UPDATE (March 3, 2014): Abbe Don was selected to speak at SXSW! In her session, entitled, “Healing Healthcare with UX Design,” she will share her methodology for how to ‘design the right thing and design the thing right.’ Catch her SXSW Interactive session on Sunday, March 9, from 5:00-6:00pm CT at the Hilton Austin in Room 616AB.
In early June, Abbe Don joined athenahealth as VP of User Experience (UX) for Epocrates, an athenahealth service. Abbe is a designer with 25 years of experience at companies that include Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Disney and IDEO. In a recent Q&A with Abbe, she told us how she found her way into the industry and her mission to fix health care by design.
So, what’s your story? Tell us about your mission.
Twelve years ago, my partner was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 40s, during a baseline mammogram. We were in total shock. The good news? We caught it very early. But we were thrown into a world of decision-making, complexity and a new language, and it was all overwhelming and really scary.
We were invited to participate in a clinical trial and were asked to use decision-support software that was supposed to help us make treatment decisions. The software was incredibly well-intentioned but the layout was hard to follow; it was impossible to understand and didn’t really help us make a decision at all.
That was your ‘a-ha’ moment?
Yes, I had an ‘a-ha’ moment. What I had read was true. Health care was decades behind other industries in terms of adopting information technology. People often compare health care to financial services where
it’s easy to make connections and share information. I can go to a cash machine in Ghana and take out money from a bank in San Francisco. You would think the same thing would be possible with health care.
I started doing more research about these barriers in health care. Why is it so hard to use information technology in a health care setting? And why are the tools so cumbersome? I thought, I’ve been doing this [interactive design] for 20 years for consumer media technology — making things easier for people to use — and I want to do that in health care. I want to do that for patients.
You’re a big proponent of doing field work as a designer. Why is that so important?
The important part of field work is observation and building empathy for all the stakeholders — for the doctors and their challenges, and for the patients and what they’re going through. The best way to do this is to watch people in their day-to-day environment to see what really happens.
For example, I’ve noticed that patients really want to tell their story but doctors want just the facts. I saw a tension between the two and recognized an opportunity for design to help. So one of my visions is to create a set of tools that streamlines patient information into stories.
Any advice for UX designers just starting out?
First, embrace complexity. Second, improvise. People often say to me, ”What’s the most valuable thing you did as a designer?” I tell them that, of course, learning and working to master the basics of the craft is important. But something that has proven helpful for me is having done improvisational theater. You have to think on your feet and be flexible, and you have to trust the people you’re working with. It’s also about working collaboratively and building on the ideas of others.
In the next five years, what do you see happening in your field?
For decades, health care technology, especially electronic medical records (EMRs), have been limited by motifs of enterprise software, which are hard to use and don’t provide much of an experience. Doctors are consumers — they use Amazon, Yelp, OpenTable and Facebook, and they ask, “Why can’t health care tools be as easy to use as the tools I use in the rest of my life?” The answer is that it hasn’t been a priority. But it’s absolutely possible.