Guide to User Research for UX in Healthcare Apps

Earlier, we wrote about why customer discovery is a must for startups. Now we’ll talk about how to do it properly when you've decided to build a healthcare app.

1. Sell the idea of user research to decision-makers in your organization

Let’s say you need to build a hospital management app and you kind of imagine what it should look like. But imagination has nothing to do with facts and real people who will use your product — therefore, you should avoid acting on its basis. So you need research.

And, often, you have to explain why user research — interviews, or surveys, or white papers from different R&D organizations — worth spending to people who’ll invest in you (if there’re such people).

User research will give you a customer persona portrait: a portrait that is an archetype of a person who will use your app. Armored with a few of such portraits, you’ll be able to generate more revenue — and to build app design and functionality faster. You’ll be sure what to do and what not to do. In addition, user research will be useful for your future product marketing strategy — you’ll know who to address and which language they prefer.

Human-centered culture is what drives app development further, and as for healthcare, it also has the ability to improve human lives. Think about it: how would Cura save that woman's life if the app wasn’t understandable and robust, and built without users’ needs in mind?

That’s a reason for stakeholders: Good UX actually can save lives.

And the only way to make it good is through research.

Plus, investors are rather fond of founders who know their audience. So you’ll be able to attract them more actively.

2. Prepare precise questions for user interviews

1. No yes/no questions. Closed questions are not good if you want to look for insights beyond the surface — or they need a follow-up. Otherwise, the interview would end too soon or it’ll continue more awkwardly than it started.

  • Don’t: Does alarm fatigue affect your productivity?
  • Do: How does alarm fatigue affect your productivity?

2. Ask five “whys” or other follow-ups after every general question. For instance, a woman tells you that she won’t come to some particular clinic anymore. By asking why / what happened / what led her to that decision, you’ll be able to get to the root of the issue she’d faced, her emotions. The main idea is to find pains your product can ease for these people — and to gather information about these people, their lives, and how healthcare affects them.

Five “whys” are usually used when some issue is stated: then, using a chain of reasons, you’ll be able to dive deep into a route cause of a problem. Five whys are very important for healthcare because it’s B2B: by asking “whys” in patients, you can draw out problems in the hospital and use them as a basis for future interviews with hospital staff.

3. Don’t ask questions with a part of an answer in it. It could be estimates of the time and price of your app, the functionality, etc.

  • Don’t: Would you agree to pay $12 a year to receive news about the latest clinical trials?
  • Do: How much would you agree to pay for the news about the latest clinical trials?
  • Don’t: Wouldn’t it be better to leave comments on X-ray images?
  • Do: How easy is it for you to gather insights from X-ray images?

4. Ask about surroundings, emotions, previous events that led to the issue / or buying decision. For instance, you’re talking to a person who you know pays for a premium subscription in physical therapy app. Ask when did they install it, what caused their decision to subscribe.

5. In the end, tell them about your idea and ask them about features they’d like to see in it and features they absolutely wouldn’t like. Ask them about examples. Try to dive into the language they use describing the functionality of other apps as much as possible. Ask them to show you what apps they’re using. Try to remember how they navigate within interfaces.

3. Know where to look for users of your healthcare app

Analyze the nature of your app and parties of the healthcare operations that will use it.

If it’s an app for hospital management, go to hospitals and ask doctors, nurses, administrators, and emergency care workers for interviews. Ask what bothers them about their work, what is dull, what can be streamlined or optimized. Don’t ask about apps: let them draw out an issue and then ask how they see a solution. If it’s a scheduling/booking app, talk to both hospital workers and patients. You get the idea.

For qualitative research.

In hospitals / private clinics / other care facilities / support groups. Patients and healthcare workers are both here. Before going to any care facility — no matter who are you going to talk to — ask for permission to do it. Prepare questions for both sides of patient care. That’ll allow you to understand the industry better. For instance, private clinic N is visited by people who want everything quick and on the highest quality — and the best surgeons there left their practice in a state hospital X because it was hiring too many young people and firing old experts.

On social media / through personal connections. Shares and reposts on Facebook are a thing — the results, though, would be a bit biased. Reach out to healthcare workers on Quora. Find key decision makers in healthcare institutions on LinkedIn and Facebook — but it’s better to set up a meeting. Remember: your job is not to promote your future product (not your main job, anyway). It is to know if there’s an issue your product can solve and how it can solve it in the best way.

Outdoors. That method also called Guerilla method. Talk to people in uniform in a cafe near a clinic. Talk to random people in glasses. Talk to people who sit (but try not to disrupt their activities too heavily): we know that doesn’t sound smart but it’s only logical that people who sit are not in hurry and will less likely tell you to sod off. Explain who you are and what you doing, but swift to the app building part in the last part of the dialogue. Don’t be afraid, but don’t be too insistent. Ideally, take a partner or a colleague with you: it’ll be much more fun, you’ll be more confident, and you’ll have someone to talk to in breaks between respondents.

Via paid interviews. If you don’t have time but have money, you can always pay in services like Respondent and ask a lot of open questions to the audience, specifically targeted for your future product.

For quantitative research.

Don’t do quantitative research for insights. Numbers — especially if you’re not an expert in probability and statistics — will give you a vague taste about the current state of things on market.

