It’s Tuesday morning, and I’ve started my journey down the Maine Turnpike towards Boston. It’s 93.8 miles to the Harvard Medical School from my home in Biddeford ME, and I drive every mile with relish. Because it’s not just any Tuesday: it’s Rock Health Tuesday.
Consulting with the Boston branch of healthcare technology accelerator Rock Health has been one of the highlights of my summer. Rock Health’s tagline is “This isn’t your parents’ healthcare IT movement,” and they are right about that. Rock Health’s Boston startups are engaged in helping patients and caregivers track conditions and share care progress seamlessly through mobile, web, and/or medical devices in order to address chronic health conditions. To their portfolio startups, Rock Health supplies office space; grants; training; expert medical, legal, and administrative support, and mentoring with leaders in technology. The latter includes us – Adam Connor and me – both Experience Design Directors at Mad*Pow. Adam and I are on the hook to provide Rock Health startups with advice on user experience strategy and implementation during four sessions this summer.
Every other Tuesday, we converge on the Countway Library to hold office hours from 4 – 7 pm. We each have our separate startup “clients” in the Rock Health portfolio with which we spend 45 minutes talking about user experience issues they’ve encountered over the intervening weeks. For some, it’s high-level strategy. With others, it’s identity. With still others, it may include a heuristic usability review of some new functionality, or we’ll work out a script for user interviews, or they’d like us to read over some personas they’ve drawn up.
The variety of questions from the clients is what keeps us excited about this engagement – they all keep us on our toes. Nevertheless, within the variety there are some themes that have arisen:
First, all of our startups are just getting comfortable with the iterative process. In our world, ideating, creating, testing and improving are cyclical – one message we’ve needed to get across to them is that it’s okay to launch without the entire vision articulated, as long as you’ve defined, built and user-tested a useful chunk of functionality.
Second, our startup clients are very open to the idea of user research - they’re just not sure how to go about it. As scientists, they understand bias – they aren’t used to crafting an interview script or conducting interviews to work around it. They sometimes need help articulating their hypotheses about users, or trying to understand how a user might develop a relationship with their service over time. They want to know which research vehicle or technique might be best in order to learn what they want to learn about their users.
Third, many of them are wondering how to position themselves in the market and how they’ll speak uniquely to their users - both care providers and patients. What’s their voice? How will their appearance convey that, and help them stand out from the pack?
The Rock Health startups are not the only ones who are learning through this process – perhaps the hardest thing Adam and I have had to adjust to is to stay in an advisory role and not jump in and do the work. This is a teach-a-man-to-fish gig, and Adam and I can’t just reel the fish in ourselves and plop them on the table. But however much of an instinct it is for us to jump in and get our hands dirty, I think empowering small companies to value the user experience, think like designers, and engage meaningfully with their users is an even better thing. After all, think of what an amazing world it would be if all companies:
- Learned the iterative process.
- Understood what research technique to apply to which situation, and conducted it early and often.
- Could clearly articulate their position and their unique value proposition, and work hard to manifest them appropriately.
It would be a great day for business, and a great world for users. Healthcare is an area where patients and caregivers alike often feel isolated and lost in a sea of specialized terms, data and complex concepts. We’re helping a new generation of healthcare professionals break through that barrier.
And to me, that’s well worth the drive from Maine.