The Doctor Is In: Best Practices for User Testing Medical Professionals

Jan 7

Even on its best day, user testing can present a whole host of obstacles and hurdles. Moderators and observers have to be prepared for anything—from a faulty Internet connection to a participant who doesn’t know how to scroll.

And that’s just when we have as much control as possible over the test—the participants, the lab setting, the protocol structure, and all the other components that go into a successful user test.

Now imagine testing harried doctors and nurses in a frantic, fast-paced hospital. The hurdles skyrocket.

Here are some tips we’ve gathered from our experience testing medical professionals to ensure that you get the most valuable and relevant feedback possible.


1.      Be Flexible

The most important advice we can impart surrounding usability testing of medical professionals is to be as flexible as possible in every respect—and we’re not talking about downward-facing dog.

Scheduled time slots—if you’re able to pin them down at all—will be shifted around. The amount of time you are able to spend with each participant will depend on their schedule and whether they get called away for an emergency. Sometimes you’ll end up testing a specialist who accounts for the 20% use case instead of the 80% use case. Sometimes you’ll end up testing more than one user at a time. Often the order of tasks in the protocol doesn’t make sense for some of your participants, so you’ll have to jump around—a lot. You may be lucky enough to sit with medical professionals at a private workstation, but more likely you’ll catch them on their floor in the middle of a shift, and you’ll have to follow them around while throwing screens in their face and firing questions at them.

It sounds crazy and maybe even a little dysfunctional, but this is how the majority of doctors and nurses in hospitals are used to having conversations.

Regardless of what pops up, be prepared to be flexible. As long as you are aware that usability testing doctors and nurses is an anything-goes proposition, you should make it through with some great feedback and next steps.


2.      Go Mobile

If it makes sense to test the product on a handheld device, do it. What’s more, if you can take notes and go through the protocol on a handheld device, do it. As we mentioned in Tip #1, you’ll be lucky if you have a dedicated workstation where the participants can sit down, uninterrupted, for a period of time. So being able to get up and go anywhere in the hospital is key to your test’s success.

Also, electronic protocol versus paper protocol makes it so much easier to jump around from one task to the next, so you don’t have to go in a linear order and shuffle through papers. This makes it that much easier to ensure you’re testing your participant on tasks s/he would be likely to complete in a natural setting.

In order to capture these on-the-fly sessions with video and/or audio, mobility is, again, key. You can have a camera person follow you around with an iPad and take video that way, or you can set up a sweet rig like Mr. Tappy so you’re that much more flexible—and professional.

Finally, make sure you have a solid Internet connection—and here we recommend a mobile hotspot. It’s risky to rely on 4G or the hospital’s wireless service, and you likely won’t be sitting still long enough to hook up to an Ethernet cable.


3.      Set Expectations

Be very clear from the get-go what you’re doing, why they’re here, and what exactly you need from them. Setting expectations will make all the difference. If your participants know what you’re trying to accomplish, that ten-minute mini-eval on the run can yield results as fruitful as a focused, hourlong, step-by-step test.

Medical professionals have a lot on their minds, and it can be difficult to get them to focus on the task at hand. That’s okay, mostly—because this is their natural setting. This is how they would actually interact with a system or a product. But there’s a line between sharing a specific thought process for completing a task and going on a peripheral tangent, and you need to set it. Don’t be afraid to pull them back in from wherever they went.

Not only do medical professionals tend to have trouble focusing—they’re also used to being the ones calling the shots (with patients, with nurses), so it can be challenging to rein them in to a role that isn’t natural to them—that of participant, not moderator. Set the expectation that you’ll be leading this particular session, and cut them off if they step into your territory.


We know usability testing can be a high-stress situation, in the best of circumstances. So, when you’re under less than ideal conditions—like in a hospital—it’s important to adapt to the environment rather than try to control it.

Posted by: David Richard

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