The power of information design in medical technology

13 Mar 2024 9min read

Team Consulting

Company update

Information design is essential in medical device development. From printed Instructions for Use (IFU), to packaging, labelling and digital support materials, understandable information is needed at every step of the user journey to guide and motivate correct behaviours. Achieving this in medical products is no easy feat, however – it involves a careful balance of user-centred design, human factors research, behavioural science and an experienced design mindset to pull it all together.

Recently, Team Consulting was asked to contribute expert project examples for the book Information Design Unbound, an introductory textbook on design for understanding written by Sheila Pontis and Michael Babwahsingh and published by Bloomsbury Publishing. Geared toward undergraduate design students, the book provides clear guidance on the fundamentals of information design, from its underlying historical, professional, scientific and cultural dimensions to the core set of skills required to do the work effectively.

In order to show concepts in practice, the authors featured Team Consulting’s IFU design for a surgical device to explain several research methods and POC packaging for a diagnostic device to illustrate how print production techniques can enhance the usability of instructions. One project in particular, the design of instructions for the Emergency Ventilator Apparatus (EVA), was chosen as a case study for its unique instructional value, given the constraints of the COVID-19 lockdown, rapid development timeframe and close collaboration required to achieve life-saving results.

When asked why Team Consulting was chosen for inclusion in the book, Sheila pointed to the distinct qualities that make the company’s work stand out. “The medical industry is one of the industries that needs information design the most,” she says. “But you cannot find many examples where real care is shown in both the device and instructions. When looking at Team Consulting, we started to see this care in most of your projects. You put a lot of emphasis on a human centred approach for the device itself, but there’s an equal care in the design of instructions.”

We spoke with Sheila, Michael and Team’s User Experience and Innovation Director, Paul Greenhalgh, to dig deeper into the core principles of information design and how they can be applied effectively to medical technology development. Unsurprisingly, we uncovered close parallels in thinking and complementary perspectives.

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What makes a good information designer?

“Information design shouldn’t rely on one person, one designer. It’s a team effort,” says Paul. “You need critical thinkers to identify the key things we want to communicate and what the hierarchy of messaging will need to be, and then creatives who can explore how to communicate visually, through layout, illustration or animation. You also need analytical thinkers who can distil those messages down and apply rigorous user research techniques to ensure it is effective. Beyond this, it’s important to have an open-mind and an acceptance that you won’t get things right the first time. The best information design often comes from an iterative and experimental approach.”

“You have to want to help people, to solve communication problems,” says Michael. “It’s that drive to want to make things better and clearer, to do more research, talk to people and test something to make sure it’s understandable and delivers at the point of need. There is a foundation of care that propels what the information designer does. There has to be that care, that motivation.”

“There are some hard skills that you need too, of course,” Paul adds. “For example, when you need a clear illustration of something technical, a lot of the skill lies in knowing what not to include, in addition to what to include. The words you use to convey information can also have a significant impact on how people interpret them. For example, when instructing how to use an autoinjector which needs to be held against the skin for the duration of the injection, you could use the words ‘hold down’, but some may question the direction of ‘down’. You could use ‘hold firmly’, but that may be misinterpreted as ‘grip tightly’. ‘Maintain pressure against the site’ may be less ambiguous but it requires far more words and word count is one of the biggest enemies of good information design.”

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Focus on the user

“The core principle of information design has to be, first of all, a focus on the user,” Sheila says. “Whatever you are doing, the aim is to address a specific need or pain point that the user has. How you achieve it comes from understanding the need first – it’s problem-oriented, rather than solution-oriented.”

“When designing information for medical applications, we’re often trying to encourage people to adopt new behaviours, reinforce positive ones or reduce negative ones,” Paul says. “When it comes to self-administering therapies at home, it can be a challenging circumstance for users. This is often at a point in the patient’s life when they are having to come to terms with a new illness. As an information designer, this means that you’re already starting at a hard place, when people may need to change a number of their regular behaviours. We need to think about different ways to nudge the user towards these behaviours.”

“Effective information design is also about instructions,” Paul continues. “When designing the Instructions for Use (IFU) for a drug delivery device, for example, we need to focus on the core interactions between the user and the device to ensure safe and effective use. This might be preparing a device for use, actuating a device or encouraging correct inhaler technique, such as inhaling at the right time or duration. There’s often a combination of device related tasks and other tasks that need to coincide together. If the task of administering a therapy could lead to pain, anxiety or discomfort, for example with injectable therapies, this creates an additional challenge to overcome, meaning we have to work much harder to get the right information across in the right way.”

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Digital vs print - what are the opportunities?

“While the fundamentals of information design remain consistent, the application will differ based on the medium’s constraints and affordances,” says Michael. “The technical considerations and expertise required may vary, but the information design mindset of solving communication problems and focusing on user needs remains the same, regardless of the medium.”

“There’s no escaping the fact that the medical industry still has a focus on paper-based IFUs,” says Paul. “But digital information solutions are becoming more widespread. Increasingly we are seeing a blend of physical and digital content, just like we see in other industry sectors. In the consumer world, just ten years ago you would be presented with a thick instruction manual for a new electrical appliance. Today, the norm for consumer products has become a short, quick start guide, with the key onboarding steps laid out with easy-to-follow imagery, often with a link to online materials via a QR code. The important thing is that users are being offered the choice, depending on what works best for them. While paper-based IFUs will likely never go away, there is a clear opportunity to augment them and digital support materials offer a powerful way to do so.”

“Onboarding animations, web portals and apps now offer a wealth of opportunities for sophisticated approaches to information design. Rather than the one-size-fits-all approach of traditional IFUs, digital tools offer something that can respond to the individual. We are already seeing examples of web-based content to assist users with onboarding and instructions for use, offering videos and animations to help guide use. As a therapy provider, this is a key opportunity to start a broader conversation with your customers and patients. The great thing about digital tools is they are not limited to the size of your printed paper and they offer the opportunity to guide your users to other sources of information, such as advice about managing their condition or online support communities.”

How is information design applied during device development?

“It’s very rare that we can rely solely on an intuitive device design,” Paul says. “At best, we are often aiming to create a device that we can easily instruct users to navigate and use. Doing so involves a combination of both good industrial design and information design. Ideally, information design should occur while you are developing the device and packaging. For example, if you are looking at instructions to get a user to press a button, can you change the physical colour or shape of the button to make it easier to describe. If there are multiple components in a system which the user needs to assemble before use, can we use the layout within the packaging to encourage the correct orientation or order of assembly? Can we use the packaging to encourage the user to read instructions before handling the device by including a quick start guide as the first thing they see when opening the pack?”

“As designers, we need to use every touchpoint available to us, accepting that people will often have different experiences and routes through device onboarding and use. Some people will do things by the book, others will simply rip the instructions and packaging apart and try to figure things out for themselves. Many will also have existing mental models that must be overcome, such as preconceptions about how a new device works compared to something similar they have used previously. As a designer, you need to accept that you don’t always have control over how the user will interface with the various information you provide – it is therefore important you don’t rely on just one approach and it’s your responsibility to ensure each aspect works as best it can for different types of users.”

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The world of information design is constantly expanding. New tools and technologies now offer increasingly meaningful ways to inform and interact with users. As we continue to explore these new approaches, it will be important to not lose sight of the fundamental principles behind good information design, to ensure that we offer real value to users.

To learn more about Information Design Unbound, visit

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