with the branding of the organization.

The cancer patient workflow

My workflow up until now started with a cancer patient somehow ending up on the tool. I had written down some basic task-based motivations (like trying to find this piece of information), but they all came here somehow.

How would you feel if a design inappropriately broadcast that you have a 1% chance to live 5 years?

Suddenly, the refusals of my designs started to make sense. My users might be emotionally vulnerable, having been recently diagnosed with cancer, and my design was going to represent an organization that was a trusted source.

Shifting priorities in design

Personas and motivations

If you’re creating personas, where do you talk about motivation? Maybe you have a few bullet points or a paragraph if you’re lucky. It might be suitable for your users. But it might not be.

How is their day going?

  • If you’re designing something for young mothers, was their kid sick all day, and so they’re covered in sweat from running around, and all they want to do is watch a show? Think about how extra frustrating poor UX must be.
  • If you’re designing an step counting/fitness app to be used for older adults and rehabilitation, are they struggling to start an exercise habit after decades of inactivity? Think about how not properly counting steps and feeling shame at low step counts will cause them to quickly abandon your technology.
  • If you’re designing something to be used by parents of children on the Autism Spectrum, is this a good day? Or is this a day where they simply won’t want to interact with anything?

Why I wrote this piece

I’m pretty sure that I’ll never forget about empathy in design thinking ever again.

Top writer in UX Design. UX, Data Visualization and Data Science. Author of Data Persuasion: https://tinyurl.com/rndb9bw. Substack: dataanddesign.substack.com

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