What happens when the pandemic renders major aspects of medical devicedesign unsafe? You pivot, of course.User-testing, and therefore UX designers, are an essential part of verifying and approving products for use in clinical settings. Some areas of medical device design are expanding and accelerating their UX, and others are facing significant challenges both in gathering user perspectives and achieving approval.

As with countless other industries, the pandemic completely shifted how UX designers work alongside medical device companies to create cohesive user experiences for new technologies that improve diagnostic abilities and patient outcomes.

Pre-COVID, UX teams interview and observe clinicians and researchers in their native work environments. Now, there's no longer the option to take a team of UX and product designers into a physical lab or clinic to observe and run tests.

A crucial area of the developmental process is missing. While some aspects of the UX process, like software and interface design, can be modified using tools like Zoom and features like screen-control sharing, the physical component of research is not easily changed or replaced.

Making Do From Afar

One of the avenues we’ve started to explore is sending camera kits to users to set up in their labs so we can observe physical user-tests remotely. This setup adds a whole new process on the user-testing side, creating a need for UX design to conduct UX design. If that reads like an Escher painting, I can assure you it feels like one, too.

When we’re able to conduct it safely, observers are still brought into the room to document the user-process, even if it can’t be with one of the designers themselves. We attempt to get a clear picture of the scenario, despite limitations, and rely on conversations with users and feedback as much as possible.

Now more than ever, truly getting the user’s perspective requires having them speak out loud about their experience using a device. This requirement is a significant change from working in a lab for 8 hours while being observed. It also requires specifically allocated time on the user’s part, which isn’t always convenient.

From the UX designer’s perspective, I’ve become much more probing in my interview style. I can only observe so much physical behavior now, so asking pointed questions and getting into the nit-picky details of product use in conversation is essential.

One of the biggest challenges in this process is simply the human factor of creating a comfortable space for those who aren't used to sharing in such detail through remote channels. Part of that is understanding the personality of the person you’re talking to through a screen and determining the best way to make them feel comfortable.

There was an initial cost saving from travel cancellation for UX design teams around the country, but this is beginning to balance out with the cost of sending camera kits and providing other alternative means for physical product testing.

Working on Pandemic Time

Typically, medical device companies develop products, and UX designers run users through a series of tasks with the physical product and interface to see what's successful. Designers iterate on the design and go through the process again. When a project is up to a specific standard, it goes to the FDA for approval.

Naturally, throughout the pandemic, anything COVID-related jumps to the top of the FDA priority list. This priority order is a regulatory impact on the usual process and creates a lag time for business-as-usual in many medical areas. Still, we continue with the evolution of different products in the ways we can now.

Short & Long-Term Shifts

Some of the changes we’re seeing within UX design fill a gap that we can quickly step over once the pandemic has passed. Other changes are unquestionably (and fortunately) here to stay.

For example, as the pandemic hit, the focus on UX design for digital pathology products accelerated drastically, and the lasting impacts will be significant.

Lab tests previously required a biopsy from the patient to be placed on a physical slide, stained, put under a microscope in a lab, and finally analyzed to make a diagnosis. On top of that, a glass slide has a half-life, meaning you typically won’t be able to use it indefinitely.

Shifting into a digital sphere means a scan of human tissue can last forever and be analyzed by a pathologist in their home office and by specialists around the world simply through a shared file.