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Six Building Blocks of UX Design for Mobile Health Apps

Mobile healthcare apps (aka mHealth apps) have become widespread in various aspects of healthcare, largely as an effect of the rapid evolution of 3G and 4G technologies.

Our interaction with medical technologies has changed irrevocably compared to the past years: the number of mHealth apps in the major app stores has increased from less than 40,000 apps two years ago to over 100,000 in 2015.

However, mHealth apps have yet to go mainstream as they are still recognized as a novelty in many respects. That is why today's main challenges facing app developers that build applications for digital health actually shape the key concerns that gate-keep ubiquitous use of such products: usability, mobile security and qualified support of the mobile healthcare services.

So, with new point-of-care apps flooding in app stores daily, how do we distinguish user-friendly from not user-friendly apps? Having talked to our mobile app developers that have successfully built some of the world's most innovative apps for our eHealth partners such as Innlandet Hospital Trust and Video Medicine, Inc., I've identified the 6 building blocks of effective UX design for mHealth applications.

1. Research user expectations, but don't forget to involve a clinician

Start your mobile health development project with a clear understanding of the requirements of the market or clinical problems. No matter if an application you're about to build is needed for clinical charting and information delivery, supplemental data accumulation or as a telemedicine solution, do involve practicing clinicians specialized in domains you're going to service with your app in functionality evaluation. Have them help you evaluate the key problems your app intends to help users with, and, based on this, create assets (e.g., prototype, mockups, wireframes) and functionality chunks that will be most useful for your future app.

Building mobile health apps is different from building other types of apps in necessity to bring medical consultants on board, as no technical guy will be able to profile the app's target audience and choose the right set of features without having first hand experience with medical processes, workflows and interaction with patients.

2. Check if your app needs an FDA approval to be released

U.S. Federal Drug & Food Administration (FDA) requires that particular mobile health products  (especially the physician facing ones) should be approved before being marketed to end users. So, one of your early and high priority tasks will be to determine whether the device you're building a mobile app for falls under a category of those requiring FDA approval, as it's going to have certain effects on your app's UX and UI design, too.

FDA offers own guidelines for mHealth app development and UX design, so make sure your designer is well aware of them.

If you aren't going to market your app within the United States, check the same regulations for your home country and markets you're going to target with your mHealth solution.

Below are some examples of apps that may and may not need FDA approval for going live:

  • Wearables marketed to healthcare professionals to support diagnosis or clinical decision making: e.g., a heart rate monitor users wear during their gym workout that is marketed to users as a a fitness assistant will most likely not require FDA approval, while the same device marketed to physicians as a device for clinical stress testing may be considered regulated.
  • Apps that interpret data and make complex calculations: e.g. an asthma app that only shows daily peak flows as graphs will not require FDA regulation, while the same app that features data graphs for data aggregation, analysis and benchmarking, and/or containing a "Call Your doctor" CTA will require FDA regulation. Also, if you're building a mobile insulin calculator, be prepared to have your app regulated by FDA.

Once you've identified your app requires regulation, do follow the regulator's standard UX design guidelines to avoid app rejection.

Do you need help with your mobile health app development?

3. Keep the balance between functionality and usability

In essence, any mHealth app aims to help either physicians and medical staff or patients. Unlike non-mHealth apps, these products aren't usually meant for daily use with the exception of fitness and wellness apps. So, it's important that you only deploy the most necessary functionality and keep your list of features concise to avoid feature creep.

Due to many innovative form factors used in healthcare such as wearables, it's very counterproductive to stuff a screen that has a very limited real estate with irrelevant data or too much of textual content. If the app contains patient data, prescriptions and/or appointments, it should provide different types of notifications, calendar integrations, and some kind of gamification to make user experience and treatment a real fun. If the app is going to be educational, make sure different types of content (text, images, video) have the best possible presentation on your limited screen property.

A great way to test your future app's functionality and whether your app features aren't overwhelming is to prototype it first and test against different use cases.

4. Test, validate and optimize your mHealth design in each stage of development

Quality assurance and testing help guarantee that your digital health app is easy to use and satisfies your users in every way. As such, never leave testing for the final stages of app development and do test your app's UX design at the end of each iteration (i.e. approximately every 2 weeks). Test your app's design rigorously for frequent crashes, intuitiveness, touch capabilities, attention triggers, effective calls-to-action, etc.

5. Always treat mobile security as your top priority

You can get insights on today's most critical mobile security breaches and vulnerabilities from this blog post. Anyway, always mind security before even planning your mobile development project.

Do you know that pooled or anonymous data aggregation may be considered to be a breach of user data privacy and ownership? Check all of the HIPAA regulations before designing your app, as your data collection methods and CTAs may not be appropriate for HIPAA compliance. Your app should have proper design features allowing for opt-out of sharing personal data and other actions to help reduce / eliminate any sensitive data violations.

6. Create stellar data visualization as a way to retain users

The stats says that only less than 10% of mobile health apps are used regularly after the download. Besides offering high security and HIPAA compliance, easy integrations with social accounts / hospital records and effective CTAs, mobile health apps that stand out from the crowd in the app stores and have higher user retention chances are those able to offer beautiful and understandable data visualization.

Poor design of data presentation and delivery will most likely drive users away from your app. Yet, thoughtful and meticulous graphic design can make the difference when it comes to intuitive comprehension and a steep learning curve.

Some of the UX design methods that might work well for enhancing your app's informative and communicative power and, as a result, improving user retention include, but aren't limited to:

  • Flagging a meaningful event or trend
  • Illustrating target ranges and progress bars
  • Color-coded alerts, etc

Wrapping up, there's no “one-size-fits-all” solution when it comes to UX design of mobile health apps. Yet, companies shouldn't underestimate the importance of UX design for the future success of such products, nor should they treat their mobile health app development projects as they'd treat any other type of b2c, b2b or b2e software development. Since the goals of medical apps are diverse, from doctor - patient interaction improvement and continuous improvement of user wellness to reduction of healthcare costs and creating a complex continuum of care, it's an imperative to build security and flexibility into your mHealth project plan. This will allow your development team to iterate, test and evolve the UX design as their understanding of your business objectives and challenges grows.

Read how to build a HIPAA compliant and safe mobile health app!

Lana is our Marketing Business Analyst that accepts Technology as the Well of Salvation