May 23, 2023 Is Digital Healthcare Dead? Digital is here to stay, and so is its impact on healthcare. But the industry should rethink how it designs and builds digital healthcare products. Denny Royal Chief Design Officer I recently attended a conference in Europe with a deeply fascinating and thought-provoking central topic: Is digital healthcare dead? The audience was primarily big pharmaceutical companies, VCs, and startups. For the most part, the sentiment of those in attendance aligned with the topic, which made for an interesting conversation. While their struggles are real and, in many cases, self-inflicted, I don’t believe their challenges inherently mean the end of digital healthcare. I do, however, see that the industry is at a point where it needs to drastically rethink how it imagines, designs, and produces digital health products. Digital Healthcare Today: The Problems With the Current Approach Here’s the deal, digital is not going away. Its impact on our lives and healthcare will continue to grow. It is growing exponentially in some areas (like conversational AI and large language models). Therefore, to think that it won’t continue to impact the healthcare industry in significant ways isn’t the right sentiment. Instead, it’s time to step back and reflect on how Digital Therapeutics (DTx) are conceptualized and built. There is no going back. As we move forward, the expectations from the user will continue to increase, and the technology will continue to change, along with the tasks. But the goals will remain the same. Problem #1: A list of features cooked up in a conference room that is pure utility We see this all the time — a list of features contrived in a conference room by subject matter experts who didn’t consider the end-user. Sure, they try to have empathy and see things from the patient or caregiver’s point of view. They may have even conducted a focus group with patients or done voice-of-customer surveys to help inform them. But these exercises are just empathy theater when we zoom out and pull them apart. This disingenuous strategy leads to products that don’t solve the patient, caregiver, or provider’s real and emotionally-charged unmet needs. They merely approach the problem from a pure utility and task-based mindset. This misguided approach, in turn, results in solutions that don’t get the usage and adoption we seek with these interventions. Problem #2: Zero product stance without feeling for people to understand and connect. When we do the above and generate a list of purely utilitarian features, we miss a huge piece of the puzzle. By nature, people are feelers, and healthcare is one of the most emotionally-charged aspects of our lives. A healthcare executive once explained it perfectly in a design research interview: “A patient’s worst day is our every day.” Most people want to interact with their healthcare system, payer, or pharmaceutical company as little as possible. It’s often during some of the worst moments in their lives when they do need to. They often feel terrible, scared, worried, and, quite frankly, confused by the fact that they are left to deal with their own care coordination in an overly complex system. When we build digital products, interventions, digital therapeutics, or other endpoints that don’t consider human emotions, we miss the mark entirely. When we design and build one of these products, there are several questions we must ask. Beyond the utility of it, how does the product make someone feel? Is it laden with friction because we designed it for the business and not the user? Is the language compassionate enough for the situation? How was the age of the user taken into account? The list goes on. If the product has no soul and is purely utilitarian, how does that impact engagement and use? Problem #3: The false MVP paradigm “Minimum Viable Product” is an overused and little-understood term. Today, this manifests for most companies as a list of features targeted to an arbitrary date that gets stack ranked in a development cycle to hit a delivery date. The problem with this is it’s based on what a development team can fit in by this time frame and has nothing to do with what best serves the user. Organizations have lost sight of what viability means and how to apply it to the problem they are trying to solve. This shortsightedness leads to solutions being shipped by an often meaningless deadline but doesn’t actually solve the target users’ problems. The team’s burndown may look good, but it comes at the cost of fulfilling the users’ needs. When the product finally ships, it’s up to the product owners to answer questions about why they aren’t getting the expected adoption rate. They should have put a viable solution forward and instead focussed on the right metrics. Problem #4: How we measure what engagement looks like Another pitfall product organizations often fall into is ill-conceived metrics, either not tracking the right thing or tracking the right thing improperly. Are users going to use your app every day? Chances are, no. You aren’t running a wildly popular social media platform or even something people necessarily enjoy using, so you must measure engagement differently. Be realistic about human behavior, specifically as it relates to the condition space in which you operate. Organizations focus a lot on vanity metrics that don’t tend to lead to better health outcomes. In