One of the most important parts of designing a new technology is understanding your end-user. While this may be intuitive, it’s easier said than done. Many start-ups fall into the trap of designing a product for a user that they think they understand, but don’t actually. This field of study is known as user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) research. It entails putting prototypes in front of real people, watching them interact with it, and iterating on the product design based on observations and user feedback.
Understanding your end-user becomes even more critical when your end-user belongs to a vulnerable or underserved population. My company, Hey,Charlie, falls into this category. We make a digital platform for individuals in recovery for substance use disorder (SUD) that they access through their mobile phone. These individuals are faced with immense societal stigma and struggle with many daily activities that people without SUD may take for granted. They deserve innovations and solutions that have been made with their own unique circumstances in mind, but unfortunately there aren’t many in existence.
When we first started designing Hey,Charlie, we were part of the PULSE@MassChallenge digital health accelerator in Boston. PULSE recognized how crucial UI/UX research was for digital health companies and organized a UI/UX testing day for its companies in collaboration Northeastern University’s (NU) Nurse Innovation and Entrepreneurship program. NU brought in their team of nursing students and PULSE’s companies got to rotate with them to test their products, take notes on usability, and get feedback from nurses who worked on the front lines of the healthcare system.
For Hey,Charlie, this UI/UX day became so much more than a few hours of usability feedback. Within the first hour, we met several nurses who told us how useful they thought a solution like ours was from their own first-hand experiences with the SUD population. They commented on how friendly and non-stigmatizing the interface was and had plenty of suggestions for added features that they thought would help patients who they knew personally. One of the nursing students, Lisa, had a particularly deep level of understanding of the SUD population based on her personal and professional experiences. We asked her if we could keep in touch, and a few weeks later we had a follow-up call with her to talk more about Hey,Charlie. Over the next several months, we worked with Lisa to hire her as a clinical coordinator for our first official UI/UX study in real patients at a SUD clinic in Boston.
Without Lisa, our UI/UX trial would not have been possible. Not only was she extremely skilled at performing onboarding with SUD patients and the Hey,Charlie platform, but she also had a less tangible skill. She understood these patients. Her past experiences with this population made her understand their challenges and helped to establish a rapport that made patients trust her, and thereby to trust Hey,Charlie as a new technology. Her nursing skills allowed her to rapidly adapt to the challenges that a young start-up faces when conducting their first study. Our company has gained tremendous feedback from real SUD patients due to Lisa’s efforts in our study and have been able to design an even better product. What’s more, Lisa is now getting ready to initiate a second study with Hey,Charlie at yet another SUD clinic. The gratitude that we feel to PULSE, Northeastern, and Lisa is hard to express in words. Innovation is hard, healthcare innovation is harder, and innovation for vulnerable populations in the healthcare system is perhaps the hardest. Without the support and connections we have received, none of what we have accomplished would be possible, and we are thrilled that we are able to continue to nurture those relationships to carry forward with bigger and better things.