Four prototyping strategies to test your healthcare innovation

digital health prototyping - paper sketch

Fourth in an ongoing series of Innovator’s Roadmap posts from Boston Children’s Hospital’s Innovation & Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA). Matt Murphy is Innovation Lead at IDHA.

We recently provided guidelines for designing for digital health, a process that requires a complete understanding of the pain point a technology aims to solve. So let’s assume you’ve defined your project goals, brainstormed solutions with critical stakeholders and written up the project requirements. What happens after this design process is complete?

Your next step is developing a prototype, a critical output of user-centered design.

What is a prototype?

Prototyping is the iterative process of building, testing and adapting your idea or solution based on defined business goals, performance metrics and user feedback. It’s not as complicated as it may sound: Any exercise in visually or interactively demonstrating your health technology can be considered a prototype.

The process of developing a prototype imparts long-term benefits — even for simple innovations or solutions. Prototyping distinct features or workflows can inform the design of your final tool, be it a device, service, process or digital technology. It can prevent development delays and save costs by discovering problems before development begins.

Begin drawing preliminary sketches of your solution. The simple act of drawing or designing by hand, regardless of fidelity, can be a highly effective way to initiate the prototyping process. Sketch out not only the technology itself, but also the interactions between users and your product, or between your solution and other systems. This will often uncover new, innovative ways of thinking about the problem.

What are the different methods of developing a prototype?

Prototypes usually fall into one of these four categories. Each serves a different purpose and should be chosen based on the questions you’re trying to answer.

Proof-of-Concept prototypes

Proof-of-concept prototypes seek to answer the most important question for a new technology: will it have the impact expected? This approach can take multiple forms, including clinical research validation or efficiency studies, and should support the creation of quantitative data showing the innovation’s impact. The process will depend on your project, leveraging the major questions that surfaced during the research phase.

How: Anticipate the scope of your project and its potential impact.

  • Potential failures: Outline all areas, technical or otherwise, where your project could fail. This provides a wide-ranging understanding of your project’s limitations and the work ahead for your team.
  • Test, test, test: Create and test prototypes to help you model each potential area of failure. This will enable you to identify and solve problems and future roadblocks in advance.

Form & Visual Representation prototypes

digital health prototyping - paper sketchThe form and visual representation prototype utilizes sketches, wireframes and app layouts to communicate your idea — perfect for innovators with limited technical knowledge. It enables rapid iterations toward your final platform.

Wireframes represent a software technology as intended for display to users. They can represent a variety of interfaces, including a mobile app, website, portal or dashboard, balancing market research with your own innovative designs.

How: The following tips will help ensure well-produced wireframes:

  • Identify analogs: Look for wireframes in unrelated industries that approximate your envisioned user interface to inspire your initial designs. Consider lifting strategies and best practices for your innovation.
  • Observe others: Observe technologies your users are already familiar with. For patient- or family-facing technologies, explore consumer-facing wellness and health apps. For enterprise or clinical users, consider technologies already in the healthcare workflow.
  • Keep it simple: Wireframe prototypes should demonstrate functionality, and do not need to be overly designed. PowerPoint is a powerful tool for simple wireframe exercises. Tie your design decisions to your project goals.

User Experience & Interaction (UX & UI) prototypes

UX & UI prototypes seek to understand how users will interact with your product and how they will interpret your software’s explicit or passive commands. Observing how multiple stakeholders react to your innovation provides valuable feedback for your innovation, especially when that feedback is repetitive through numerous user tests.

digital health innovation - user testing

How: To get insights into user experience and interaction:

  • Test: Use paper drawings, written or image-based instructions to test how users interpret and react to your app’s commands. Have users react to an entire platform or just to specific features, depending on the stage of your innovation.
  • Watch: Observing your users often provides unexpected insights. What statements do they make as they interact with your prototype? Do they appear more focused or relaxed when engaging with specific features?
  • Incorporate: Take user feedback seriously, especially if different users report similar pain points or successes with your innovation. Aggregate the feedback and prioritize insights that you can incorporate into your innovation in a meaningful and impactful manner.

Functional prototypes

website wireframe sketch and programming code on digital tablet

Functional prototypes are working, interactive applications that approximate your final technology. They allow users to try out your innovation before you sink too much time into fine-tuning features that your users many not like or use.

How: Functional prototypes often require technical knowledge to build, so have someone on your team who knows web-based development languages.These steps will help you build a functional prototype for user testing:

  • Meet requirements: Review your product’s business, functional and technical requirements (from the design stage) to determine the scope of features to include in your functional prototype.
  • Build: Now, program and build a working, interactive version of your innovation. Knowledge of web-based development languages may be needed at this stage.
  • Test: Let users test-drive your prototype. Pay attention to their feedback, as well as any difficulties they experience as they navigate through your innovation.

Set deadlines, stay focused

As you create prototypes and iterate on your digital technology, be sure to define clear deadlines and a maximum number of iteration cycles — otherwise you’ll get bogged down in endless design changes. Revisit your project goals frequently to prevent losing focus.

In our next post, we’ll dive into technical considerations in choosing a platform for your innovation.

Download the complete Innovator’s Roadmap