Designing Empathetic Healthcare User Interfaces: Enhancing Usability and Accessibility

December 4, 2023

Today, patients can benefit massively from digital tools, which can influence their interactions with their caregivers and provide an all-around great experience. With this in mind, it has become necessary to provide empathetic designs for healthcare user interfaces. Patients use online portals to schedule appointments, access their health data, avail themselves of telemedicine, and even find healthcare providers. Empathetic designs can increase both the usability and accessibility of these portals.

The Context of Empathetic Design

Empathy is about understanding the feelings of others and remaining sensitive to them. When considering UX design, empathy is about creating user interfaces that cater to users’ emotional and cognitive needs. Within healthcare contexts, people’s emotions can get intense. The stakes are often enormously high. Life-and-death situations are not uncommon. An empathetic design can mean a smooth, comforting interaction instead of one that frustrates the patient.

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By way of example, consider the diverse range of patients that a healthcare user interface might serve. Patients differ in their age, literacy level, physical abilities, cognitive function, and cultural background—and this is just a sampling of the many potential differences between them. Elderly patients would likely struggle with small fonts and overly complex menus, while someone with a visual impairment would need sufficient color and value contrast to see screens well enough to make the right choices. Or consider patients with high anxiety levels. It would be all too easy to overwhelm them by using too much medical jargon or designing a user interface that is neither clean nor calming. To craft solutions that are as inclusive and effective as possible, designers must understand users’ different perspectives.

Inclusive Design Best Practices

Let’s consider the following design best practices for inclusivity :

  • clear typographyTypography is fundamental to any user interface. Fonts must be legible and their sizes must be easy for the majority of users to read. Keep typography simple and clean for visually impaired patients. In other words, forego fancy stylized fonts. Be sure to provide the appropriate amount of space between lines, or leading, and between characters, or kerning. This can make a difference not only for the visually impaired but for patients with dyslexia.
  • color and value contrast—When designing for visually impaired users—especially those with color-deficient vision—choosing the right color combinations is essential. Designers must ensure robust color contrast and value contrast, especially for important elements such as warning messages or call-to-action buttons. Employing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) can help you validate the color contrasts in your user-interface designs.
  • easy-to-understand navigation—Users must be able find their way through your platform or product quickly and without friction. Always organize information logically. Use icons that are easily recognizable and pair them with clear text labels. Adding an option for voice navigation can help ensure a user interface is sufficiently easy for users who have difficulty navigating digital tools in general.
  • feedback—Provide feedback on user interactions and prevent errors. Even an “Are you sure?” prompt is better than nothing.

Empathy: Going Beyond the Design Elements

Going beyond the elements of a user-interface design, empathy requires understanding the emotional states that patients may be experiencing when they’re using digital tools. For example, consider cancer patients who are trying to find information about their diagnosis. Or a pregnant woman who is trying to book an ultrasound appointment. Each of these patients brings a unique set of emotions to the user interface, and it’s important that you consider them when designing a user interface.

Let’s look at that cancer patient in greater depth. If the patient is newly diagnosed, it’s likely that he’s already feeling anxious and overwhelmed. Imagine his encountering a healthcare user interface that is confusing or doesn’t provide the support tools he needs. Such situations would amplify his negative emotions, and he might become overwhelmed or feel even more anxious. These emotions could even impact his health outcome. This is exactly what you want to avoid, and such situations are completely avoidable with the right design.

Empathy is a two-way street. While it’s certainly true that UX designers need to understand patients and design user interfaces that cater to their needs, healthcare professionals must also use these tools to gain insights into their patients’ mindset. One thing digital tools provide is an abundance is data. Analyze this data to discover how the patients and caregivers use the platform, provide insights into their concerns and needs, and learn how caregivers can improve the care they provide to their patients.

Practical Examples of Empathetic Design

Now, let’s consider some practical examples of empathetic design.


Personalization has become a common topic in customer service and marketing, and it’s no less important in the healthcare industry. In fact, it’s probably even more important in the healthcare industry with the high stakes and intense emotions surrounding the services being provided. For example, if a diabetic patient logs into a healthcare portal, the user interface could highlight nutritional advice, provide insulin reminders, and offer personalized articles about managing this illness. As a result, the patient would feel seen and understood. Or maybe you have a patient with a wound who has taken photos of the wound on her phone and wants to send them to her healthcare provider. Making sure the user interface has a HEIC to JPG converter would allow a seamless transition from the smartphone to the user interface.

Feedback Mechanisms

Whether it’s a simple survey after a telemedicine consultation or a comprehensive feedback platform on the patient portal, feedback loops give valuable insights that can help you keep improving your user interface and your service.

Multimedia Support

People have different learning styles and preferences for how they engage with user interfaces. Some people would rather just read while plenty of others prefer something more visual such as a video or infographic. To capture the interest of a broad range of patients and engage them with your platform, offer a diverse set of different types of content and a variety of tools in your user interface.

Expanded Availability

Your user interface should be reliable and available as much as possible. For example, Weave’s online scheduling user interface lets patients schedule appointments around the clock.

Some Larger Implications of Empathetic Design

The immediate benefit of empathetic design is better usability, but the long-term implications are quite profound:

  • strengthened patient-provider relationships—Patients need to trust their healthcare providers. When they feel that a healthcare user interface demonstrates that a provider understands their needs, that’s when trust happens. Trust strengthens the bond between the patient and the healthcare provider and enables better communication. With better communication comes better overall care.
  • better health literacy—Having a more accessible user interface improves patients’ understanding of their healthcare conditions and treatment options. Patients who understand what is wrong with them and their best course of action are always more likely to adhere to their treatment plan and make the necessary lifestyle changes, which is exactly what the provider wants to happen.
  • more proactive healthcare—When a user interface can predict and cater to patient needs, a shift occurs from reactive to proactive healthcare. For example, patients with a history of hypertension could receive timely reminders about checkups and relaxation techniques. They could use these tools to improve their condition and consistently lower their blood pressure, setting them up for a longer, healthier life.

The Bigger Picture: A Human-Centric Movement in Healthcare

It’s become clear that technology alone isn’t the game-changer in healthcare. It’s how we use technology to serve humanity that is making the difference. Empathetic user-interface design provides a bridge that links technological advancements with the human need for understanding and compassion.

Empathetic design for healthcare user interfaces isn’t just a luxury or a trending buzzword. It’s the next evolutionary step for healthcare services. By understanding and addressing patients’ diverse needs, we can create more user-friendly interfaces that are both more usable and more inclusive, thus paving the way to better healthcare outcomes in the future. 

Freelance Copywriter and Ecommerce SEO Specialist

New York, New York

Magnus EriksenMagnus works as an independent copywriter and ecommerce search-engine optimization (SEO) specialist. Before embarking on his copywriting career, he was a content writer for digital-marketing agencies such as Synlighet AS and Omega Media, where he mastered on-page and technical SEO. Magnus holds a degree in Marketing and Brand Management.  Read More

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