Understanding Customers is the Key to Patient Experience. But What Does That Really Mean?

23 March, 2017

Customer understanding is at the core of any patient experience strategy. But, what does it mean to understand customers?

There is a common saying in the practice of user experience – you are not the user. We can’t really be inside the minds of the people we interact with. We can try and imagine walking in their shoes, or creating subjective views of what they must be going through.

“Knowing how people will use something is essential."—Donald Norman

Understanding doesn’t happen in a brainstorming session. It doesn’t happen with a group of executives setting a vision for a customer-focused organization. It doesn’t happen with patient experience managers talking to representatives from different departments in a healthcare system.

The solution seems obvious: To understand patients and their loved ones, we have to talk to, observe and listen to the actual people we want to understand.

It’s hard to believe that something so basic is often replaced by either the misconception of surrogate understanding, or cursory research done through surveys, data analytics or the occasional focus group. These are great supplemental tools, but aren’t a substitute for actually observing patients and their loved ones directly. What are they feeling when they sit in their room waiting to hear back from a doctor about a test result? How do their family members feel when an intern, nurse and the rounding team all give different information about the care plan for the person they love?

Here are four steps of primary user research that are key to customer understanding:

1. Observing the patients directly, to discover future focus areas, by conducting ethnographic research, interviews, surveys, cognitive walkthroughs, and contextual inquiries.

2. Capture their stories to highlight pain points, but also to explore unmet or unexpressed needs, on empathy maps, affinity diagrams, personas, and journey maps.

3. Work toward a shared understanding of what can be designed to remove the pain points, and/or meet their needs, by creating scenarios, current and future flows, wireframes, blueprints, and prototypes.

4. Measure to validate our solutions through net promoter scores, satisfaction surveys, effort scores, and HCAHPS.

After conducting primary user research, we begin to see patterns in the types of people we are interacting with. In the user experience field, we refer to the patterns as Personas. In marketing, the patterns are referred to as demographics, or user segments.

David Duvall, and his team at Novant Health, did an excellent job understanding the user segments interacting with their organization. Most of their research was focused on patient segments. Novant’s patient segments were the “Eager & Engaged Stewards”, “Savvy & Connected Patients”, “Healthy & Unconcerned”, “Cost-Conscious Guidance Seekers”, “Responsible & Resolute Boomers”, and “Uninterested & Unengaged." [1]

Novant was able to use the understanding of patient segments to optimize the selection and prioritization of new tools and capabilities, and better optimize their analytics strategy. As a direct result of the effort they put into patient understanding, Novant currently leads the nation with nearly 600,000 consumers engaged in their MyChart patient portal. [1]

This is just one example of customer research. For other organizations, understanding family members might be just as important as understanding patients. For example, parents of young children, or care givers for the elderly, may be just as involved in the care plan as the patient.

Before beginning user research, take the time to plan out the objectives of the project, outline the research plan (who, what, when, where, why and how). Don’t be afraid to adjust course. New discoveries are bound to happen, and it’s at these moments that we have an opportunity to truly learn. It’s not always an easy path, but creating a culture of learning, creating, and testing customer understanding is the foundation designing patient experiences that really make a difference.


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Written by Brendon Cornwell, Experience Design Practice Lead, Impact Makers
[1] Spectrum, Society for Healthcare Strategy & Market Development. March/April 2017.