GuidesPatient experienceHow UX research facilitates human-centered design in healthcare

How UX research facilitates human-centered design in healthcare

Last updated

16 November 2023


Jean Kaluza

Harvard Business School’s blogger Lauren Landry defines human-centered design (HCD) as “a problem-solving technique that puts real people at the center of the development process, enabling you to create products and services that resonate and are tailored to your audience’s needs.” 

It’s an ideal methodology for uncovering user motivations, needs, and everyday challenges to reach practical solutions.

Evidence also suggests that without human-centered design and excellent usability, powerful technology can accidentally hinder healthcare delivery.

So, let’s take an in-depth look at the role human-centered design and user research are poised to play in an industry so vital to all of us. 

What is human-centered design in healthcare?

HCD in healthcare prioritizes the needs and experiences of patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals. One of the hallmarks is systematic, empathetic consideration of their perspectives to develop services, products, and systems. Safety and effectiveness are paramount. 

User experience (UX) research, such as interviews or ethnographic studies, prototyping, and iterative testing, are used to create accessible, user-friendly solutions that align with the diverse needs of individuals in the healthcare ecosystem. 

Ultimately, human-centered design in healthcare seeks to enhance patient outcomes, satisfaction, and overall well-being by putting the human element at the forefront of healthcare innovation.

The objective for usability researchers and interaction designers is to identify project baselines, challenges, and opportunities for improvement, brainstorm solutions, and test them with the users. 

As with any form of user research, it’s essential to refrain from bringing in personal bias, instead tuning into the needs of patients and practitioners through careful observation.

11 characteristics of HCD in healthcare

  1. Safe: The most important element of HCD in healthcare is patient safety. Regardless of how advanced or seemingly efficient a proposed solution might be, it must also keep the patient free from harm.

  2. Data-driven: Taking baseline measurements at the onset of an implementation and continuing to track key indicators after testing is critical. Stakeholders and workers might meet even the best solutions with skepticism if the ROI is unclear or existing work habits need to change. Support even minor changes with appropriate data.

  3. Patient-centered: The needs, preferences, and experiences of patients need to come first.

  4. User-friendly: Both healthcare professionals and patients must be able to navigate and use newly designed technologies and tools.

  5. Efficient: The goal is to streamline healthcare processes and workflows, eliminating inefficiencies and maximizing available resources.

  6. Collaborative: To include all perspectives in the design process, collaboration among multidisciplinary teams, including healthcare providers, designers, engineers, and patients, is crucial.

  7. Accessible: Services and information must be accessible to a broad spectrum of individuals, including those with disabilities or special needs.

  8. Culturally appropriate: The objective is to create solutions that honor and adapt to various cultural backgrounds and beliefs.

  9. Empathetic: HCD encourages designers and healthcare professionals to put themselves in patients' shoes, understanding their emotions, fears, and challenges.

  10. Adaptable: Solutions must be flexible in response to changing circumstances, including evolving patient needs, medical breakthroughs, and shifting regulations.

  11. Continuously improving: As an innately iterative process, HCD involves ongoing evaluation and refinement of healthcare solutions to align them with the evolving needs of patients and healthcare providers.

HCD’s underused potential

One major example of HCD’s untapped potential within healthcare is the existing implementation of electronic health record-keeping systems (EHRs).

EHRs set out to take paper and manual filing into the digital realm, theoretically easing administrative burdens for doctors, nurses, and administrative personnel. 

Sadly, since the adoption of EHRs, the opposite effect has been reported, with many blaming a lack of design forethought. 

For example, in a 2019 cross-sectional survey, American physicians gave their EHR systems' usability a failing (“F”) grade. 

Additionally, the researchers found a strong connection between time spent using dysfunctional record systems and increased clinician burnout rates.

So, it’s clear that painfully overcomplicated UX can result in even more tedious workflows, negatively impacting healthcare workers and, consequently, patients. 

But there is hope. Re-designing record systems to work for instead of against users is possible when researchers solicit sufficiently detailed feedback and user involvement. 

Sometimes, observational research can even help uncover valuable data, patterns, and opportunities that even the system users are unaware of.

Other areas with an excellent use case for a human-centric approach include (but certainly aren’t limited to):

Benefits of HCD in healthcare

Arguably, healthcare may benefit from a human-first approach even more than other fields. Not only are patients in need of customized care, but overworked healthcare teams are in drastic need of more support. 

At a glance, here are just a few of the ways HCD can solve these problems:

  • Simplifying existing processes by configuring systems around patients' and doctors' specialized needs.

  • Helping patients monitor their health and track treatment plans.

  • Providing user-friendly interfaces for nurses.

  • Alleviating physician's documentation burdens.

  • Redesigning hospital physical environments, building layouts, and medical procedures for improved outcomes.

The HCD process within the healthcare space

HCD is a problem-solving process. You begin with thoroughly studying human behaviors, emotions, and motivations surrounding an obstacle or difficult task.

In other words, assessing the problem to find better systems, technologies, or processes to achieve the same solution more easily. To find solutions, one must stay curious and avoid bias while obtaining as much information as possible.

In healthcare settings, HCD looks approximately like this:

Defining the target and their process to reach your objectives

Defining user requirements

To create actionable tasks, it’s essential to outline human needs as “user requirements.” These requirements consider all obstacles and focus on what’s required for the person to accomplish the task.

The result gives a product team—designers, researchers, and developers—an overview of what the end product or solution must cover. (Then human-centered designers can create a prototype). 


Prototyping begins a circular process: an initial prototype, evaluating the prototype, and using the feedback to inform the next iteration.  At this point, the prototype must be polished enough that the end user can accomplish their goal.

