Baby delivery and user experience design

June 8, 2011


As you may know, my wife and I recently had our first child, a daughter. She was born on May 21 at Emory University Hospital Midtown. After she was born, she had to be taken to the special care unit for infants. This is an area that is more intense than the standard nursery, but less intense than the intensive care unit, and it happens when an infant needs individual care but does not appear to be in serious condition.

I mention this because it resulted in our inability to keep Leila with us for a day or two (the days are still blending together at this point). While we waited for her, we spent our time watching cartoons, observing the oddities of the medical system around us, and (in my case) wandering around to get ice or juice or fruit, or go home, eat, and feed the cat. While I did all this, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much our experience lacked design.

I don’t know anything about how healthcare systems (of universities or otherwise) staff themselves (beyond the obvious doctors and nurses and such), or who they contract to build things that they use, but it’s clear to me that there is massive opportunity to improve the stuff that doctors, patients, and staff in these systems use. Ideally, we could all notice this.

I want to emphasize that the hospital’s doctors, nurses, and staffpeople who interacted with us were wonderful; it’s just the stuff that’s built for them to use that needs help.

Inside the delivery room

We arrived at the hospital, and the room where they put us in the maternity ward, the first day at around 3am. They hooked my wife up to a few things, and started to figure out whether she was close enough to stay (she was). One of these machines showed a bunch of squiggly lines all over the screen, and seemed to be printing them onto a roll of paper below it. It was apparently designed to measure something about contractions. Maybe how far apart they were? Maybe how intense they were? Maybe both, or something else entirely? A few times we might have been told what we were looking at, but mostly the folks there seemed to think the squiggly lines were self-explanatory, just like theologians think everyone knows what a pericope is.

This isn’t a problem for the doctors and nurses; part of their training involves this machine, and the other ones in the room that made even less sense to us. But it is a problem for the patients. I’m confident that these machines could have usable interfaces that interpret the data they display so patients could understand it, and I bet the medical people would be able to read them more easily. It’s true that we’re in an age of overwhelming amounts of data, but there are increasingly brilliant designers working to visualize that data for us.

Outside the room

Whenever I left the room where my wife was, whether we went to see the baby or I needed to go find juice, the area was built to make sure that people couldn’t leave with the wrong babies. Parents had a little bracelet thing that matched one on the baby, and the whole place went on lockdown if something went wrong. This was all appreciated.

Aside from that, the area had lots of doors that locked behind us, and we needed to get someone to open doors into other areas, or back into the areas we left when we came back. Each door had a button on the wall that staffpeople could use a keycard on, and also a phone that patients or visitors could use. We would pick up the phone, and it would ring and someone would answer and then open the door.

At first I didn’t think anything of this, but on the second or third day someone told me that it wasn’t possible to tell this phone apart from the regular phone. People sitting at the desk said they could mistake the doorbell thing for someone on the phone, and vice versa.

I think this is silly, and I know it’s because no one bothered to design the system with the people using it in mind. Any normal house has a doorbell that sounds like a doorbell and a phone that sounds like a phone. There could be way better systems for this kind of task, computerized alerts or something tied to the bracelets or any number of other things that could be beautifully designed.

Hire some designers

These were just the things that stuck out to me the most. There were several weird things (like machines attached to the bed that never got used and didn’t have any apparent purpose), and several annoying things (like the TV’s sound being played through the remote control so it was hard to hear), but I can think of reasons for all of these.

It’s these specific things that make me think there really are design problems in the medical industry, and that there really are opportunities for designers to make hospitals and doctor’s offices better places for the doctors, nurses, staff, and patients who spend time in them and use their tools. So I consider this post to be two things – a chance for me to share something we laughed at while our daughter was being taken care of, and also a half serious request that the medical industry invest in some user experience designers.