The power of personalization in health and wellness

Partner and Executive Director

Technology is set to transform our lives and businesses in a variety of ways, but its greatest impact may be in its capacity for personalization. The radical changes of the 20th century hinged on mass production, making former luxuries like cars, computers and air travel accessible to millions, but offering a generic, efficiency-minded experience. The arrival of big data, artificial intelligence and micro-manufacturing are starting to change that, promising a customized experience for the many, not the few.

In healthcare, the effect could be even more profound. As technology’s role in medicine grows, it promises to make therapies more effective through better use of data to shape treatment, or through long-term monitoring and follow-up. The modern wellness industry has already primed consumers to expect personalized experiences, whether it’s a personal trainer, a customized yoga session, or a wearable tracker calibrated to your vital signs and habits. As the line blurs between these services and traditional medicine, “personalized healthcare” appears not just attainable, but inevitable.

This landscape brings opportunity to those who look beyond existing medical approaches. Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies aren’t going anywhere, but they’re being joined by startups, tech companies and wellness services seeking to make medicine more holistic, more personal, and more outcome-driven.

As a long-time collaborator with healthcare organizations, Smart Design has been following these trends with special interest. We convened a Smart Salon discussion, intent on figuring out where healthcare is headed, and how to get ahead of the changes rather than just react. Led by Tucker Fort, a partner at Smart, we invited some of the most forward-looking experts in the field to join us:

Over 90 minutes of wide-ranging conversation, a few key insights emerged:

Technology can fill the consistency gap

People like to stay with their current doctor because of consistency: you get better care and better outcomes from someone who knows your history and your context. Emerging technology offers an alternative though, with the possibility of making information access so consistent and portable that every caregiver could know you as well as your primary care provider.

Getting this right will be a daunting task. Technically, it means harmonizing records on a variety of unaligned legacy systems, and tailoring interfaces to a wide range of medical professionals and environments. But as Tucker Fort points out, it also presents privacy issues. “Consumers must feel like they still own their information as it becomes more portable. How is it shared and accessed? How do we design not just for information security, but a feeling of confidence and control?” Keeping medical details secure while making the healthcare experience seamless across providers is one of the great challenges of the digital health revolution.

Smarter data can make existing therapies more effective

Aside from smoother data exchanges, smarter analysis is pivotal to improving healthcare outcomes.

Laurent described a company’s recent efforts to predict relapse in lung cancer patients, by digitally tracking simple biomarkers such as coughing and chest pain. Using machine learning assisted algorithms, they caught relapses early and administered preventative treatment so effectively, patients in the program saw life expectancies nearly double, from 9 months to 17.

There’s a lot to be gained by applying existing therapies more accurately and effectively. Paying constant attention, even to basic vital signs, and spotting the right patterns is something that technology does far better than people, and could hold the key to dramatic improvements in treatment and recovery.

Look at the whole user experience

Often, what makes or breaks a course of treatment isn’t the drug, but the peripheral considerations around it: when and how long it’s taken, lifestyle changes the patient is making, how carefully they’re tracking outcomes, how engaged they stay in the long term.

User-centered design advocates often talk about the need to map the entire user experience, from the moment they encounter a product or service, to its purchase and use, engagements with customer service, and following up with other offerings. There’s a strong argument for a similar approach in healthcare, but the shift has been slow. “We’ve been talking in the industry of being patient-centric for, like, a decade,” says Laurent, “but we still organize by therapeutic area, product, and so on.”

Paying attention to existing human behavior can also reveal opportunities for better integration. While developing the Gatorade Gx personalized hydration system, Smart Design noticed that elite athletes tended to have very structured and inflexible practice routines, inspiring them to experiment with digitally-connected scales in team locker rooms. “Originally, we thought that was going to be a deal-breaker, because you have to check in and out before every workout,” Tucker Fort explains. However, by seamlessly incorporating the data collection activities into an existing athlete workout activity, we were able to use this key weigh-in information to fine tune the platform. Moreover, he says, “it actually became a key touchpoint to remind athletes of how they’re doing from a performance perspective.” Such insight only comes from seeing the user’s entire context, not focusing tightly on the product itself.

