AHRQ offers tips and best practices on consumer health IT design

A new report lists 10 tips for building IT that consumers will use.
By Mike Miliard
10:57 AM

More and more, health IT is expanding from the clinical into the commercial realm. With patient engagement so crucial to the transformation of care delivery, that's a good thing. But some consumer technologies are better than others.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), looking to improve the usefulness and efficaciousness of those ever-evolving technologies, has published a report listing 10 tips for building IT that consumers will use and find useful.

With "Designing Consumer Health IT: A Guide for Developers and Systems Designers," the agency seeks to help speed the development of "effective consumer health information technology applications so people can better use their personal health information to manage their health," officials say.

Having researched and identified successful consumer IT products – judged by market penetration, sales and customer adoption and enjoyment – AHRQ then examined the design methods used to develop them.

The list of best practices for designers, developers and vendors is derived from that research, officials say – adding that, "Where possible, advice is provided about how to apply these recommendations for consumer health, especially considerations about interoperability, privacy, and product safety."

[See also: Q&A: Eric Dishman on patient engagement]

AHRQ's top 10 pieces of advice for developers of consumer IT.

1. Make sure members of the design team have appropriate knowledge and skills for all phases of product development. "Include members with relevant skill sets," AHRQ officials write, "such as: designers with a track record of successful consumer product development; experts in human factors or usability; health care domain experts such as physicians and others who would interact with consumers using health IT applications; safety and privacy experts if the product needs to meet related standards, regulations and customer expectations [and] those with expertise in understanding diverse cultures or specific groups who make up the intended customer base."

2. Throughout all product development phases, seek to better understand customer needs specific to how the product will be used. "Team members should learn about interpersonal relationships, physical surroundings, and social and environmental (home and work) factors that might affect how customers will use a product," according to the report. "Health-related activities can occur in a wide variety of environments, including medical offices, hospitals, the home, work environments and the local community. Virtual environments, like online patient communities, health-related blogs and other types of social media may also be monitored to see how health issues are discussed."

3. Get input from a diverse set of customers when generating ideas for new products or evaluating early prototypes. "You will want to identify all the segments of customers that may use your product early in the design process. Only by understanding the various subgroups can you make sure they are represented in needs assessment and design tasks," write the researchers. "You should examine the customer subgroups separately so you can identify similarities and differences across groups. Differences across customer segments may be addressed in the product design or in the marketing strategy."

4. Deploy well-developed and established design methods, in combination with an intuition-based approach. "You can select from several design methods that have already proven to be useful for general IT applications, such as market-based and user- centered approaches," the study points out. Market-based methods "understand the current needs of consumers and what products are available to them." User-centered methods "get customer input, either by talking to them directly or observing them using products." Intuition-based methods, meanwhile, "generate ideas among the design team based on brainstorming or applying knowledge gained from past experience about what product is needed."

5. Research customers and markets early on, to inform the product’s design. "You should validate whether there is a real need for a product early in the design and development process. You can use a variety of approaches to assess the potential of your ideas in the market through research, gap analysis and product benchmarking. Other ideas include informal and formal discussions with existing or potential customers including those on the design team. Brainstorming sessions with the design team or reflecting on past product development experiences are other alternatives to be utilized."

6. Base design decisions on prototyping and pilot testing. It's important to test product design continually throughout the development process, say AHRQ officials. "You can use many different prototyping techniques," they write. "Low fidelity prototypes are low cost, simple illustrations of designs or concepts, usually on paper or digital documents. Medium fidelity prototypes more closely resemble the actual product but use inexpensive resources, such as HTML, PowerPoint or Flash. High fidelity prototypes are more expensive and closer to the look and functionality of the actual product. Before large-scale development, you will want to pilot test an early working version of the product to find and correct problems."

7. Define and tailor success metrics based on specific customer segments. "You should understand what will make your product appeal to your customer segments. Depending upon needs and expectations, you may need metrics looking at whether the product is culturally appropriate, fun, motivating, and persuasive," according to the report. "For consumer health IT products, metrics are often in the context of the health or wellness concern. For chronic conditions, measuring motivations to use a product over time may be important. For a product that is promoting health behavior change, such as smoking cessation, the focus may be on persuasive communication."

8. Keep the safety and privacy concerns specific to health IT top-of-mind. "Health IT products that do not conform to rigorous standards for product safety, privacy, and data security could pose a risk not only to your company but to your consumer," the study reads. "When customers are not protected, they are likely to have negative attitudes and reject products." Researchers add that, "Consumer health IT products must take into account customer perceptions and concerns about safety and privacy. Personal health information is extremely sensitive for customers who are concerned about the negative outcomes of privacy violations."

9. Build around established health data and transmission standards. "You should strive to use commonly accepted industry standards so that communication and interoperability are supported across health IT applications and systems," write AHRQ officials. "These standards are meant to promote health information liquidity, coordination and overall usefulness. … Consumer health IT products can be designed to operate independently from other products, but they may become obsolete more quickly. At the national level, for example, greater emphasis is being placed on enabling electronic health records to integrate patient-generated data. Emerging products need to be designed with this reality in mind."

10. Market effectively – and listen to customers once the product is adopted. Some consumer health IT, especially Web-based tools, are ideal for post launch revisions, according to the report – which warns, however, that "customers may not respond as positively to changes in health IT devices because they may no longer trust the quality or reliability of the product."

Access the full report here.

[See also: Consumer demand for healthcare IT 'never stronger,' survey shows]