Designing health apps & Health: Refactored

Health 2.0 had its inaugural Health: Refactored event in Mountain View, spanning May 13th – 14th, 2013. As a volunteer at the conference I had the opportunity to experience a few of sessions myself, a fascinating conference and a great opportunity to learn more about health care systems and major trends within health and wellness from a technology perspective.


My favorite session of day 1 of the conference was a session called UI, UX and U: Designing for Health. This designer focused session featured moderator Doug Solomon, Fellow and former CTO of IDEO. Individual designers gave a short talk promoting their viewpoint and then Doug moderated a panel of speakers.



Jawbone’s Vice President: Aza Raskin – @aza

Healthagen’s Managing Director: Aaron Sklar – @aaronsklar

Frog Design’s Senior Interaction Designer: Alex Tam@AlexTam

IDEO’s Lead, Active Health: Gretchen Wustrack – @geewu


Doug kicked off the session by telling us his real nickname for the session: “Why Health Apps Suck.” Why do health apps suck, if supposedly health is so important, and there already is a growing industry around healthcare apps? Healthcare costs continue to rise, a ton of money is poured into health care apps, yet they suck.


Aza offered an answer to this question, mentioning that answering the wrong question or framing the question in the wrong way within the context of health care part of the problem. Additionally, he used the idea of collapse of civilizations as a comparison from Jared Diamond’s book Collapse to paint this picture: civilizations collapsed when they don’t feel the ramifications of their decisions, and health care apps often are designed by people who don’t feel the impact of the design decisions made within an app.


Gretchen’s main argument pressed on the point that we need to lead with love and integrate apps into people’s lives: an app shouldn’t feel like an additional step or a burden in someone’s life. The ultimate goal of the app, as mentioned in her closing statement, should facilitate conversation and communication between a caregiver and her patient.


Why do health care apps exist? Alex brought up this question, mentioning that health is something that people who aren’t sick take for granted and don’t notice until they have an issue. I personally agree strongly with this one; as someone who has been lucky enough to have an extremely healthy family, I hardly ever think about allergies, medications or health complications getting in the way of my own activities. Only when I’m forced home with the flu or get food poisoning while traveling do I start to think about tracking my own health. General health apps suck because healthy people don’t have a specific problem or reason to spend time on a health app, but people with chronic illnesses do.


Aaron’s answer to why health apps suck? Developing apps for the lowest common denominator results in sucky outcomes for technology. He advocates that, when at the beginning stages of developing an application, it’s important to understand what is important for a specific population.


Panelists did well in providing experiences and sometimes conflicting opinions – making for a dynamic talk. Final healthcare app tips included:


  • Understand the problem you’re trying to solve. Iterate on your product [Aaron]
  • The app should be used to facilitate conversations between caregiver and patient [Gretchen]
  • [As a designer or app developer] it’s important to show people you’re unfinished work. Invite people to add to what you are working on [Alex]
  • Empathy is so important. Talk to people. Talk to doctors – listen to their problems but ignore their [technology] solutions [Aza]


The question of “will Big Data massively alter health care?” is a given; the real challenge for designers remains in how to ensure that the technology connects patients and caregivers in a way that is meaningful, effective and personal.

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