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Using virtual reality in healthcare product design to build patient empathy

A common complaint we hear from healthcare providers is that while they have developed a deep understanding of the patient experience by providing day-to-day care, product developers are typically several steps removed from the patient experience. But what if we could close that gap? What if we could facilitate a better understanding (and empathy!) of the patient experience by putting product developers in the shoes of target users?

Consider virtual reality (VR) – what if you could virtually “become” any patient with any condition at any time; you could immerse yourself in the context that they experience their daily challenges. VR technology now makes this possible, which opens the door to unlimited possibilities in user experience (UX) research.

Current application of virtual reality empathy

We’ve started to see examples of virtual reality empathy applied in other industries. Several news outlet apps invite the viewer to virtually immerse themselves in a news story: the Paris attack vigil, a battle with Iraqi forces and ISIS, a solitary confinement cell, or standing helpless as a patient goes into diabetic shock. Done well, this technology creates a new way to gain a powerful empathetic response from viewers.

Now imagine using this virtual reality empathy experience to begin your research and development (R&D) process for a new healthcare product. Presently, virtual reality empathy experiences for the healthcare sector are publicly accessible, e.g. what it’s like to have dementia, schizophrenia, or a migraine. Your team could refer back to this experience and customize it to sub user groups. A robust virtual reality empathy tool or lab would be necessary for this to benefit an entire R&D process and multiple products.

The virtual reality empathy design lab: become your target user

Let’s imagine what this lab might look like. There could be a library of virtual reality experiences of different target users from which you could pull. Or, imagine walking into a room in which you could custom design the target user. For both of these experiences you could virtually “become” the target user avatar. Within seconds you could “become” an aging woman with arthritis and asthma or a teenager with diabetes and low vision.

Could this help your R&D team keep the user top of mind? Or even better, emotionally hook you and the team to the target user needs as product design, packaging, and marketing strategy decisions are made?

Virtual reality empathy in UX research

While these initiatives continue to be explored, we are helping clients gain empathy for their users through VR. We recently wrote about our VR ethnography in Mexico and our experimentation with VR imagery. We are interested in pushing the limits of this method.

An example where we see the benefits of this application is in-home VR recording and streaming. Instead of flipping through a PowerPoint with pictures at the end of a study, product teams can virtually immerse themselves into a patient’s home while the patient shows and describes to researchers the impact of the challenges they encounter on a daily basis. Product teams can feel as though they are sitting next to patients as they tear up in happiness describing how the product has saved their life. No picture in a report or video clip could offer this level of immersion or empathy.

We can also see applications to experiencing a patient journey in a hospital. Product designers can experience the patient journey first hand, e.g. from stretcher to operating room to discharge. You’d feel just like the researcher and be able to observe patients when they experience pain, confusion, fear, or sadness.

Beyond patient empathy and next steps

In addition to designing best-in-class experiences, there are other benefits VR could offer throughout the R&D process, including team buy-in. Once a C-suite executive, board director, or engineer immerses themselves into a virtual first-hand experience within a patient’s home or a hospital room, investment in next steps or design changes become a discussion instead of persuasion.

Some aspects of applying this technology in the healthcare industry are a ways off in terms of feasibility. Patient privacy is also always a concern. However, easy access to simple exploration apps and cardboard VR goggles facilitates easy experimentation and seemingly endless possibilities. It’s even more fun to think what, if anything, we could do with this technology to ultimately enhance the quality of life for patients around the world.

Would the ability to “become” your target user be useful for your team?

Hope to see you at the global innovation and technology healthcare conference in London in November!

Please email hannah.duffy@gfk.com to share your thoughts.

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