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Editor’s Note: Usability and Medical Systems

This issue of User Experience seeks to drive home the importance of usability, usefulness, and
appeal—the full range of user-experience development—for medical systems and for healthcare delivery in general.

The topic is of vital importance to the general public, to patients and family members, to physicians and other caregivers, and to providers of all products and services that assist in keeping us healthy and repairing us when something has malfunctioned or failed. Every day in almost all media, new processes, research, advice, and techniques are announced or discussed. To cite only one example: Steve Lohr’s recent New York Times article on the first page of the business section recounts the plans of Google and Microsoft to “improve the nation’s healthcare.” Where giants tread, others quickly follow.

UX Special Issue on Medicine

How can we as usability professionals help? Where should we focus our attention? How can we be more effective? Special editors Whitney Quesenbery and Lyle Kantrovich have lined up a powerful group of articles focusing on usability issues of medical systems. You, the reader, are invited to make the final connections that may change the course of your own thinking, perhaps even your career objectives.

Designs for medical practitioners must go beyond the conventions of desktop computing. Medical professionals and paramedics work in ambulances, operating rooms, hospital corridors, examination rooms, and home-care settings. None of these environments resemble a traditional office, with a fixed location for the computer, and desk space for a keyboard and mouse. Tablet-, wireless-, and pen-based devices are not novel luxuries for these contexts; they are necessities, frequently used
in life-or-death circumstances. Design of products and services, as well as design of user interfaces and information visualizations, must acknowledge the unique context of the healthcare user experience. Consider just two examples:

  • The nurses’ station is a busy, shared area. Space is limited. Providers need information quickly because they may see another patient every fifteen minutes.
  • Dental systems use light pens because they can be completely cleaned if they get blood on them.
    The medical information healthcare providers need is inherently complex, with patient-data coming from many sources.

This complexity creates distinct challenges:

  • How can all relevant information be quickly filtered from the mass of data available and be presented in a meaningful way for quick, precise, accurate decision making?
  • How can multiple healthcare providers with different perspectives, processes, and terminologies be connected effectively to support “joined-up care”?
  • How must systems be designed to ensure that all necessary medical data are appropriately, legally, and ethically sharable across different databases, computing platforms, and display devices?
  • How can the patient be part of the data review and decision-making process as one of the key stakeholders in the entire process of medical care delivery?

New uses of technology in healthcare that are consumer-oriented encounter their own challenges. Providing medical information for consumers is not just another Web 2.0 “mash-up” that simply combines previously existing resources. Healthcare practitioners and we usability or user experience professionals are still learning how people use the Web for medical and health information. Technology also raises issues that have yet to be solved regarding legally-protected privacy and concerns when private information becomes public.

This UX special issue explores these red-hot issues, and serves a dual purpose of supporting World Usability Day 2007.

World Usability Day

UX has altered its publication schedule for this issue to more closely align with World Usability Day (WUD), 8 November 2007. World Usability Day was founded to ensure that the services and products important to life are easier to access and simpler to use. This year the focus is healthcare. The range of potential healthcare topics is wide: medical devices or technologies; drug research, approval, or delivery; patient forms and medical-record sharing; the functionality of hospitals; and everyday healthcare delivery. Everyone is affected by the usability (or lack thereof) in healthcare. We hope that UX readers will appreciate even more the exciting events of WUD 2007 and be motivated to take part in the celebrations and topics of the day.

There you have it. This issue, and the events of World Usability day 2007, are a powerful testimony to the commitment and contributions our profession makes to more usable, useful, and appealing healthcare products and services. There is a world of difference we can make. To get started, turn the page, and read on…