For The Healthcare Community, There’s An “App” For That

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By Marty Hardin (@mjhardin)

Whats so great about the iPad?

Okay, lets get this clear up front. I havent seen or touched the iPad. But based on 25+ years of using Apple products, a lifetime of observing people, and pretty good instincts, here are my thoughts.

Ive been hearing vacillating perspectives. Most first-day reactions were: “Yeah, so? Lets face it, there is nothing revolutionary in how the device operates. Touch screen with gestures¢‚Ǩ”been there, done that. Accelerometer-driven dynamic input? Ditto. Gesture-driven UI? Yep. Nothing new to understand. And, personally, I find that pretty exciting.

I had a former client tell me once, “Good design should be evolutionary, not revolutionary. Taking that axiom as a touchstone, what has Apple done? They have taken an established platform, UI, and form factor and added something that I think people havent been aware they were dissatisfied with: size.

Is a larger screen and device that big of a deal? Take a look at most mobile phone users using their mobile applications. Their heads are down, elbows locked at the ribs, and the device is just below heart level gripped by both hands. Its not comfortable for long periods of time.

Now, take a look at people reading magazines. They have various positions: head in hands while the magazine is on the table, reclining on the couch, magazine on their knees, or head up with a single arm extended slightly above heart level. You can likely think of a few more positions. Point is, the smaller device requires that we wrap our body around it to stabilize and focus on the smaller screen. As the screen gets larger, we dont have to work as hard to keep it stable in our field of vision. As the size of the object increases, so does its mass. The greater the mass, the more physically stable it is. The result? Less is required of users to interface with the device, and users now have more options in how they interact with the device. The device revolves around us, not us around the device.

The other impressive feature isnt the physical size of the 9.7″ screen but the phenomenon of the users perception of the screen size. Sure, todays flat panel televisions are huge in comparison, but they sit across the room, not in your lap. Case in point: As Im writing this, Im sitting about 10 feet away from a 40″ flat panel, but my 15” MacBook screen is perceived as much larger and brighter in my field of view. It is, perceptually, twice as large in my field of view. Even though the physical cues in my environment tell me cognitively that it is smaller, I perceive it as much larger. The smaller iPad screen will be held even closer and will be perceived as huge, bright, and crisp. Add headphones and a good movie and users will be fully immersed.

While many are hailing this device as the first major step in the creation of the “digital magazine delivery mechanism, my biggest concern with the iPad will be its use as a “reader. Additive light radiating from the device versus the subtractive lighting experience of light bouncing off of the printed page creates a great deal of eyestrain. Add the reflectivity of the polished iPad screen, and you have a device that will be hard to use for in-depth reading. A Web page or short report will be fine, but I feel reading long-form data will prove challenging for most users. If you spend hours reading from your screen, you will most likely do fine. However, I dont know how the general population will fare.

(For more information on eyestrain from video and computer monitors, visit Charles Poyntons Website: http://www.poynton.com/notes/reducing_eyestrain/index.html)

So whats my take on the iPad? Having never touched one? There will be a rapid uptake by core Mac, iPhone, and iPod fans. They want to expand their user experience. The sales will stabilize and fall slightly after the first wave of buyers. But then, developers will create new and exciting apps. Leverage this with the “in-crowd mentality of the larger consumer marketplace, and the iPad will become the “must have personal electronic accessory.

So where does that leave the medical marketing community? For those smart enough to begin development and testing now, there is a golden opportunity on the horizon. Why?

In a world that looks at usability, market penetration, and uptake, we often forget that the most valuable aspect of any product is its function beyond its immediate use and its ability to integrate into our daily lives.

What everyone seems to be missing in the equation of evaluating the iPad and its ability to become a “medical device is the fact that it is first, and most importantly, a “lifestyle device. We as developers need to take a step back and rethink the philosophical aspect of the tool and the opportunity it presents to us. We need to see how we can make the integration of medical apps fit within the life function of medical professionals.

In the past, due to the physical limitations of medical devices, form, function, and use were locked. An ultrasound device was only an ultrasound device. Later, computers were added to the devices but with a use-specific function in mind¢‚Ǩ”dedicated processing of the data sets from the device to which it was attached. It was all very elegant, from an engineering perspective. The device and its function were its only reason for being.

Now, we have a golden opportunity not to dominate a small segment of the doctors time but to be integrated into the HCPs lifestyle. In the “always on environment, it becomes easy to imagine a medical app icon sitting on the same screen as a social media app and a weather app. In the past, dedicated devices led to the segregation of devices and applications. Now, we can have a presence on a daily basis.

The challenge will be expanding our thinking beyond our old paradigm of functional applications and expanding the scope to include access to richer information. Research data, data tracking of patients, MOA videos, and CME are all ripe for delivery via our apps. Integration with our Web sites, print materials, reps, and customer service is ripe for the taking.

So whats so great about the iPad? For now, its only speculative. But, I suspect that a year after the first units ship, many people will be surprised by the new and exciting ways they are using the device. Many will not realize how dependent they will have become on the device in their daily lives. And, a good many of those folks will be in the healthcare community. Are you getting ready?

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