Plus, most popular researches are mostly conducted in the USA or in Europe. So they are not representative enough both in the terms of worldwide connectivity and of people who don’t have constant access to the Internet but have smartphones.

As for custom quantitative surveys, we recommend using them to confirm insights you’ve got from the interviews with real people. You can conduct them on Google Forms, Typeforms, via SurveyMonkey or any other survey tool.

4. Find your soft skills and use them (it’s healthcare!)

Mind personal boundaries. Healthcare is a sensitive matter, and if you want to talk to the patient about their past/current issues with health or healthcare (yeah, relationship with a whole industry could be very bitter — and in the USA, it happens quite a lot), you need to be aware of their boundaries.

Briefly outline the topic of the interview and your goal. Make sure they understand they can stop talking to you any time they feel uncomfortable. Before turning on the recorder, ask them for their consent to gather their data, to keep a transcript on your computer, and share it with your team.

Be an active listener. Follow-up questions are not only a form to understand the deeps root of challenges: they make the person you’re talking to feel engaged.

Communicate that there are no right and wrong answers in your interview: you’re interested in their personality and anything they’d want to share with you will be of value.

If they feel unsure they’re the right people to do the interview with, take them away from this thought: this will probably happen often with elderly people — and they could be the most sensitive and biggest segment of your future app.

And please forget you have a smartphone for any other purpose than recording your conversation. Don’t get distracted.

Watch their face / how they move. Not many people can interpret movement or facial expressions in the right way, but you can remember them and then consult Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions or people who you know are good at this.

5. Post-interview process: hunting for insights and user stories

Write everything down after! Write down everything you’ve been thinking about during the interview, every thought and sudden insight, conclusion, or guess. Yes, that’d be raw, sketchy data, but you’re at risk to forget something important until the transcription process. Don’t forget to show these notes to your team as a part of your findings — that’ll engage them and they’d possibly have some “raw” contemplations or ideas to offer too.

Exploratory UX session - UXM
Exploratory UX session - UXM

Put interviews data and their transcript into the cloud. It could be Google Drive and Google Docs, it could be Confluence, it could be anything you deem worthy. Bottom line: organize a) questions and answers, b) your “raw” thoughts, c) users’ personal information (background, education, etc) at separate blocks.

Brainstorm in the middle of the data storm. What you need to get from your interview is features to include in your healthcare app, their form, navigation between them. Your interview should give you an image of how your potential user will describe some feature: use it to build user journey charts. UX research is done best in a team, so don’t alienate your colleagues.

6. What will you get for your healthcare app after user interviews analysis

First of all, everybody in your team should know them. If you don’t have a team, every newcomer should know them. That will be a minimal draft, a starting point for your future minimum viable product.

From your findings and analysis and — what’s really important — from cross-checking, if customers refer to some event that could be known globally — you will get:

  1. Customer personas. Which are not the wonderful way to target your marketing efforts, but an equally wonderful way to make investors, stakeholders, C-board, and other decision-makers see that issue your app wants to solve exists not only in your mind. They’d see real people, their quotes, learn about their problems and, themselves, discover the gap where your app will come in handy.
  2. User journey and user flow. First is how your personas will reach the goals of an app, what they will feel and see, what challenges may occur on their way to the goal. Second is how to make their journey comfortable and reduce the possible challenges.
  3. Information architecture matrixes/sitemaps. Information architecture is how things will be structured in blocks in your app — and how they would fit into user flows (or how the user flows would fit in them). These things are used for designing navigation and prototyping, and, eventually, for MVP.
  4. Connectivity problem. You’ll probably discover that some of your users — if they suffer from chronic disease, or if they work in few clinics or departments at the same time live as a point of fusion between different healthcare channels which are often disconnected from each other. Take a look at this picture from Chris Kiess:
UX ecosystem for a diabetic

Healthcare’s currently — and has been for a lot of years — on verge of discovering the Perfect Interoperable Solution. Every entrepreneur who works in the field knows what a challenge this is. You will have to decide which channels you want to cover, which gaps to close: local apps with a narrow target audience that reflect local culture and are oriented on local typical issues get more and more popular every year.

5) People for future user tests of your product. In addition, all people you’ve talked to will more likely agree to talk to you once again: which is great, because when you have a prototype or an app, customer research gets more interesting.

Few words about mHealth landscape

More than 80% of mobile time in all markets are spent in apps. App downloads are expected to grow by 45% over the next five years.

At the same time, more than half of mobile users don’t download apps at all: and the older they are, the more of them fits into that category.

On average, most of the installed apps get deleted within a week after the last usage — users delete healthcare apps within 8.8 days. And they re-install only 14% of them.

Mobile app performance metrics worldwide

Why such a big churn? Well, there are different reasons: not enough storage — happens to the best of us. Confusing user experience, which can scare of more than half of your users forever. Noisy sells and push-notifications. The release of another, better app.

Good UX, accordingly, will increase your chances on successful market penetration.

Digital healthcare applications (along with fitness-centric apps) cover near 65,64% of all apps (top places are obviously taken by browsers and social media apps). And you’re planning to make one. You definitely need these interviews.


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