When UX Puts Lives on the Line


Creative Cloud

We look at how designing a robotic arm used in neurosurgery came down to UX 101, and how one hospital has doctors and designers working together to enhance the patient experience.

User testing for the Modus V looked a little different than your average usability research. That’s because the users are neurosurgeons and they are testing the efficacy of a robotic microscope by operating on cadavers. Their ability to use the microscope during brain and spinal surgeries depends on a reliable UX and UI, something that must be seamless to use when a surgeon’s hands are busy performing life-saving operations. It’s not something they want to test on live humans without experiencing it firsthand.

The Modus V is a fully automated, hands-free, robotic digital microscope that leverages space technology used in the Canadarm—a series of remote-controlled robotic arms used by NASA to deploy, capture and repair satellites, among other things. The technology is Canadian made, so it’s no surprise the Modus V comes from Canadian company Synaptive Medical.

Reimagined for medical purposes, the Modus 5 was released in October and is part of Synaptive’s suite of BrightMatter™ technology solutions. BrightMatter technologies have been acquired by hospitals across North America including Castle Rock Adventist in Colorado, Cedars-Sinai in California, Northwell Health on Long Island and the University of Oklahoma Medical Center.

It was inspired when Wes Hodges, director of Informatics and external collaboration at Synaptive, together with other members of the company’s founding team witnessed surgeons experience a usability problem in a clinical setting.

“The arm grew out of immersing ourselves in the operating room environment, so immersing ourselves in the problem,” Hodges said.

The team witnessed surgeons using an ecscoscopic camera, meaning the camera is positioned outside of the patient, mounted on a mechanical arm. The surgeons would have to take their hand out of the surgical field to realign and reposition the camera every 20-30 seconds.

“That camera is so zoomed in, every little change you make in the corridor you’re working down requires you to re-center. In seeing this, we said hey why don’t we have that move for you and automate it, put it on a robotic arm?” Hodges said. “The response from the surgeons was fantastic. Wow, can you do that? It’s something that was conceived from immersing ourselves in the problem.”

Since patients are often awake during brain surgery, technology like the Modus V empowers surgeons to communicate with patients while the surgery is underway, giving them vital information as to how the surgery is going and if they’re on the right track. The entire surgical experience has changed.

UX Isn’t Brain Surgery

Despite the complexities of the technology itself, the UX design process remains very much the same whether you’re designing a robot that assists in brain surgery or an app that plays brain games.

“Regardless of the context, it’s extremely important in order to design an effective product that’s going to meet your end user’s needs to really immerse yourself in the environment and the context, and that involves getting to know your users. That’s UX 101. Who is your user, what are their needs, what are the goals they’re trying to accomplish and perhaps most notably, what are the pain points in existing workflows and processes they’re using to accomplish their goals?” said Justin Kirkey, manager of user experience at Synaptive.

“It involves lots of clinical visits to make sure that we’re understanding the clinical context, user interviews with surgeons, neuroradiologists, operating room staff, cleaning department individuals who are using many of the tools indirectly. There is wide slew of clinicians who are involved in this. Understanding the ins and outs of their mental models is key to designing a successful product.”

The products that Synaptive develops may be deployed in highly stressful and sensitive environments where patient lives may be on the line, but from a UX perspective they still need to be validated like anything else. The results have proved rewarding for the team, users and patients alike.

“One of the favorite things for me is seeing an outcome for a patient that a clinician feels wouldn’t have been there, or wouldn’t have been so positive if our technology wasn’t used,” Hodges said.

How UX Is Transforming the Way Thomas Jefferson University Hospital Understands Patients

Just as UX is crucial in the tools and technologies clinicians use in surgical settings, it also factors into the entire hospital experience. Thomas Jefferson University Hospital is one organization exploring the relationship between UX and healthcare innovation.

Tim Moyer is the lead experience designer at Thomas Jefferson University’s Digital Innovation and Consumer Experience (DICE) group and co-founder of DICE group’s AR/VR Initiative. As part of DICE, he explores how technology can enhance the user experience, which is often the patient experience in a healthcare setting.

Part of his work includes developing applications and exploring technologies that assist the entire patient journey, which starts long before the patient ever steps foot through the hospital doors.

“We try to understand where the patient journey begins, whether they’re at home or at work, thinking about visiting a hospital or a provider. We try to ask what will that person’s reality be when they leave the hospital, what will their story be when they’re interfacing with Jefferson, and how did that story begin and conclude for the patient and their family?” Moyer said.

Image Credit: Josh Luciano

To better understand the needs of patients, Moyer works with Pavitra Krishnamani, who is studying to become a physician. One of their projects is the development of a smart patient room that leverages AI technology to enhance and modernize the patient experience.

“I had a chance to learn how my patients perceive their healthcare environment. So much of the work I’ve done so far is as a person providing care, so I understand what happens behind the scenes. Seeing how they perceive that care was quite eye-opening. Taking a step back and looking at patients through a UX lens provided me with insights I never discovered while in a white coat,” said Krishnamani.

“In my time as a clinical fellow, I have found that UX design and medicine are both fuelled by empathy and a strong sense of inquisitive curiosity. As healthcare becomes increasingly patient-centered, our solutions to the challenges we face in the clinical world and healthcare delivery must absolutely follow in the same vein—no pun intended.”

While Synaptive serves as a reminder that designing a user experience always comes down to the fundamentals no matter how challenging or complex the product, Jefferson speaks to the potential for UX practices to revolutionize the entire hospital and patient experience.

When patient lives are on the line, a well-designed UX—whether it’s a medical product or a recovery room—can make all the difference.