How good UX can save lives

A look at how UX design impacts healthcare, automotive interfaces and emergency response technology.

What do you think about when you hear the term ‘user experience’? UX often brings to mind the delight we feel from our favourite apps that smooth over complications in our lives, or the frustration we feel from using a new and complex device. Maybe we don’t always consider that UX can be much bigger than these everyday occurrences.

In some critical contexts, applying UX skills – like researching a problem space, creating user requirements, designing interactions, and testing usability — can save lives.

Yes! You could save lives. Doesn’t that make you feel good about your role as a UXer in the world?

There are many ways that UX impacts human safety and wellbeing. Let’s consider three broad areas in which good UX can save lives: medical devices, automotive interfaces, and emergency response technology.

1) UX for medical devices

UX in healthcare is becoming increasingly important as providers and patients adopt new technologies. But designing for healthcare is exceedingly complex: UXers must understand specific needs for patients, healthcare professionals, caregivers, and others, not to mention privacy and safety regulations that are relevant to medical UX design.

It’s often a slow and difficult process to design and test healthcare products, but it’s important. Better UX could prevent countless medical errors, from minor to severe. In fact, human errors in healthcare are often a result of faults in the design of a tool, system, or process. Just look at how confusing (and potentially dangerous) medical charting software interfaces are.

It takes hard work by professionals from UX and Human Factors/Ergonomics to identify the causes of medical errors and ‘design them out’ whenever possible.

One aspect of healthcare that requires UX involvement is the design of medical devices. Broadly speaking, medical devices are tools used for patient diagnosis or treatment, whether by professionals or the patients themselves. For these devices, good design can ultimately make the difference between patient survival and death.

UXPA Magazine article on medical device usability gave an example of a poorly-designed glucose meter display. In this display, the decimal point is not very noticeable, especially for a user with poor eyesight. Therefore, without seeing the decimal point, a diabetes patient could interpret their glucose level as ten times higher than reality and inject a dangerous amount of insulin. This kind of design flaw could have easily been identified with usability testing.

Another often-cited example of a poorly designed medical device is the auto-injector. Severe allergy patients carry pre-loaded syringes to inject epinephrine in the case of a life-threatening allergic reaction. The problem is that the auto-injector devices are often not intuitive to use. Many users can’t figure out how to activate the needle, or don’t know how long to hold the needle in place to inject the epinephrine properly. Auto-injectors with better usability lessen common use errors, enabling users to effectively administer the drug in a timely way and potentially save a life.

Truthfully, there is a huge need for more human-centred innovation and UX processes for medical devices. We are just getting started in that space.

2) UX for automotive interfaces

Automotive design has a long and fascinating history, with many decades of unfolding innovation in both vehicle comfort and safety. In the early days, car dashboards displayed unlabeled, ungrouped switches and gauges, and there were no radios or seatbelts to be found.

We’ve come quite a long way.

With the advancement of in-car features, we’ve also seen a need for quality interface design to reduce dangerous distraction.

Cory Lebson submitted an example of bad automotive UX to UX Magazine’s #wtfUX hashtag. Sometimes, well-meaning features can make driving more difficult, as is the case with Cory’s example of a notification that blocks his view of his rear-facing vehicle camera.

Beyond inconvenience, poorly designed vehicle features can be dangerous.

An extremely good rule of thumb is that drivers’ eyes and attention should be on their surroundings and their driving task, not fixed on their phone, the dashboard, or the infotainment system. (It’s my professional duty to remind you that just because a device is hands free does not mean it is distraction free! But it’s a start.)

Good in-vehicle UX can be life saving when we design organized, easy-to-use features to minimize distraction and increase safety.

Accident avoidance systems, for example, rely on sensors and warnings to help the driver react effectively to a potentially dangerous situation. These systems must command attention and communicate information quickly and understandably, without giving too many false warnings or creating too much of a distraction in itself. These kinds of advanced safety features keep drivers and passengers safer, as long as they are designed well and tested with users.

As in healthcare, there is a huge need for UX involvement in automotive design. The results of a 2013 survey conducted by Cisco suggests automotive design is lagging behind the technology that users want, making the role of a UXer increasingly important as car companies rush to catch up.

Thinking into the future, autonomous vehicles will also bring new UX design challenges for architecting the passenger experience. We will need to understand how to design safe, enjoyable experiences for these ‘driverless’ vehicles.

3) UX for emergency response

In the event of an emergency, like a violent attack, traumatic injury, or natural disaster, people absolutely need technology to work safely and effectively to help them take action.

Poorly designed interfaces can create obstacles to emergency response, whereas good UX might enable efficient navigation, understandable data and map visualisation, and quick searching or browsing to help users get the critical information they need.

UXers at Motorola Solutions have been researching and designing new technology to help first responders like police, firefighters, and paramedics do their jobs safely and effectively to save others.

The last thing emergency responders need is to be bogged down by confusing tools, so Motorola’s PSX App Suite is a set of a communication tools to help first response teams coordinate action while remaining focused on their surroundings. That means having features like a push-to-talk button and an easy way to share location maps, avoiding the need for users to bury their heads in their phone for more than a few seconds at a time.

Besides professional first responders, well-designed technology can also help the average person address an emergency.

Mobilize Rescue Systems is a startup that created an intelligent first aid kit for traumatic injuries. The kit contains supplies like bandages, gauzes, and tourniquets, along with an embedded iPad with an app full of illustrations, animations, and planograms to help users quickly locate and use supplies to treat an emergency until paramedics arrive.

The idea is that untrained bystanders can use the app to take quick action and save lives, naturally necessitating excellent UX without requiring special expertise. This kit has undergone extensive research and testing on the UX and the quality of medical diagnosis.

Are you feeling like you could be a UX superhero yet? This article presented a brief overview of some ways that good UX can be life-saving. However, it really was a simple overview of some very complex domains.

If you are interested in digging deeper, search for info on any of the above topics and you’ll find a ton of information. In particular, there is a lot of research from the field of Human Factors/Ergonomics about creating safety-critical technology.

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