By Kirk St.Amant | STC Fellow
This column provides information on trends, practices, and resources for applying technical communication skills in health and medical settings. Contact Kirk at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Usability is central to effective communication in health and medical contexts. It reduces instances of individuals using medical technologies or medications in unintended ways. It also enhances the design of interfaces to ensure health-related information is effectively collected, stored, and accessed. However, achieving usability in health and medical settings requires an understanding of different environments.
Understanding Contexts of Care
Health and medical communication is about care—activities that maintain or restore one’s level of health (e.g., doing something to keep a pulse rate at, or return it to, a particular level). Usability and design are often essential to providing effective care, because doing so requires individuals to use materials to perform a process. The dynamics of care are a matter of context — where individuals perform activities. Understanding this context of care is central to designing health and medical materials individuals can effectively use.
Ideally, the context of care is a medical facility where care is administered by trained medical professionals under optimal conditions. In reality, the context of care is often one where patients perform different care-related activities on themselves. Designing usable health and medical materials for such situations is not easy. It involves identifying factors affecting how individuals perform a process in a setting.
Identifying Usability Dynamics
Ideally, all patients would use medical materials under ideal conditions where individuals can perform a process the same way. In reality, lives are busy and when and where individuals perform care-related activities can vary from person to person. Accounting for such variation can be challenging, but not impossible. Technical communicators can use a sequence of questions to identify important usability factors in these contexts of care.
Question One: Where Do You Do X?
Where individuals perform an activity affects how they perform it. It is one thing to use a blood pressure monitor to check your blood pressure when sitting at your kitchen table. It is another to try to use that technology while on a commuter train traveling to or from work. Each setting contains different factors affecting usability in terms of what you can do (e.g., limits of physical space) and what you can use (e.g., access to power for electronic devices). Technical communicators need to be aware of such factors, so they can design materials that individuals can actually use in a given context of care.
Question Two: When Do You Do X?
Clarifying when individuals perform an activity helps identify what is going on in a particular space. It’s one thing if an individual says, “I check my blood pressure when sitting at the table in my kitchen.” It is another if that person explains, “I check my blood pressure at the end of the day while sitting at the kitchen table after I’ve picked up the kids from school and am making dinner for my family.” The dynamics of what is taking place (or not) in a setting affects how much attention individuals can devote to a care-related activity. By knowing and addressing such factors, technical communicators can design materials that are more usable in a given context of care.
Question Three: Who Is in that Setting When You Do X?
The who factor can be important in terms of distraction or assistance. If other individuals are in a context of care, their actions could affect the care-related process being performed. The bustle of a busy common area, like a lunchroom, can create distractions for someone using a medical technology to perform a diagnostic (e.g., checking blood sugar) in that setting. Alternatively, the presence of individuals, such as family members in the kitchen, could represent individuals available to help with a process like putting on a blood pressure cuff. Technical communicators can use the knowledge of such dynamics to create materials that address such factors and are more usable in a particular context of care (e.g., create interfaces one can easily use in crowded spaces).
Question Four: What Do You Do After X?
The care-related activity one performs might be one step in a larger process. Technical communicators need to be aware of such factors when designing health and medical materials. Using a device to take one’s blood pressure, for example, might be the first step in the process of providing the person’s physician with regular updates on the individuals’ health. For this reason, the design of materials needs to address this factor via instructions explaining how to share that information with the person’s physician (e.g., “Go to the online site, log into your account, and enter your blood pressure readings”) or designs that allow for such processes (e.g., a function that lets individuals upload information to a secure site where the physician can access it). By knowing and addressing such factors, technical communicators can design materials that address the overall objective of performing a care-related activity in a particular context.
Creating effective health and medical materials involves applying aspects of usability to different contexts of care. These questions represent a starting point that technical communicators can use to consider how to apply their skills in different health and medical settings. The better technical communicators understand the dynamics of contexts of care, the better they can create materials that are usable in such contexts.
If you are interested in learning more about this area, check out this column’s resources, including Lisa Melonçon’s work in patient experience design (PXD) and materials the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has created to promote usability in design practices.
Melonçon, Lisa. “Patient Experience Design: Expanding Usability Methodologies for Healthcare.” Communication Design Quarterly 5.2 (2017): 19–28.
Melonçon, Lisa. “Patient Experience Design: Technical Communication’s Role in Patient Health Information and Education.” Intercom 62.2 (2016): 12–16.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Premarket Information – Device Design and Documentation Processes,” 2018. https://www.fda.gov/medicaldevices/deviceregulationandguidance/humanfactors/ucm119190.htm
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Applying Human Factors and Usability Engineering to Medical Devices,” 2016. https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/applying-human-factors-and-usability-engineering-medical-devices