3 reasons to conduct ethnographic research during medical device development

February 14, 2023
Ethnographic research helps identify nuances to create a more robust understanding of users, identifying unexpected insights that may not show themselves until much later in the product development process.

Conducting ethnographic research is one of the best ways to understand and anticipate users’ needs. In systems as complex and personal as those in healthcare, it is especially important dive deep into the context of use to identify gaps and nuances during the product development cycle.

The insights gained from ethnography can enable teams to design products that work for users in actual use environments. Observing users in context can reveal patterns and nuances concerning product use and on-the-ground perceptions and behaviors that may not otherwise be captured in usability testing.

Why should you consider conducting ethnographic research during medical device product development?

Prevent unchecked assumptions from sneaking into your knowledge base: Medical ethnography helps define users, uses, and use environments.

Anytime a product is assessed in a simulated-use environment, certain parameters of the user experience must be defined. These definitions can be based on prior research or on assumption. Whether based on research or assumption, the definitions of these parameters can become premises that are codified in study materials: user groups become participant screeners, use environments become simulated-use setups, and so on. These premises can quickly embed themselves in product development even when there are no actual data to support them, and they can go unquestioned until it is too late to revise them.

For teams who already have a robust knowledge base concerning intended use, ethnography can complement reference information to confirm its accuracy over time and across different markets. Using ethnographic methods on an ongoing basis can help make sure a product meets users’ evolving needs and expectations from early formative testing all the way to validation.

Medical ethnography can generate a realistic and nuanced understanding of your users going into the design phase.

Ethnography makes space for users’ motivations to get messy. Observational research allows for users’ real-world perceptions, behaviors, and priorities to reveal themselves in their greater context of use. Real-world users make their own paths to get where they want to go in ways that may not reveal themselves in a simulated-use environment during usability testing.

For example, take a caregiver who is setting up an infusion set to administer a dose of medication for their loved one. It is likely that the caregiver learned how to use this set with hands-on training from an HCP, or perhaps they learned by watching a YouTube video, at which point their goal was to follow the task steps as closely as possible. With time and experience, however, maybe the immediate goal shifts to administering a dose quickly before the cat has time to jump on the table and knock over a vial.

For healthcare providers, clinical environments are workplaces, where routine can further dull attention and make new systems of workarounds and shortcuts. Even if a technology works perfectly fine in an isolated, simulated environment, it may end up serving as a bottleneck or pain point in its larger context of use. Ethnographic research helps identify these nuances to create a more robust understanding of users going into the design phase.

Products may work in the same way across countries, but mental models and lexicon do not.  

Unlike survey data or focus groups, ethnography requires direct and individual interaction with the people who are being studied, which makes it especially suitable for early stages of product innovation. For this reason, it’s also a powerful tool for studying user experience and product viability across cultures.

Early exploratory research can highlight unexpected cultural differences that may not show themselves until much later in product development, at which point it may be too late or expensive to go back to the drawing board.

Would users in different markets understand product terminology that current users take for granted? Are there regional differences in home or hospital environments that seem small but can significantly impact a product’s viability? What cultural differences can impact the way that patients are diagnosed or healthcare professionals provide treatment?

Ethnography also provides insight into unique opportunities for innovation that may not exist in a company or product’s home culture. Perhaps users in the European Union must conform to standards that do not exist in the United States, and healthcare management systems are looking for new ways to address them. Maybe patients in one culture are more open to visibly wearing a medical device than others. By meeting users where they are, companies can identify user needs and start creating hypotheses that extend far beyond usability.


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