Program Recap: Usability in Health and Medical Contexts

On September 18, Kirk St. Amant presented a webinar through STC describing how to tailor your writing in the medical field to the user’s specific situation. Kirk has numerous credentials teaching UX and technical communication at various universities, including Louisiana Tech, University of Limerick, Southeast University in China, and University of Strasbourg. He’s currently researching how cognitive processes affect the usability of technology in the medical field and in online education.

In this webinar, Kirk explains how to determine the exact context under which patients and medical professionals use medical technologies. By properly understanding this context, we can design our technical resources (product manuals, medical brochures, etc.) to better fit users’ needs. Specifically, Kirk recommends we ask ourselves a few questions as we’re designing our resources:

  • Where is the user going to use this device or software?
  • When will they use it?
  • Who will be there when they use it?
  • How will they access our resource?
  • What do they need to know?

Visualizing the Context

Typically, the first step in medical technical writing is visualizing the context in which the patient or medical professional will use our resource. The visualization starts with the resource and the audience. What type of resource are we creating? A lengthy instruction manual? A small pamphlet? A video? Is our resource physical, digital, or both? Likewise, we broadly visualize our audience. Who’s using this resource? Patients, physicians, nurses, or someone else?

This initial visualization is helpful, but it’s often vague or inaccurate. We often picture the ideal situation in which our resource will be used instead of the actual situation. Kirk gives the example of instructions on how to change a tire. When will these instructions be used? You might picture someone sitting in their car, patiently and thoroughly reading through the instructions before proceeding to change the tire. This is the ideal situation, but the actual situation tends to be much less pleasant. The user might be reading on the side of a busy road with noisy cars rushing by. It might be dark or there might be severe weather conditions. They might be rushed to quickly change the tire so they can get where they’re going.
Identifying the user’s actual context allows us to better tailor our design to their situation. In this case, the pages of a book might be hard to read in dark or windy conditions, whereas a video won’t load if the user lacks cell service. In the medical field, the context in which patients receive care or perform care on themselves is referred to as the context of care.

Where and when is the resource being used?

We can ask ourselves several questions to further specify the context of care. Where is our resource being used? In a hospital? At home? At work? Likewise, when is our resource being used? In the morning? During a lunch break? More specifically, what is actually happening at these times and places? These factors can greatly affect the user’s experience with our resource.
Kirk contrasts the contexts in which two different women check their blood pressure. In this scenario, we’re writing instructions on how to use the cuff, stethoscope, etc. The first woman checks her blood pressure early in the morning in a calm, quiet house. There isn’t much to distract her from our instructions. The second woman checks her blood pressure while trying to fix dinner for her two rambunctious children. This woman will have much more trouble focusing. The first woman’s instructions can be more detailed because she’s focused and relaxed— she shouldn’t have trouble understanding a more thorough document. The second woman is multitasking, so she isn’t very focused on our document. We want this woman’s instructions to be simple and concise. We also might consider delivering her instructions through a video or audio recording, so she can keep her eyes on her cooking and her kids.

Kirk also specifically warns us about the doorway effect. When entering a new room or a new virtual space (web page, program, etc.), we experience a mental reset that can make us forget what we were doing. If a user is navigating through new spaces, they may need reminders about what they’ve already done and what they’re currently trying to do.

Who is present when the resource is being used?

It’s important to consider not only the primary user of a medical resource, but also anyone else around when the resource is being used. In the prior example, Kirk mentions how a woman’s children could distract her while she’s trying to check her blood pressure. Alternatively, there could be a nurse or family member present who helps the user check her blood pressure. Checking your blood pressure alone typically uses up both of your hands, so having help means the patient can more easily manipulate any instructions they possess. If the patient is alone, they might need hands-free instructions—e.g., instructions printed in large font on a single page, or a video.

How is the information being accessed?

We must likewise consider how the user is receiving the information. A video, for example, requires the user to use a phone or computer. This could be an issue if the user has unreliable internet access. It could also be an issue if the user needs clean hands for the procedure—phones can get quite dirty, so you wouldn’t want to fiddle with one before or during the procedure. If the resource is needed during sporadic emergencies, the user might have trouble bringing large, physical instructions around with them all the time.

What information is being explained?

This is one of the more self-explanatory questions to ask: What information does the user need to successfully use the device or software? Commonly, medical devices are used to gather data about a patient’s health. Kirk outlines 3 types of information needed to use these types of devices.

  1. The user needs to know how to use the device to generate medical data. For example, to measure blood pressure, the user needs to know how to operate the cuff, stethoscope, and other implements.
  2. The device needs an interface that clearly displays the corresponding medical data. For blood pressure, the interface will display systolic and diastolic blood pressure in units of mmHg.
  3. The device needs to provide guidelines on how to properly interpret the medical data. For blood pressure, the user should be able to tell when blood pressure is too high or too low.

Gathering Data from Users

At this point, Kirk has given us tips on how to further specify the context in which our resource is used. We need to answer where, when, who, how, and what. The best way to do this is by directly communicating with our users. Surveys, interviews, and focus groups are all good methods of collecting data from users. Practically speaking, we can’t create specifically tailored resources for every patient and medical professional, but we can at least identify some common contexts and use those to guide our design. It may be helpful to have multiple different resources describing the same subject, so that patients can choose the resource that best suits their needs.

Kirk notes that our initial data is not always accurate. We might give a patient a pamphlet on how to check their blood pressure, only for them to watch a YouTube video about it instead. In such cases, we may have to provide an alternative resource that better suits the needs of that specific patient.


When designing a resource, try to narrow down the actual context in which the resource will be used. Use this context to guide your design. Some questions to answer are:

  • Where and when is the resource being used? What is happening at that time and place?
  • Who is present when the resource is being used? Is anyone helping? Is anyone distracting the user?
  • How is the information being accessed? What are some advantages and disadvantages of your chosen medium?
  • What information is being explained? In the medical field, you must often explain how to obtain medical data, display that data clearly, and then explain how to interpret that data.

These questions can be answered via surveys, interviews, and focus groups. You may need to provide multiple different resources describing the same subject.

Thanks to Kirk St. Amant for presenting this webinar. More information on Kirk can be found here.