By: Jonathan Baran

This is the second article is our series titled From Idea to Successful Medical App. In our first article, we helped you evaluate your app idea, and now its time to begin the design process. Whether you go with an experienced firm or design the application yourself, the design process will be similar to the steps I will outline below.

First – what exactly is design? Steve Jobs, one of the greatest design thinkers of our time, criticizes what most people think of design and offers his take. “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains of the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”

Put into a single phrase, it’s that “it feeling” – which does not come along often, but when it does people take notice. Apple is one of the best companies at producing products that incorporate this methodology. This is why their company continues to flourish. The problem is almost every piece of healthcare IT software lacks that “it feeling”.

How should you start designing an application?

1) Paper and Pencil

The most underrated, and possibly the best tool for creating well-designed applications is simply paper and pencil. At HealthFinch, we spend hours before starting on an app, diagramming and drawing flowcharts, data models, and simple mockups.

The flow chart, which outlines the steps that will be taken by the user to accomplish a task, is the blue print for any application. The flow chart should outline the application from start to finish. Begin your flowchart by thinking of the first screen the clinician will see. What will it display? Maybe the application will display a list of patients or a list of medications. Do you allow the clinician to only select from this list or do you allow them to create a new entry? What other decision points will the clinician encounter? Finally remember you application is facilitating the accomplishment of a task, or the solving of a problem, so you should allow the clinician to accomplish this is the shortest and most efficient way possible.

A final note, about this process – take your time – some of the most important design decisions for any application occur during this phase of development.

2) Mockups and Screenshots

Once you have the basic flowchart for your application on paper, you can begin sketching your application. To do this, I would recommend Balsamiq Mockups, or free versions such as Mockingbird, which allow the creation of mockups. Mockups are rough sketches of how an application will look and feel. These tools are great because they can turn a very abstract idea into something concrete.

At this point in the process you don’t want to be concerned with the specific details such as the color scheme or specific graphics, but you want to ensure the core functionality of the app.

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At this point in the design, it is also important to address the users of your application – the clinician community. Clinicians require high levels of usability in their software due to high stress and the time-sensitive nature of their jobs. Therefore apps should minimize the required cognitive load and effectively present information to allow the app to fit in the clinician’s workflow. If you’re interested in learning more on this topic I would recommend Dr. Jeff Belden’s EHR usability presentation.

Once you are further along in the process you can begin to create more detailed mockups, or screenshots, which will convey how your application looks and feels. This is when you can become concerned with the specific color schemes and graphics used in the application. To complete screenshots for your application I would recommend OmniGraffle, but you can also use illustration software package such as Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop.

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Getting good screenshots is crucial in getting good design. It takes lots of time playing with the little details, choosing the right shade of blue, adjusting the width of an image, and playing with the font on a page to get it right. Good design at this stage is all about paying attention to the list of a million details that allow users to have serendipitous moments while in your app. Above all, encourage your designers to have fun designing.

3) Feedback

Possibly the most important phase of the design process is feedback. After each stage listed above, I would recommend talking to as many potential users as possible about your application. See what they like and dislike. This will help you refine your idea, and allow you to find problems before you have invested heavily in the development of code.

Also, the iPhone and iPad make great tools to describe your mockups or screenshots. By simply including the application in the “photos” app on your iPad you can create a realistic user experience using only a simple image.

4) Program

Once you are confident in your design and are ready to move forward its time for development! We will discuss this topic in the final part of our series, From Idea to Successful Medical App.

Jonathan Baran is co-founder of HealthFinch, a software development firm that specializes in mobile medical app development.