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Why emotional design should play a larger role in health IT

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A lot of people can talk about emotional design at a high level, but the nitty-gritty, practical details of it can be difficult to grasp. Right now, it's a buzzword hitting at every level of the design industry and across several more – including healthcare. If we're going to wield the powers of emotionally centered design, we all need to understand it better.

To get to the essence of what we really mean when we talk about the rising trend of emotional design in healthcare, we can start by looking at a game design theory known as “Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics.”

Mechanics are the functional requirements of software. They’re the rules and the design—the “We need it to do this.” The dynamics are how those elements are coded and implemented in the software and how the user interacts with them—whether that means the program is button-controlled, voice-controlled or even extending into augmented or virtual reality applications, the process still applies.

The combination of the mechanics and dynamics leads to the aesthetics, which is how the user feels when interacting with the software. Most software is designed in that order, but if we start by thinking about how the user is going to feel (or about the feeling we want them to have when using the software), we get the foundation of emotional design thinking.

When tackled in this order—with aesthetics helping to inform both the mechanics and dynamics—there’s a better opportunity to get the emotional response that we're looking for from the user.

It might sound like emotional design is very similar to user experience (UX) design, but it’s better thought of as an optional add-on to the design process. It's a part of the user experience, but not everyone uses it in their day-to-day development. Developers don’t have to incorporate emotional design, but when this approach is taken, a product or solution is elevated to a higher, more meaningful level. Think of it this way: staff members at a restaurant don’t have to smile at you, but isn’t it a better experience when you have attentive, friendly people serving you?

Here’s another example: All of us have a smartphone or a tablet with several applications. How many of those apps evoke an emotion from us? (That's outside of being upset when they’re not working, of course.) There are apps that functionally do what they need, and there are apps that we like and prefer over others, but how many apps exist on our device that we truly love? That's where design and the UX team can deliver a considerable, positive impact to the end user.

Today, anyone who has grown up with an iPhone—which includes most students currently enrolled in medical school—has greater appreciation for well-designed software. The expectation for how the software behaves has gone up accordingly, and the world of health IT (HIT) is not immune to such consumer expectations.

How can emotional design be brought to a clinical setting? That's the million-dollar question, and unsurprisingly, the answer isn't simple. It starts with identifying some high-level keywords around what an HIT device or solution should be aiming for:

  • Device ubiquity
  • Safety
  • Reliability
  • Consistency
  • Beauty

Particularly, I’ve found that "beauty" is not usually a word that is expected or considered in the field of HIT design, but I'm not talking about coordinating colors or picking an eye-catching font (though those things are also critical). When a design has beauty and especially a design in the HIT realm, it should be smart, clear, personal, delightful and trustworthy. UX design—and especially emotional UX design—should surprise its users in a delightful way.

That's not just for clinicians. The other side of designing for HIT is looking at the patient interaction with the end product. I have been a patient, and my kids have been patients; we have all likely found ourselves in situations where we or a loved one needs healthcare. During these times, the one keyword that overrides everything is stress.

If stress is the dominant emotion that patients experience, then that should be the primary concern when creating an app to support the patient. Designers should focus on combating stress, so the emotional design elements that should be evoked are warmth, comfort, clarity and helpfulness.

To get to that experience, it’s best to focus on high-level keywords and work backward through dynamics and mechanics. Design decisions should be made based on how the user should be treated when they're interacting with a product. If they need to use a health application quickly because they have an emergency, and they're logging in through a cold screen with few words and minimal support, or the navigation isn't clear, then that's clearly a functional, but ultimately cold and unhelpful, experience for the user.

So how do application designers make sure that they’re guiding the user to where they need to be with as much support as possible? The design facets that can be incorporated to accomplish this can be both small and large in scope.

For example, take the tax preparation company TurboTax. There's a simple yes or no question on one of its forms: "Did your spouse die in the tax year?" This question is a mechanic, or functional, requirement—but if the user selected "yes" as their answer, an extra line of content appeared, passing on condolences and thoughts to the person filling in the tax return. TurboTax didn't have to do that, but I'm willing to bet that design element had an emotional impact on a great deal of people. TurboTax thought about the user’s flow through the experience and took the opportunity to embed an element that was special and meaningful where they could. If tax software can be thoughtful and considerate of a consumer’s feelings, there’s no reason why any application can’t rise to the occasion.

If emotional design is going to become the standard in HIT applications and solutions, the industry must engage with users—clients, nurses, administrators and patients—and listen to them at scale and make updates to software accordingly. Seeking user feedback isn't enough—it must be taken to heart, and software must be adapted, depending on whatever that feedback is.

At the end of the day, emotional design is about making something that can evoke delight from users, while simultaneously meeting all the necessary functional requirements of the solution. It’s a high bar to attain, but with the stresses that users face on a day-to-day basis, it’s one to which application designers should all aspire.

This article originally appeared on the Cerner web site and can be found here.

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