the end, those types of metrics waste time and energy and don’t move the dial. MentorMate’s Design-Led Approach Over the years, we found that the best approach to building digital health products is design-led. Being design-led gets us out of the conference room and into the modern era of digital product design. Don’t just think up a Product Requirements Document based on your own ideas alone or a couple of brainstorming meetings; this leads to failure. Simply bringing together a group of subject matter experts to develop ideas always leads to blind spots because humans tend to bias toward the known over time. Instead, we get out into the field and conduct the right level of qualitative research to remove many of those blind spots. Doing so puts us in context and allows us to understand the needs in a real-world situation. Grasping this context leads to understanding the things driving and surrounding the unmet needs, none of which happen in a vacuum. Without this crucial step, we are simply guessing the users’ needs and how best to solve them. Even still, the above approach doesn’t show us everything. Uncovering and understanding the emotions and feelings of the people on the other side of the interaction is key. Humans are complex beings. Contextualizing them through a behavior-based lens takes you and your product much further and allows you to craft a strong product stance that resonates with users. The behavior-based lens also helps in other areas. Getting people to use your product means understanding what they will do, not what you want them to do. If we design our products based on actual behaviors and target them in the right way, successful interventions become much more possible and probable. Behavior work has one other big impact on product design in the healthcare space — designing products with compassion. Many of the conditions we work on and design products for in this space are emotionally charged and rooted in specific behaviors. Using our understanding of behavior and designing with compassion as a design requirement helps us meet the user where they are. It helps us design in a way that removes friction and makes the user feel like we aren’t talking down to them or scolding them based on their behaviors. Build a great product, not an MVP If you’re focused on the MVP, you lose sight of the bigger picture. As I said above, it leads to specific behaviors within the product team that may or may not get you where you want to be. Innovation becomes almost impossible if you focus on increments rather than the big picture. Focus on the big thing rather than small wins. Yes, a more thoughtful approach takes time. But there is never a second chance to make a first impression. If you do go down the MVP route, keep your focus on what viability looks like and meeting the biggest unmet needs versus what you can get done by a date that has no meaning—only ship when the solution is viable and useful for the user, never before. Forget the providers at your peril Product efforts in the healthcare space think about the providers as an afterthought. And it shows. The providers are a vital piece of the puzzle and deserve the same attention, research, and product design efforts as the patients. Most provider organizations are overworked, understaffed, and burned out. If you approach them with a different level of empathy than patients and caregivers, you’re missing a huge opportunity. Providers have a direct connection to engagement that impact the efficacy of your solution. Empathy is a pay-it-forward concept. If the systems we design leave the provider staff feeling frustrated and stressed out, patients will feel this. The providers are already overwhelmed with the administrative work they must do in our digital age. We should do anything we can to remove friction and design useful solutions for the providers. Digital Healthcare and the Future? The heady days are over. Now it’s time for the hard work. Were there lots of failed experiments? Absolutely. Does that mean digital healthcare is dead? Absolutely not. On the contrary, it’s just getting started. Expectations of everyone involved, from patient to provider, payer to caregiver, will all continue to grow around digital products. We are just at the beginning of how technology can assist in care, and we have a long and exciting journey ahead of us. It isn’t time to shy away. It’s time to lean in. Many big pharma, provider organizations, payers, and other healthcare companies have tried to go it alone and design these solutions by themselves. Doing so generally results in a flawed or downright failed final product for one key reason. Healthcare companies are experts in exactly that: healthcare. Digital product development isn’t where their expertise lies. There are plenty of companies out there that specialize in that, MentorMate being one of them. Let those companies help you build a world-class digital healthcare product so you can focus on what you do best. You’ll be happy you did, but your patients will be even happier. Tags DesignDesign StrategyProduct DesignBehavior DesignDigital Transformation Share Share on Facebook Share on LinkedIn Share on Twitter Fulfilling Users’ Needs Adopt a design thinking mindset and ship digital products that win. Download Share Share on Facebook Share on LinkedIn Share on Twitter Sign up for our monthly newsletter. Sign up for our monthly newsletter.