As you read the title to this blog no doubt some feelings popped into your consciousness that you associate with the word ‘beautiful’, like high quality, effective, highly usable, sophisticated, maybe even expensive.
But you may have also thought ‘oxymoron.’
We don’t usually think about medical devices and aesthetics as having anything to do with each other. They seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum between science and art. After all, nobody really cares what a medical device looks or feels like as long as it does its job safely and delivers accurate results.
Recently one of my family members needed to have a procedure done with an endoscope, a device that is inserted down the throat and into the stomach. (The outcome was good news so no worries there.) As a professional UX designer I would have liked to see the doctor using the device, but I wasn’t allowed, of course. Mostly, I was grateful that such a device existed, and that it seemed to be safe and effective.
Most companies that develop medical devices are trying to achieve just that: safe and effective. They are working hard to make their devices robust, accurate and dependable, and shepherd them successfully through the often-challenging regulatory process, which was developed expressly to insure safety and integrity of devices.
But for medical device users, a well-designed interface is the primary way to ensure that they utilize a device in accurate, effective and safe ways. The UI should provide clarity of workflows and restrictions on what the user can do, so as to prevent dangerous or fatal errors in the use of the device.
Attractiveness Has Nothing to Do with It, Right?
Science-based computer device-makers still tend to lean into the idea that usability is a discipline of pure logic. But usability design is not so one-dimensional. User research and psychology studies indicate that paying attention to the aesthetics of a product interface has a significant impact on the user and therefore on the usability of the product in ways that you might not imagine. Paying attention to aesthetics is a means for creating more effective usability. Consider these statements of user experience truth:
- Attractive things work better
- Attractive things are easier to use
- Attractive things focus our attention
Let me explain what I mean by the terms attractive and aesthetics in this context. I am not referring to the philosophy of art or culture, but instead attractiveness that applies to everyday products. This is often referred to as ‘applied’ or ‘functional’ aesthetics and is defined by Wikipedia as “the attractiveness or lack of it in a designed physical or virtual artifact.”
And it goes beyond visual attractiveness to encompass any way that beauty can be perceived, such as in the organization and structure, in the use of simplicity and efficiency, and in the use of colors, shapes and movement that garner our attention and trigger us to act.
“Attractiveness” is an important concept here in that it doesn’t always have to mean that you like something, but instead that it grabs your attention or interest, which is often not even a conscious response, but a subconscious instinctive, or physiological one. For instance a red error message is not likable but it is attractive to your eye and mind. The color red causes a physiological response in humans: it is the easiest color for the human eye to see and it raises blood pressure slightly. Crafting an appropriate aesthetic in an interface is about providing the user with signs and signals that work on multiple levels, conscious and subconscious, to create the most clarity of how to interact, even in typically busy and stressful clinical environments.
And it’s not just about overall style but of more importance in usability design – it’s about every color, every shape, every movement and how our brain interprets and reacts to them, by instinct, by intuition, by physiological reaction, and by learned cultural norms.
Computer interfaces utilize an ever-evolving pattern language of interactive components such as buttons and input fields. The organization and layout, the look and feel, and the semiotics of those elements are all intertwined to create meaning for the user. Logic is part of the equation in interface design – but emotions play a large role in how we perceive, process, remember, and most importantly, act on information (i.e., how we interact with computer interfaces).
Aesthetics is an influencer of emotions and actions, and by utilizing aesthetics effectively, designers can craft great usability. Working effectively with aesthetics is about understanding how elements in an interface influence human behavior and applying the correct aesthetics for the context of use and the customer.
Let’s get back those statements of user experience truth. Here are more-detailed explanations.
Attractive things work better
This refers to our perception of a device and can be figured out using common sense. We naturally assume that something that looks well designed is well designed. For physical artifacts in particular, care in making something goes more than skin deep; quality on the surface usually means quality throughout.
Software can have an interface that doesn’t necessarily represent the same level of quality, but the advantage is with products that do have an attractive interface. Think of a good interface as a power suit for your software – dressed to impress.
Attractive things are easier to use
This is a surprising finding of psychology research. Attractive interfaces are easier to use – but the ease is related to human perception. Here’s how it works: attractive things raise peoples’ affect, even if just a little. Mild happiness is related to behaviors that are more open, creative, and resilient. Therefore, a human that feels positive about a device will be more tolerant and more resourceful in interacting with it, likely having a better user experience than if they were in an unhappy, agitated state. 
We’ve all had times when we felt stressed and frustrated and had trouble getting technology to do what we want, only to realize it wasn’t that difficult once we calmed down.
Attractive things garner our attention
In interface design, directing the users’ attention is important. With the use of shapes, colors, and fonts we create a visual hierarchy of elements to direct readability and workflow. We also use techniques to ensure that the user sees what is important to focus on in any given moment by providing compelling shapes or attention-grabbing micro animations that highlight the most likely path forward or bringing attention to an issue that we need to address. Tapping into automatic or instinctual behaviors in a design can be particularly advantageous in high-pressure, fast-paced environments like medical care facilities, where healthcare workers are constantly distracted by ongoing activities and demands.
The Future is... Beautiful
In the past, user mistakes caused patient harm or death, or led to medical device recalls, in a number of cases. For instance, in 2008, the FDA recalled an ultrasound system because “the graphics made users misunderstand the image orientations of the patient’s left and right sides.” Users assumed that the patient’s left and right sides were oriented in the same direction as the transducer, but this was not accurate.
Fortunately, over the last couple decades medical device usability has increasingly improved due to multiple factors:
- Greater regulatory stringency
- Technology advancement
- An increase in volume of devices
- Expansion of user groups from single doctors to all levels of medical personnel and even patients themselves
- Elevated market expectations of well-designed devices
Probably the most influential of those factors has been the regulatory requirements that tie safety of patients to good device usability. These regulations have really forced improvements in usability, decreasing the potential for a dangerous scenario like the one mentioned above. For usability professionals, we are honestly thankful to have more emphasis placed on creating quality user experiences, even as tedious as the process of meeting the regulatory requirements can be.
Even though regulatory requirements set the bar, with expanded market competition in the medical device realm, with a level of tech exhaustion experienced by users, and with the elevated expectations of users who are used to elegant consumer devices, it is no surprise that today’s device companies increasingly want to prioritize well-designed user interfaces for their customers. So how do they achieve good usability design?
The skillful melding of aesthetics and logic is key to creating safe, easy-to-use interfaces, and ultimately better medtech products. Ultimately, the future of medical devices is not centered just around innovation with sophisticated technologies, but also around gaining a better understanding of human behavior and skillfully applying that to the design of device interfaces to make them safer, more natural for humans to interact with, and as a result, used at their peak effectiveness.
Interested in more on medical device usability? Read my blog Tackling Medical Device Usability Early Speeds FDA Approval.
1. Norman, D.: Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. Basic Books, New York (2004) pp. 8,17-18