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Using field research at startups to move faster and reduce risk

Written by Anna Zawilska

At Babylon, our eyes are firmly focused on a future where technology and Machine Learning open up affordable and accessible healthcare to everyone on earth. And yet, while we and other disruptive startups set our sights on the future, it’s important we continue to ground our work in an understanding of the present. In order to deliver a better healthcare service, we need to be aware not only of the key issues to-solve, but also what parts of the current user experience are valuable and delightful (and why) so we can bring this forward into our product.

Our team employs a variety of research methods including usability study, survey, and interviews, but there are certain things about current healthcare that our participants will never think to tell us because they are so accustomed to navigating the current healthcare system; the only one they’ve ever known. For example, for doctors in particular, there’s a whole set of tacit communication and interaction strategies they employ, honed over time, to deliver high quality healthcare from both clinical and patient experience perspectives. There’s also a large rift between theory and practice when it comes to physical spaces of healthcare delivery. For example, leaflets are often set up in waiting rooms with the intention to inform and empower patients. However through observation it becomes quickly obvious how little patients look at those leaflets. Field research — spending time in traditional GP Practices — helps shine a light on aspects of healthcare that are otherwise not visible.

When doing fieldwork, it’s critical to proactively try take the perspective of an outsider: someone seeing the setting and the activity within it for the first time. As a researcher, you should try to make the familiar or mundane appear strange, questioning why things are the way they are.

Even just a few hours of field research can generate important insights for your business:

1) Metrics for user experience

There is a lot to be learnt about metrics by looking at the traditional healthcare system. Take a doctor-patient interaction, for example. It turns out that doctors implicitly understand that making sure patients feel heard is critical to delivering both good quality clinical care but also good patient experience. For example, doctors typically give patients a critical few minutes to talk freely and openly both about their symptoms but also anything else that’s concerning or worrying them. Then, later in the consultation, doctors ensure they mention and address all the points the patient mentioned. It turns out this is a critical part of delivering an excellent patient experience. In the world of remote consultations with doctors, or when recreating a doctor consultation through a chatbot, rather than simply asking for a generic NPS, we can ask users about how understood and heard they felt.

Using domain-specific metrics will probe more meaningfully and directly at a critical part of user experience in healthcare. These metrics are very actionable because they recommend a more particular facet of the user-product interaction that we need to evolve, than a generic NPS score. From this, we can kickstart solution generation and validation. For example, if we find users of our symptom checker chatbot don’t feel understood or heard, we can develop and test a set of UI components to tackle that. We might develop new ways for users to provide input, or we might add a UI component that better explains and ties the chatbot’s response to the user’s input.

By using the metrics particular to the domain, we save ourselves the time and effort uncovering the root interactional issues. We avoid re-inventing the wheel.

2) Pre-existing models in users’ minds

Field research helps us see in practice the steps and ideas people have to employ to successfully complete the tasks they want to in the traditional healthcare system. This helps us build up an image of the mental model that users have around healthcare, and gives us a clear view on the gap that exists between the workflows and concepts they’re used to, and the ones in the new version of healthcare we are creating and shaping.

This understanding is critical in designing onboarding and in crafting marketing messaging. As a disruptive startup, the onus is on us to take the users on the journey from the healthcare they know, to a new version that delivers even more value and delight. If we know what users are used to, then we know what might surprise them and what might delight them. We can also pre-empt any major user concerns or uncertainties and deal with them proactively in messaging within marketing and the product.

3) Focusing on opportunities for 10x improvement

Understanding the current patient journey, helps you to see the opportunities to create a new offering that is 10x better than the current system. This 10x improvement, rather than an incremental one, is critical to increasing the success rate of getting users to change from the current system to your one. As we know, people are very resistant to change, so your offering needs to be a substantial improvement.

Often, some of the pains of the current system will be obvious to you. For example, at babylon we know that sometimes people struggle to get appointments with NHS GPs without a long wait. So, we’re focused on solving that problem. However, other pains might be less obvious, requiring a closer look at the patient experience. For example, if you follow the day-to-day work of a GP Practice, you’ll see how much physical and emotional harm, not to mention cost to the NHS, comes from the fact that our healthcare is very reactive rather than proactive. By the time a patient is seen and treated, even small cheap easy health issues may become big expensive difficult problems. At babylon, we’re asking ourselves how we can help people overcome this, and empower them to be more proactive. Research helps us quantify the size of the opportunity and tangibly understand impact it could have on the patient experience.

Fieldwork can sometimes be perceived as time-consuming for little reward. However, on the contrary, for product teams aiming to revolutionise and transform an existing service, having a solid understanding of the current system will help you define and measure success more effectively. Ultimately, this will save teams time and resources, helping them move faster with minimised risk towards a product that truly delights and delivers value. With even just a few hours spent in the field, you can check your blind spots and avoid spending resource on achieving only a local maxima in user experience.

If you want to play your part in defining the future of healthcare, we’d love to have you on our team! Please take a look at our current vacancies and don’t hesitate to reach out.

Major thanks to my colleagues Adrien Lassalmonie and Adrisketch who read my article and gave me feedback!