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Healthcare UX: How to improve customer experience in a tightly regulated industry

For a long time, healthcare websites could ignore the general rules of user experience. It was similar to how people viewed enterprise software: People have to use this, so we don’t need to worry about whether or not they like it. But as healthcare has embraced more and more digital tools, that thinking is beginning to shift. We’re seeing an increased emphasis on design and user experience, especially with the emergence of high-end service groups. Providers and patients still have to use these sites regardless, but healthcare organizations are realizing that good UX will not only cut support and training costs, but also make them look a little more polished and keep users from getting frustrated.

Although healthcare sites are becoming a bit more “consumerized,” there are still key differences to consider between a consumer site and a healthcare site.

1. Hesitancy to explore

A lot of what we have to do when designing for healthcare is be very conscious of the fact that in healthcare people don’t often click on buttons they don’t know. This holds particularly true for providers. We’ve done extensive usability testing with providers, and discovered that nurses and doctors won’t click on anything unless they know the consequences. In their day-to-day lives they have to be very careful not to take the wrong action at the wrong time – e.g. sending a patient’s electronic health records to the wrong place — and that bleeds into their digital behavior in general. Because providers are much more cautious than standard users, UX designers have to be especially careful not to hide important information or tools behind too many clicks. Although patients don’t have the same sort of hard-wired caution around exploration, they also don’t behave the same on healthcare sites as other types of websites. Many patients are used to complex forms and assistance from experts to help them through many of the processes around insurance, payments, health decisions, etc. Because of this experience with healthcare, patients often need additional assurance when searching for information online.

2. Regulations rule

There are a lot of regulations and privacy concerns that govern what you can and can’t allow users to do. We’ve run into many issues during healthcare projects that wouldn’t have been problematic in other industries.  For example, system notifications via email can violate HIPAA regulations, so notifications end up being summarized in a vague “daily digest” email once a day. HIPAA also regulates through what channels providers can communicate – if a provider writes to a patient within one portal, the patient can only read and respond to that message in the same portal (messages cannot be revealed over email).  Government regulations can also affect public-facing websites; for instance, when we wanted to offer a Spanish translation on a healthcare website, we were told that the business did not have the government-approved number of Spanish speakers, which meant they could not have Spanish content available on the site. A lot of people see a very techy future for health, especially as telemedicine becomes more common, but it’s very hard to come to a singular vision around new digital capabilities because of all the regulations governing medical information. Back ends can be difficult to build because you don’t want information leaking out, for example. Regulatory and privacy concerns come up all the time when you’re designing software or a website for a healthcare organization, and you have to be prepared for thinking up work-arounds that improve the user experience without running afoul of the rules.

3. Two audiences

Most healthcare sites are targeting two audiences: patients and providers. That means they have to worry about catering to two audiences that don’t really care about each other from a digital perspective. If you’re a provider, you probably don’t need the information patients need, and if you’re a patient you don’t need any of the tools providers need. So healthcare companies are trying to make one home page work for two very different audiences. That’s why you’ll see a lot of different provider sites with a mixed navigation system when really they probably need a separate navigation system for each audience. When we’re dealing with this, we try to separate content for these two audiences as much as possible. On a recent hospital project, for example, we proposed the solution of two different navigation systems and once the user makes her choice, the system remembers which navigation to display. Of course, sometimes you just don’t have that much control over the navigation system. For another client, where patients are the dominant users, we’ve proposed keeping the home page focused on patients and then providing provider content below the fold with an indicator that providers can scroll down to see their resources.

4. Streamline workflows

On consumer sites sometimes animation is cool, or you might want to craft a new way for users to get around the site, but on a healthcare site users really are just there for very specific information and they just want to be able to get to it as quickly as possible. This can be achieved by streamlining the user’s workflows, providing transparency around the user’s role and responsibilities, and anticipating what information the user needs right away and what information can be displayed later (progressive disclosure).  The goal is for users to complete workflows efficiently and confidently. Part of streamlining these workflows is ensuring that the user can focus on the task at hand.  This means decluttering the interface of unnecessary information and content while also providing enough context for the user to achieve her goal.  Users can generally handle a complex workflow – they just need clear guidance.  Complex forms and requirements can be broken down into bite-sized simpler tasks.

5. Wary of major overhaul 

Although healthcare organizations are beginning to embrace good UX, there’s a certain amount of perfectly understandable hesitation. In addition to sitting at the center of various technological changes, from e-records to telemedicine, healthcare is at the center of policy discussions that could dramatically impact how the industry works. Not wanting to throw a massive website redesign into a business that’s already dealing with a lot of evolving technology and regulation makes sense. What we try to offer organizations is a way to improve the experience for today and future-proof as much as possible.

Unique challenges and solutions in healthcare UX 

Given the differences between consumer sectors and healthcare, UX projects in the health industry are up against some unique barriers. Luckily, every challenge has a solution, and we’ve learned ways to navigate all sorts of challenges:

Challenge: Regulations. Solution: Flexible design.

The shifting state and federal regulatory landscape can make building a streamlined, seamless experience difficult.

To keep ahead of regulation, ensure your designs are modular and scalable so new regulations and laws don’t disrupt the web experience too much. Wherever possible, reuse familiar patterns and allow workflows to accommodate various numbers of steps.

Challenge: Access. Solution: Clarity and transparency.

Different information and processes are presented to users who match various criteria – different counties, incomes, plans, or conditions can change what patients and providers have access to.

To address these situational experiences, remind patients and providers of their role within the system – what they’re eligible for, responsible for, and what they’ve already completed. When possible, provide context and explanation for the current task.

Challenge: Workflow. Solution: Simple look and feel.

Patients and providers alike must often adhere to various rules and regulations while completing a task, which can hinder the creation of an optimal workflow as users are required to complete certain tasks in a particular manner or order. 

To help the user focus on the task at hand, keep the interface decluttered and simple. For patients in particular, white space is a useful tool for drawing attention to important page elements.

Challenge: Wayfinding. Solution: Anticipate user needs.

Healthcare is a complicated industry, and both patients and providers are used to onerous forms, websites, and workflows. Because of this, users generally do not feel confident in finding the information they need on their own – they rely on established patterns and assistance from other users. 

To streamline the discovery process and reduce the amount of time a user spends searching for information, predict what they will need at which moment of their journey. Place vital info in consistent places, and practice progressive disclosure (showing only the information relevant to the task at hand). 


Healthcare organizations have started joining the customer experience revolution, but key differences in this industry will always yield unique challenges that can often be solved with universal UX best practices. Keep it simple, organized, and on par with other industries to deliver the best patient and provider experience.

Next, read more about our healthcare vertical practice.