Technology lets providers be more human

All four panelists were quick to point out that they don’t see technology as a substitute for human interaction. While the impact of AI is sure to be tremendous (“If you have a job where AI + you = AI, rethink your job,” quipped Laurent), its greatest impact will be in taking over mundane tasks, not provider-patient interaction.

“It’s about augmenting our ability to deliver a human level of care, not replacing humanity,” says Scott, pointing out that a typical doctor’s visit is consumed by repetitive tasks like measuring vital signs and asking boilerplate questions. AI is perfectly poised to handle these, freeing overworked nurses and doctors to actually talk with their patients, improving outcomes and patient satisfaction.

In situations where AI interacts directly with consumers, the biggest challenge is often getting it to act more human. Says Omri of Vi’s voice-based interface, “The minute you start playing with a more emotional range of stuff, people resonate with it…We invested crazy efforts, for a relatively small startup, in creating a true personality [for Vi].” The voice was, in the end, a human one: finding and directing the right voice actor was unexpectedly difficult, but critical to Vi’s success. Vi also uses SMS messaging to maintain contact when users aren’t training, illustrating another tenet of good multi-platform design: meet the user where they already are.

Medical and tech work at different speeds

“If you take two years, your solution is already outdated,” Laurent explains, contrasting the rapidly-moving tech world with the medical industry, where a new drug can take 10 years from initial R&D to final approval. The tension between these two timelines is one of the hardest things to resolve in modern wellness and healthcare: customers expect rapid improvements in technology, but providers must still rely on drugs, instruments and therapies that go through a glacial development process.

One way to relieve this tension is to view medicine and technology as a separable pair, prescribing a newer app- or data-based solution that goes along with an existing drug. Laurent describes a digital game designed specifically to help MS sufferers prevent cognitive deterioration. Used in conjunction with existing drug therapies, the game improves outcomes considerably, and can be updated and improved rapidly, even if the drug therapy isn’t. “Here’s your prescription, and here’s the app that goes with it,” may be a common refrain in future healthcare conversations.

Personalization at scale is a delicate task

“If you over-personalize, you cannot scale,” explains Omri. Because personalization is so explicitly about not repeating the same feature or service over and over, it can be challenging to personalize for a large audience without blowing up budgets and development schedules.

“Personalization very quickly gets very complicated,” explains Tucker. “One of the ways we tackle that is through a lot of iterative piloting.” Both Smart and LifeBeam have found success using small, agile teams, able to experiment with different approaches in parallel, identifying what kind of personalization works, and at what scale. This often means starting with very low-tech prototypes and building from there.

It also means looking for personalization options beyond the obvious software-based ones. One of Gx’s most popular options is snap-on color rings that allow athletes to identify their own Gatorade bottle — not as sexy as a smart device that tracks your fluid levels, but a crucial, easily scaled, component. “You probably do need an app,” says Tucker, “but it’s not the only thing you need to deliver a personalized service.”

Personalization very quickly gets very complicated. One of the ways we tackle that is through a lot of iterative piloting.”
Tucker Fort
Partner, Smart Design


There’s no doubt that these changes are making healthcare look more and more like a consumer experience–albeit one with a solid, immutable core of medical expertise. The good news is that we already have a robust set of tools for designing consumer experiences, from research and journey-mapping to rapid prototyping and iteration. But how do you stay agile in a category with so many slow-moving parts?

Designers often like to say that every design challenge is a system of constraints, and healthcare is no different. Understanding which aspects of the healthcare experience can be innovated, and which can be personalized, is a huge part of moving forward successfully.

For patients and consumers, healthcare isn’t just a collection of tests, therapies and procedures, but a journey towards better outcomes, that every human being undertakes many times–and every journey is deeply personal. As a consultancy, we’ve spent decades working in this space, and never before has there been such an opportunity to give people the personalized healthcare experience they so desperately need. The stakes are always high in healthcare, but so are the benefits of getting it right.

Let’s design a smarter world together