Device manufacturers worldwide already recognise that to satisfy regulations their products need to be 'user friendly'. These usability regulations not only cover the physical product, but any interactions required to operate the device.However, ‘usability’ often falls into the trap of becoming about ticking boxes, paid lip service by device manufacturers with a view to getting a product to market with a piece of paper that calls it 'safe'. In a competitive industry with demanding users, this is not enough.PDR has been conducting research with medical professionals for over 10 years and the shift in product interaction expectations since the widespread adoption of smartphones and tablet computers has been clear. There have been many occasions when during an interview or paper prototyping session the user has pulled out their phone and simply said that the product should "work like this". Users want devices that hold the same visual appeal and intuitive interaction styles as the consumer products they use daily. This might seem like stating the obvious, but the nature of the medical device market frequently leads manufacturers to fall back on their existing market share and acceptable safety history rather than designing to improve outcomes.
Of course, these aspects overlap and intertwine.
The value placed on pleasing visual design in consumer products is far greater than the average medical product. Consumers, including medical professionals, therefore have much higher expectations for what they perceive to be a quality product. Being exposed every day to the work of talented design teams, pushing the boundaries in terms of visual communication has had an undeniable impact on how discerning an ‘average’ user is.
In this new world of complex information accessed through simple and beautiful interfaces, many current medical products look dangerous, untrustworthy and cheap. The use of visual language in a device communicates a great deal about how this product will work. A product that is visually coherent, with a high standard of design is not only desirable but respected. I trust it, my patient trusts it and their family trusts it.
It is almost impossible to differentiate this enhanced level of visual communication from how it is interacted with. Content is meaningless until a user can access and interpret it to inform their actions.
Technology has enabled a move towards what is described as natural user interfaces. These new interfaces do away with digital metaphors such as the pointers and windows of older interfaces. Capacitive touch screens are commonplace, with gesture and voice developing at pace.
Now, if I want something, I touch it, wave at it or talk to it.
To some, this adds complexity; it makes interfaces more difficult to design. I think this reveals that many involved in developing medical device interfaces have yet to explore how humans naturally interact with objects around us every day.
Many aspects of the retired WIMP (Window, Icon, Menu, Pointer) interfaces have no ‘real life’ reference point. It is removed from my everyday experience and is therefore something I need to learn. ‘Natural’ interactions on the other hand has its roots in everyday life; if I touch something or someone I expect a reaction of some kind. This all opens rich veins of possibility for improving medical device interactions, making them more natural. The essential aspect of this that is often missed is understanding how users think about the device and the tasks they will use it for, this brings us to information architecture.
Current development processes for many medical devices revolve around skinning software with a graphical user interface that minimises error. Whilst good intentioned, it only serves to eliminate errors from a product for which the parameters have already been set. Yes, the product might be safe to use, but does it actually do what the user wants it to?
Interactions, of any sort should be defined by the usage and mental models of users, understood through generative research. This can involve in-context observation of current products in use, detailed task analysis, semi-structured interviews with users and low-fidelity prototyping, amongst other methods. Through this we as designers seek to establish an information architecture, from which we work towards both visual and interactive elements of the design.