One of the largest barriers to improving health outcomes across the world is the difficulty of changing behaviors. Building a stable health system that provides quality products and services to its beneficiaries can only go as far as the patients’ willingness to trust that system. There may be clinical evidence that proves the health benefits of a given drug or device, but can that evidence compete with history, cultural norms, stigma, trust, and many more behavioral and societal pressures that often preclude widescale adoption?

Changing behavior is not easy, especially when it comes to health practices. Imagine learning that something you have been doing for a lifetime to keep yourself healthy must change, but not fully understanding why or how to change it. This is where human-centered design (HCD) becomes critical in healthcare delivery. HCD is rooted in empathy and thus prioritizes a thorough understanding of the beneficiaries’ behaviors before attempting to change them. This understanding can help to inform the design of an advancement in healthcare, thus improving the chances of adoption.

HCD image

In a recent blog post released by the USAID Bureau for Global Health, the authors discuss how a project used HCD to understand how to best encourage the use of the dapivirine ring—a monthly vaginal ring that releases dapivirine, an antiretroviral that prevents users from contracting HIV. Through a thorough HCD process in which potential users and various other stakeholders and influencers were interviewed, the team got to the heart of the uncertainty about the product. To view the results, click here.

This project is a great example for how HCD can be an extremely useful tool for understanding behavior as it pertains to advances in healthcare products and practices. Because healthcare is a unique field, there are certain elements of the HCD method that should be at the forefront of implementation. A few are included below:

  • Sensitivity is key: How a person cares for him or herself is an extremely sensitive and personal topic. When using HCD, implementers must be aware of these sensitivities and frame discussions in a way that prioritizes creating a safe and comfortable environment for expression.
  • Don’t rely on assumptions: A key component of using HCD to understand health behavior is throwing assumptions out the window. Any preconceived notions can skew the implementers’ interpretations of the discussions, preventing them from fully understanding the root of behaviors.
  • One size does not fit all: It is important keep in mind that HCD users’ behaviors and reasoning can differ. While separating by gender, age, healthcare condition (i.e. HIV positive or pregnant mother), etc., enables one to focus on behavioral consistencies across subsets of the population, scaling a product based solely on one group can compromise long-term success. Diversifying the users involved in the HCD process can improve the chances the product or service is widely adopted.

As advances in healthcare are made, it is essential to engage potential users as soon as possible in the design process. This proactive approach will ensure that challenges with behavioral change are addressed early on in implementation.