Female physician with female product manager

Need Physicians to Test Your Medical Device? Here's How to Recruit Them

By Dorothy Shamonsky

If you’ve ever tried to recruit busy professionals like physicians to test your software or other product, you know it can be a challenge. Doctors are notoriously overscheduled. Their mental energy is focused on their patients. And, in a profession where time is money, they can’t be incentivized by a small financial token sometimes offered to product testers.

In other words, simply don’t have the time or interest to be a user tester. Still, you need them to test your product. Why? It is best practice to have the appropriate professionals try out your design before your product hits the market. 

In some cases it’s mandatory. For instance, if you’re creating a class II or class III medical device for use by physicians, rigorous user testing is a vital component of the approval process. You likely will not gain FDA approval without the involvement of physician testers.

To be fair to your physician-testers, you only want to engage them for MD-related issues. Don’t call on them for general usability issues. For instance, if you are not sure chosen colors are going to be bright enough for certain low-light conditions, you can ask a layperson to test the color readability in an accurate simulation of lighting conditions. He or she can test color readability just as well as a physician.

But when you are ready to test profession-specific issues, you must find a way to successfully recruit these reluctant testers. So, how exactly do you do this?

Convincing Doctors to Participate

To find out, I spoke with Alice Meade of Alice Meade Consulting. She specializes in gathering user research and applying it to user experience (UX) design, and holds a cognitive science degree from Vassar. I’ve worked with Alice on several occasions and can attest to the relevancy of her insight on human behavior as it pertains to product design.

Here’s what she had to say:

How do you get a busy professional, particularly a physician, to consider being a user tester?

AM: For highly paid professionals like physicians, time is money. That means they’re typically not interested in an activity that appears to give them nothing in return. You can’t blame them for that. To gain their interest, you have to explain how they, the product you’re working on, and ultimately their patients will benefit from the testing activity. Let them know how their effort provides a valuable service to their profession, and stress that the product will be so much better thanks to their input.

I have successfully recruited physicians once they understood that the app or device that I was working on would make their jobs easier or their work more effective. I stressed to them that in order to succeed, we needed their help trying out the product and giving us feedback. 

The key is to get physicians to empathize with the problem that the app or device addresses, as well as feel that they will benefit from the solution. I tell them, “What we are doing will make you a more productive doctor of high esteem. If you sit down with me for 30 minutes, we can make a better product.”

This strategy is more likely to succeed with startups or new products than it is with upgrades to existing products. That’s because with a novel product, there’s more excitement and there’s a high expectation of positive benefits. With existing products, much is already known about the benefits and incrementally improving on those benefits makes for a less compelling argument.

Of course, existing products still need periodic updates. In those cases, seek out professionals who already use that product — who are likely stymied by the product’s inherent limitations — because they have a vested interest in making improvements.

Now we know what arguments to make to persuade physicians to participate. But let’s back up a bit and discuss ways to find these professionals to recruit.

AM: This is all about legwork. First, contact as many people as you can because it increases your chances of finding someone willing to participate. How? Search listservs and discussion groups populated by people who would be appropriate for your user testing project. LinkedIn and Facebook are great places to find these groups, which are organized around a shared topic of interest. You can join the groups yourself and then post a general notice to the group letting them know about your project and asking for paid participants. 

Finding appropriate groups gives you the opportunity to send out invitations to a large number of people at once. Don’t bother calling — it’s not worth your time. Instead, send a written invitation. Be very specific, explaining in detail how your product will benefit physicians and how participating can benefit the physicians themselves, as well as (potentially) their patients and the larger patient population. 

In your invitation, be sure to explain exactly what will be required of participants. And inform them of the honorarium, typically a $50 gift certificate. Even though it’s not much compensation, especially for physicians, it shows that you value their time. 

Ideally, you’re looking for access to 100-1,000 people. If this is a medical device or health-related product, consider expanding the pool of potential testers by recruiting medical students, not just licensed physicians. To do this, you can approach the administration of a medical university and ask for permission to email students enrolled in a specific specialty relevant to your product.

Understand that it’s far easier to get people to agree to be interviewed than to agree to actually test the product, which requires a greater time commitment. That’s why asking potential participants to join a focus group or submit to a heuristic interview, each less intimidating than user testing, is a good starting point. 

Once you have a group of interviewees, you have a list of people that you can pursue for user testing later on. You can keep them in the loop by sending a thank you (“Our product is coming together. We’d love for you to come in and try it!”) following the interviews. 

How do you test a device in a specific context like a busy emergency room?

AM: There is a process to accomplishing the research for a device that will be used in a specific environment. Certain environments present greater challenges than others. For instance, testing a device at a busy nurses’ station is easier than in a surgical suite where visitors are not necessarily welcome and issues of life and death exist. 

That’s why it is essential to do as much work as possible in non-intrusive or benign ways before actually testing the product in its target situation. For example, for a device that will be used in emergency situations, first shadow the physician or EMT to see what devices they already used and how they use them. This is will give you processes and procedures to verify on your own product, in house. 

Then, bring the device into the actual situation and act as the tester. This process will reveal any environment-specific issues, such as screen readability or performance speed that might impair use. Only once you have sussed out all the possible issues not directly related to device operation by an expert user are you ready to engage your expert in test scenarios.

The Takeaway

Getting busy, highly paid professionals like physicians to take part in product design and development as testers is certainly challenging. They’re extremely protective of their “free” time because it is so limited. For this reason, you’ll be most persuasive if you appeal to their ego (“We can’t do it without your unique perspective”), empathy (“your patients and patients everywhere will benefit”) and deep commitment to the medical profession (“your invaluable insight will improve medical care”).  

For more on usability testing, check out Usability Testing Leads to Stronger Designs and Better Products.

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