There are many important components in developing a successful product, one of which is understanding end-user needs. At Fredricks Design, we have made a living from pairing our design and engineering teams throughout the design process to gain insights from both disciplines. This line of thinking reflects how we interact with our clients. We typically try to get as many key stakeholders involved in the process as early as possible to solve as many problems as possible.
No matter how you approach the product development process, understanding end-user needs is one key area to a product’s success. Even the best-designed product will not get far in any market without solving key issues focused on its end-users. This is rarely as simple as identifying a problem and offering what you view as a viable solution. The act of solving these problems can be complex and nuanced. Focused on the daily habits of individuals, a deep understanding of how they got to the process currently in place and understanding the key to solving an identified problem might be to answer a different problem they didn’t even know that they had.
Operating inside of end-user habits
During my final thesis project in my last year in design school, I had the opportunity to shadow several employees in different roles across a hospital system. I decided after some conversations with hospital leadership to attempt to tackle problems surrounding patient transfers. These transfers are extremely common, typically seen between a patient’s bed, a stretcher, a wide variety of testing beds, and various hospital equipment. My initial reaction was to develop an overhead crane system to help lift patients between these different pieces of equipment. You can imagine my surprise to find the same product I envisioned in my mind already installed in many of the rooms I explored throughout my shadowing experience.
When I witnessed how employees went about the transfers in their day-to-day routine, it was remarkably simple. When the time came for a nurse to transfer a patient, they would simply assemble 3-4 nurses, position the stretcher next to the bed or other piece of equipment and pull the patient’s sheet across to carry out the transfer. After talking about this discovery with the doctors and nurses, I learned the overhead system takes too much time and is rarely used.
This highlights a critical point in designing around end-user needs; operate within end-user habits. These overhead crane systems checked every box during its development, eased the strain on hospital staff, reduced the number of staff members needed to transfer patients, and created a safe procedure for the patient. So, where did this design fail? It operated too far outside the habits of the end-user. Because of this, it was quickly cast aside for the fastest and easiest solution available. This is a valuable lesson that could have saved hundreds of hospital systems around the country millions of dollars.
Seeing past the blinders
Another lesson I learned early in my design career was to help see past end-users’ “blinders”. This means that many individuals that have done the same routines for so long in their chosen profession can no longer see the problems they face in their everyday routines. It is human nature to build a routine and perfect it, finding their own solutions to their problems. Once these problems have been “solved” they no longer view it as an issue. We see this same effect across many disciplines in our clients’ walls.
An example from my time shadowing was something as simple as how to bring an IV pole with the stretcher as nurses move patients around the hospital system. Most nurses would just wrap their fingers around the handles of the stretcher and reach a finger out to grab the IV pole. Not a single nurse I shadowed identified this as a problem in my discussions with them or in the surveys I developed.
When developing products around multiple issues, I discovered throughout this shadowing process this was one of the simplest solutions. By simply adding some geometric features to hold the IV pole to the handle area of the stretcher, the process became easier for users to maneuver the stretcher and less stressful on their hands throughout the day. This tiny feature became one of the best-received solutions of the project and it solved an issue that wasn’t even seen by the user group.
Identifying key end-user
A crucial component in understanding end-user needs is correctly identifying who your end-user is. We see many products developed around the customer, but how we define the customer can differ. In the examples used above, we have multiple end-users depending on their definition. The patient, the nurse, and the purchasing group inside the hospital system are all key stakeholders crucial to the success of the product.
A product such as a hospital stretcher can be broken into categories and weighted based on how important each stakeholder is viewed to the success of the product. The customer-centric features are for the comfort of the patient. The controls and usability functions with the nurse or caregiver in mind. Hospital leadership and purchasing groups are going to put more weight into the cost and longevity of the product. Understanding how to weigh these different user groups is important to create a successful product. It is typical to have to make concessions from one user group to another as they all play a role. A product that checks the boxes for patients and nurses but is too expensive for upper management is a non-starter. Finding a way to balance these groups is of utmost importance.
All in all, developing procedures and processes to drive end-user research is an early and vastly important part of developing successful products. Delivering new products to solve our user’s problems without completely changing how they work in their current systems can be nuanced and even frustrating, but it is crucial in their implementation. Understanding that we tend to be creatures of habit can help us step back from the low-hanging problems and identify new areas of improvement. Categorizing key user groups or stakeholders can help us understand the intricacies of delivering a successful product.