It needn’t necessarily be complex (though some prototypes may need higher fidelity than others), but it must be robust enough to simulate the tested scenario. For example, if you’re testing a new record-keeping system, a nurse should be able to input a new patient record.

In a healthcare context, not only may a fully functional prototype be required, but actors may need to replace actual patients to assess the usability fully.

Evaluating prototypes

Evaluation is a key phase of the prototyping process. Now, experimentation is in full swing, allowing designers to test all their ideas against a real-life scenario, and goal metrics become essential.

For example, a physician must be able to document their patient’s symptoms and information in under five minutes. Also, due to the precise nature of delivering health care, evaluations should be done in situ when possible.

For instance, if a nurse needs to triage in a chaotic waiting room, testing a prototype in a quiet, focused environment would be too unlike the actual use scenario.

HCD’s role in post-pandemic healthcare

The global COVID-19 pandemic led to many crises, but perhaps none more prevalent or impactful than the burnout felt across the US healthcare system. 

Supply chain hurdles, capacity constraints, and labor shortages also compounded this phenomenon. 

So, it makes sense that a systems approach with an emphasis on human-centered design could hold the answer to occupational stress and burnout.  

A 2019 consensus study report from the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), “Taking Action Against Clinician Burnout,” had already recommended leaders and IT vendors “engage clinicians in the design and deployment of health IT using human-centered design and human factors and systems engineering approaches to ensure the effectiveness, efficiency, usability, and safety of the technology.” 

Unfortunately, NAM reports that in 2023, the healthcare sector has seen few, if any, changes despite persistently high burnout rates and increasing challenges. At any given time, approximately one in three physicians experience burnout.

Considerations for facilitating HCD in healthcare:

  1. Stay open-minded and agile—researching unpredictable human beings is tough in any field, but the medical arena comes with challenges, compliance regulations, and real-life medical emergencies. Therefore, agile and flexible research is most conducive to collecting the best data.

  2. Learn processes to gather requirements—medical staff have an array of criteria, procedures, and documentation to follow. Rather than starting from scratch as a more traditional HCD process may invite, it’s best to leverage the procedures in place. Not only is this an effective way to capture requirements, but it is also a great way to practice empathy.

  3. Think like a physician—in-person qualitative studies make the most sense to capture the speed, chaos, and day-to-day experiences in healthcare. Clinicians have a unique balance between tedious, time-consuming paperwork interrupted by emergencies. Stay flexible enough to conduct virtual sessions, but know it’s best to observe their unique situations as much as possible.

  4. Move at the speed of medicine—medical diagnostics and treatment are products of exhaustive testing and lengthy efficacy studies. When adjusting within such rigid structures, it’s best to move slowly. Finding incremental adjustments that healthcare workers can adapt to over time is an important consideration for new technology adoption.

More introduction of HCD solutions can help the over-extended healthcare system, but it will need to be a unique approach from researchers. Likewise, adjustments from patients and doctors will also need to make time and provide data to improve their situations.

Positive outcomes of HCD in healthcare

Impressive transformation brought about by HCD is happening on both the patient experience and practitioner side of things:

AI-enabled telehealth HCD is rapidly ushering in a more efficient healthcare system. In the U.S., telehealth use hugely increased at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and though its usage has dipped since, engagement remains higher than pre-pandemic levels and continues to provide critical access to services. In a 2021–2022 national pulse survey, 22% of adults had used telehealth services in the past four weeks.

Diagnostic accuracy and improved surgical procedures According to Research and Markets, by 2030, the global value of the surgical robotics market will reach $16.51 billion.

Not long ago, surgeon-guided robotic systems were for minimally invasive surgeries. But nowadays, their precision is increasingly deployed for specialized and delicate work, such as neurosurgery, orthopedics, and gynecology.

Increasing accessibility and overcoming geographic barriers Uncrewed drones are now capable of transporting blood samples from rural patients to urban hospitals for analysis.

In a similarly revolutionary breakthrough, pilot studies have successfully brought blood transfusions and vaccines to remote areas (in a fraction of the time it would take an ambulance). 

Back in August 2022, the World Economic Forum’s “Medicine from the Sky” launched a six-month initiative enabling drone delivery of medical supplies and vaccines to hard-to-reach areas of north-east India.

A real-world HCD healthcare example:

Product designers bioMérieux recently came up with a single touch-screen interface for multiple technicians that takes up a third of the space previously required and reduces input errors.

The device needed to allow multiple technicians to simultaneously conduct their diagnostic tests on as many as 12 instruments. An essential requirement was that the device offer clarity across otherwise mixed and confused inputs. bioMérieux followed a human-centered design process to achieve the best possible results.

First, to clarify the problem, bioMérieux began by hosting an intensive two-day discovery workshop. Once the product requirements and UX were well defined, engineers worked to build a prototype. The team tested the prototype, adjusting human factors and ergonomic issues within the user interface (UI), and they iterated until they achieved the desired results.

The final product successfully provided the necessary technology to the technicians in a straightforward, award-winning interface and continues to serve clinicians today.

The future of HCD in healthcare

HCD promises to revolutionize the healthcare industry. It will emphasize personalized healthcare solutions, leveraging patient insights to create tailored treatments and technologies. 

HCD will empower patients and promote active engagement, particularly in digital health and telemedicine. Collaboration between healthcare professionals and interdisciplinary teams will be pivotal, while ethical considerations and inclusivity will be central themes. 

As technology and data analytics play an increasingly prominent role in healthcare, HCD will help ensure that innovations are user-friendly, ethical, and effective.

In years to come, HCD will continue to enhance patient experiences and improve healthcare accessibility, making it more holistic, patient-centric, and responsive to global health challenges.

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