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Andy Vitale has one colorful background; before getting into design, he studied TV and radio before trying to make it as a professional wrestler. A desire to work in digital brought him to graphic design, launching him down a path that would see him become the UX Design Principal at 3M’s Health Care Business Group.

In 2001, the company Andy was working for became the target of the first anthrax attack in the United States. What followed were two months of chaos and uncertainty for him, as he was tested over and over to confirm he was not affected by anthrax exposure (he eventually received a diagnosis that he was safe and healthy). After that, he vowed to improve the healthcare industry for patients and doctors. More on that part of the story a little further down, but first we asked Andy to share some insights on design that puts the user first.

How can UX designers create experiences that put the user first?

In order to put the user first, you have to involve them. Involving users throughout the process allows you to understand them. Even more than understanding them, it’s about having empathy for them. While product owners have a good pulse on the pain points of the user, they aren’t necessarily able to solve their problems, or see the bigger problem beyond an individual feature. Designers are really good at identifying user needs, whether articulated or unarticulated, and helping solve their problems.

The best way to understand any user is to talk to them. Observe them with intent. Ask them about their goals and their desired results. It should be enjoyable for them to complete their tasks, not complex. When users have to duplicate work because the product workflow doesn’t match their actual workflow, it is a bad experience.

UX designers have a lot of tools and methodologies in their toolkit. Although it may take time up front, activities like card sorts, empathy mapping, journey mapping, persona development, and creating flow charts are integral in the success of the product because they represent the user’s actual needs in a way that is very clear to stakeholders. My team puts designs and concepts in front of users as often as we can, varying in fidelity from napkin sketches to robust prototypes depending on the scenario.

That’s why Adobe XD is so useful. It provides the comfort in knowing a single tool can provide various levels of fidelity to share designs with those users. Our team has both a wireframe template and a style guide template as XD files. We can share wireframes, mockups or links directly with our customers to get qualitative feedback or validation remotely or in-person. The XD links also work well within our user testing software, allowing us to host moderated or unmoderated user testing sessions and obtain analytics and quantitative data around user performance and behavior.

What challenges has 3M Health Care faced in the past?

There wasn’t a UX team until about 3 years ago, so the emphasis on user-centered design is relatively new. 3M is a global organization with a 100+ year tradition in innovation through science and technology. In our Health Care Business Group, the business and development teams have done a good job of building a profitable and widely-adopted product without the involvement of a formal design team.

However, the customer today is very different than the customer 100 years ago, or even 10 years ago. It is no longer possible to deliver a product to market with the guarantee that customers will buy it. Today customers have access to so much information at their fingertips, which allows them to make more informed decisions when deciding between products. There is also a lot more competition in the market. 3M Health Care understood the need to take a customer-centered approach and made the investment in a UX design team.

How has your team used UX design to improve your products?

We use UX design, let’s just call it design, as our most effective problem solving tool. While every problem is different and requires a different approach, through design thinking, collaboration with business and technical teams, and co-creation/validation sessions with customers, we have been able to gain alignment quickly and early on in projects. In large corporations people often have multiple things on their plate. Sometimes moving at the speed necessary means not having the luxury to wait for an email response or trying to schedule meetings to discuss minor details. To solve these communication delays, our team has adopted a show, don’t tell, approach. By creating something visual –a sketch, a wireframe, a concept mockup– it helps people see ideas in a visual way and gets them more engaged than an email.

In organizations where design is still relatively new, especially as an internal strategic function, communicating the value design adds is part of our job. We also use design tools like workshops to educate and evangelize design. The best way to teach someone about your process or help them understand your way of thinking is to have them experience it. This not only exposes them to your problem solving process, but lets them see added value of the designer’s lens first hand.

3M Design Center, St Paul, MN, USA.

At the end of the day the main way to inject UX design into a company is execution. The more results you achieve, the quicker your case studies are being communicated up the corporate ladder. Designers are great at storytelling, so helping the business tell their story provides us with the opportunity and visibility to influence that story. When you advocate for the user and their perspective and begin to involve them, you start to solve the customer’s problems, which also solves the business problems.

One of the most effective things we have done to build customer empathy with stakeholders is to facilitate journey mapping workshops with stakeholders and give their perspective of the steps, touchpoints and emotions of our users as they use the product. We then hold the same session with our users and report the findings back to our stakeholders so they can start to see and understand the gaps between the two perspectives.

What’s your number one tip for UX designers facing their own challenges creating positive experiences for users?

You have to realize that neither you, nor your stakeholders are the user. Even if you are potentially a user, you still have to understand the behavioral trends of a larger subset of your users. Spend time with them; building a relationship between users and your product is major piece of the puzzle.

UX designers also have to be aware that customers aren’t always aware of possibilities or solutions they can’t envision. Most likely, they aren’t cognizant of technical or business limitations. This is further justification for the need to be transparent with users and their goals. Transparency builds trust, which makes working together to solve user problems that much easier.

Emotions are powerful and tend to be extremely positive or negative. UX designers should be validating solutions with users along the way so there isn’t a less-than-delightful experience that would warrant an unexpected strongly negative reaction. Once a product is released, the UX team should continue to iterate and improve the solution by working with users because business, customer, and industry realities change over time. Designers can gain a lot of empathy for users by watching them struggle to complete tasks on a product they once loved using.

Adobe XD also comes in handy here. It has made it easier and faster to communicate concepts with team members, stakeholders, and customers. In the past there may have been an interaction designer, visual designer, and front-end developer working together through a series of handoffs around next steps. Now our smaller team can leverage XD to create wireframes, comps, or clickable prototypes more quickly, gaining alignment before creating robust designs or prototypes.

What has been really helpful is the ability to send a video clicking through the workflow to stakeholders, allowing them to easily see and understand the intended functionality. The development teams also enjoy having a reference to some of the interactions.

3M Design Center, St Paul, MN, USA.

Why is it so important to you, in your role, to create experiences with the user at heart?

In 2001 I was working at a company in South Florida that published The Enquirer, Star, Sun, Weekly World News, and more – basically all of the tabloids. We were the first anthrax attack in the United States. Shortly after us there were more publicized attacks of anthrax being mailed to media outlets and politicians. One of my co-workers died as a result. There wasn’t a lot of information around anthrax at the time and it felt like even less information was being shared to those affected.

I remember getting a call from my dad, telling me that he saw my company on the news and that we were required to go to the Health Department. During a very chaotic time we were required to sign paperwork and undergo testing for anthrax exposure. I remember being in a hotel ballroom with the FBI, CDC, and Florida Department of Health and being told that there wasn’t much certainty about what was going to happen. We were tested weekly, and sometimes called and told that everything was OK, only to be called again to come back for another nasal swab because the tests were inconclusive. This continued for about two months.

I’ve directly experienced the effects of a poor healthcare experience and the distrust, anxiety, and feeling of helplessness it causes. While my story was unfortunate, I have heard a lot worse. When it comes to health care, the slightest error can not only have financial implications to all parties, the difference can be life or death. To me, there are no higher stakes, which is the primary reason that drives my cause to improve the healthcare industry.

Get more UX advice from Andy Vitale on his Medium page or follow him on Twitter.


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