Up at 5AM: The 5AM Solutions Blog

Five Keys to a User-Friendly Mobile Health App

Posted on Thu, Apr 26, 2012 @ 06:00 AM

5AM SmartphoneI am a person living with a chronic illness, a technophile, and an employee of a software company that specializes in healthcare/health IT and research. So, I have some thoughts about how mobile apps can serve people with health needs. As a user and developer of health-related mobile apps, I’ve identified five things that should be mindfully considered:

1. Don’t think of people as healthcare “consumers.” While it’s convenient to term people as healthcare “consumers” – meaning any person who receives or interacts with a health care provider/system is a consumer, it’s important to note that often the consumption is not desired. In most cases, people keep track of their symptoms because they’re sick – and they’re people. The mobile app should serve people – whether it’s patients, their doctors or nurses, their caregivers or family members, or the administrators managing the healthcare of people. At 5AM we call this being in touch with the user of the system – and when you’re modeling, designing, building, and delivering your app, remember that a person needs a more descriptive name and persona than “consumer.” (Or “user,” for that matter!)

2. User interface is everything. The user’s experience with your mobile app is paramount, and should be the outcome of significant thought, design, investment, testing, refinement, and testing. It’s easy to discuss the need for an interface to be simple, usable, and concise. It’s surprisingly difficult to create an interface that fulfills those needs. No matter how useful you think your app is, if it’s not usable, it won’t be used. Food for thought: “People ignore design that ignores people.” -Frank Chimero

3. Flexibility in health management is key. Another way to state this is: people want to know what’s good for them, but they’ll only track what they’re willing to track. This points to design, usability and an understanding of the people who will use your app. Your app could remind its user to test his blood sugar four times a day, but actually, your user may be better served by modifying that recommendation anywhere on the spectrum, from “don’t remind me” to “I want seven daily reminders at these specific times.” Standards of care and best practices are of course useful, but all patients – especially those with chronic disease – are left to their own self-management. The app should guide, inform, nudge, but not force. (Unless the user opts for it.)

4. Mobile isn’t everything. Every time I’m walking down an airplane aisle and see us all with our noses in our phones, I think we’re a bunch of kids with toys. (And no, I’m not mentioning gamification here – design your mobile health app to be whatever it needs to be.) While many of us think our smart phones are the be-all end-all, in health-related scenarios, charts and full screens and portability are still very useful – even essential. Many people need charts to see trends, and doing so on 4” screen is untenable. Until health portability/exchange is fully realized, sometimes it’s most efficient to “print it out” to share information with your physician. If your app is totally useful but isolated to the mobile device, reconsider whether it really is totally useful.

5. We do want it all. I don’t think I’m alone in stating that I’d like my entire medical record to be available to anyone who needs it – with my consent if I’m able to give it, or available openly to the EMT who’s treating my unconscious self and needs to know about my medical allergies. People want to be able to manage and call up their medical history with the swipe of a finger, or have Siri schedule an annual exam. The freshness and craze and promise of mobile (and social) technology allows us to free our minds – to consider new ways to do things. At the intersection of health and technology, there are many people who are willing to push the boundaries of user experience, user expectation, exchange, and sharing. The technologies are exciting, and people’s openness to useful technology is inspiring. At their simplest level, mobile health apps can inform a person about her disease risk, improve a person’s health through simple tips and notices, or simplify a person’s management of a complex disease (a.k.a., simplify a life). These collective efforts move us along the path to better healthcare; potentially lower healthcare costs; and healthier and more productive lives.

I’ve cited five very high-level considerations here, but we would love to hear your insights and experiences – both as developers and consumers. Open up the conversation by commenting below.

-Leslie Power, 5AM Solutions

Tags: mobile health app, mobile app development, mobile apps for health

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