Designing Mobile Health Apps: Special Considerations

Author: Antares Yee

Mobile health applications offer new and exciting opportunities for transforming healthcare and treatment. These apps also present a unique set of challenges and requirements that are important to understand when designing your app. Here are some guidelines and considerations that can help you design a good mobile health application.

Designing for healthcare providers:

Understand Providers’ Needs

If your app targets healthcare professionals, learn and cater to their specific requirements. Requirements and priorities vary greatly within this group—don’t assume that what works for a hospital will generalize to a private practice, or even that what works in one private practice will generalize to another. Many providers, for example, won’t consider using your app if it doesn’t integrate with their existing digital system. Additionally, be aware that both people and large institutions resist change—if your app modifies established workflows or daily procedures, make sure it’s for a good reason and demonstrate clearly the value of those changes.

Respect healthcare professionals’ time

Doctors and other healthcare professionals work long hours and free time is a luxury. To make the most of their limited time, define a concrete goal for usage time. For example, you might aim for a doctor to successfully use your app in under 4 minutes, in which he should be able to gauge his patients’ status, browse the statistics page, and send communications to 2 patients. If using your app takes too long, healthcare professionals just won’t use it.

Identify meaningful data for healthcare professionals

Many apps display patient health data to help healthcare professionals understand a patient’s situation. Electronic health records contain tons of information, some relevant to your app, but most not. In most situations, healthcare professionals only need to see a fraction of what’s available—avoid overwhelming users with unnecessary or irrelevant data. The value of many apps derives from an intelligent, insightful presentation of data.

Be aware of HIPAA compliance

If your app accesses patient information and provides support in treatment, your app must be HIPAA compliant. HIPAA consists of a set of federal requirements intended to ensure the privacy of patients’ protected health information. If you are a covered entity or business associate, your app must adhere to a set of federal security standards by implementing various safeguards for electronic protected health information. HIPAA stipulates, for example, that you keep health information out of notifications, which appear when a phone is locked. Email is also generally not HIPAA compliant. Make sure you understand HIPAA’s consequences for your app or team with someone that does.

Designing for Patients

Consider accessibility early

Health apps targeting patients with diseases or conditions often command special accessibility considerations. Do your users have physical or mental disabilities? Can they see well? The US Government has also developed a set of technical standards known as Section 508 that can help you design an app for users with special needs. It’s worth brainstorming special needs cases early in the design process before revisions become long and costly.

Design for a variety of patients

Ensure that your design accommodates the entire target demographic, not just tech savvy urban professionals. We recently designed a blood pressure management app that had to accommodate young children, their parents, and the elderly. For example, we had to decide how to display menu options in a manner intuitive to all three groups. We narrowed our options down to drop-down menu and a four-button bar and eventually decided on the four-button bar. Unlike in a drop-down menu, in a four-button bar the menu options are always visible without having to click on anything, so even less capable users would be unlikely to overlook the menu options. At the same time, a four-button bar is a standard design pattern, so tech-savvy users wouldn’t feel spoon-fed and put off. As you make design decisions, don’t forget that users considered outliers in other mobile applications, like children and immigrants, are often your main audience.

Design for multiple languages

Chances are, not all your potential users speak English. Even if you start with English only, it’s smart to consider how your app’s design will adapt to other languages including character-based languages like Chinese and right-to-left languages like Arabic.

Utilize standard conventions

Take advantage of standard design conventions that users already understand and think carefully before introducing a trendy new design pattern. They may look good, but unless your audience is young and tech savvy, a too-clever design is yet another barrier for less capable users and can cause them to miss out on important app functionality. For this reason, you might choose the classic iPhone tab bar over Vine’s drop-down corner menu or Facebook’s slide-in menu.

Design for behavior modification

Patient behavior modification is fundamental to many mobile health apps and often defines the success or failure of an app. If your app depends on behavior modification, familiarize yourself with how gamification, reminders, and rewards are applied in mobile health to induce patient behavior modification. While all three are commonly combined in mobile health apps, be sure to combine them cohesively. At the same time, design behavior modification functionality into the core of your app and don’t tack it on as an afterthought.

Emphasize functionality and efficiency

Health apps must be used regularly to be effective, but it can be tedious to record measurements or write notes multiple times a day. Identify major tasks and design around them—reducing even two button presses to one makes a difference when you have to do it many times a day.

Utilize images and data visualization

Images and data visualization help users of many ages and with differing mental capacities to more easily digest information. Don’t rely solely on numeric representation of your data, which is harder to process and which risks becoming noise. That said, numbers can effectively summarize a patient’s health status: for example, average blood pressure combined with hours spent exercising can be used as a snapshot of the patient’s condition. When displaying numbers, define a visual hierarchy with color, font, and size to emphasize each number’s relative importance. For example, consider the following displays from a blood pressure app we did. The first image is the display at an earlier stage of the design process, and the second image is a display at a later stage.

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In the earlier stage, it takes some extra seconds to digest the meaning of the display because the text is undifferentiated. In the later stage, we created three levels in the visual hierarchy: large font emphasizes the blood pressure numbers, lighter, thinner font minimizes the units of measurement, and all-caps draws your attention secondarily to “average.” Our eyes focus on elements one at a time, so use visual hierarchy to guide your user through your app from element to element.