Preventing User Errors by Design: Avoiding Senseless Stumbles in Health

November 10, 2022

This year's theme of ’World Usability Day' is ‘Our Health’, looking to explore systems that provide healthcare in all its many forms. On every level, health is critical, and this is precisely why this business area is so important to us.

A health professional discussing test results with a patient

We all make mistakes.

Some people, when under constant stress and uncomfortable situations are more prone to making errors than others. We may subconsciously misread numbers, or relevant information, or even forget to enter necessary information altogether. This can cause problems in any business, particularly in the health sector, where accuracy can literally be a matter of life and death. The question is: how can we prevent this from happening?

Minimising risks of human error, promoting data quality and creating more effectiveness of safety-critical interfaces are how we successfully develop safe and usable medical device systems. Anticipating typical user errors is key to enhancing patient safety, improving product usability and efficiency, and enhancing user satisfaction. 

It is always better to design interfaces that prevent errors from happening in the first place.

To mitigate user errors, we follow a powerful human-centred design process with several usability standards and conventions that help us to develop easy-to-use medical device systems. Part of that design process is having a clear understanding of the context of use and perceiving any situations where those systems are being used under pressure or discomfort.

Following Design Standards and Conventions

People are now used to interacting with several digital products, which has trained them to expect that all systems follow the same design and interaction patterns. When a developed medical device system falls short of this ideal, users make mistakes and slips can occur. 

According to Don Norman, there are two types of user errors:

  • Mistakes — these errors occur when the mental models of users who are not familiar with the way a particular website or application works don’t coincide with its actual functionality.
  • Slips — these are unconscious errors that happen when users accidentally perform an action they hadn’t intended on taking. For example, accidentally clicking ‘Cut’ instead of ‘Copy’ or simply making a typo. Slips generally occur when users are familiar with a system and its features, but aren’t sufficiently attentive. On top of that, users are less likely to verify interactions with which they’re familiar, so they might fail to notice a problem. Some slips are partly the result of design deficiencies as well, for example, placing the ‘Delete’ button too close to the ‘Save’ button — making it all too easy for mistakes to occur.

Users often go about their tasks like a bull in a china shop, and this tendency only seems to increase when it comes to small and simple tasks. You see, familiarity with user interfaces that conform to standards and conventions puts users in a better position to avoid errors.

The Human-Centred Process Throughout the Design Cycle

To anticipate future errors, it is essential that we know what users want to do and how they’ll interact with medical device interfaces and systems. For that, we employ a variety of generative user-research methods such as interviews, contextual inquiries, or observations to help us understand and ultimately pinpoint what users’ needs and objectives are.

When designing solutions, it’s essential to always keep users’ abilities and limitations in mind. For example, rather than overburdening users’ short-term memory, display relevant information that users need to complete a task.

Through research, we can learn how to better manage user errors and design solutions that mitigate such errors.

Application affordances, the controls and other elements with which users can interact, should convey both the purpose for which users can use applications and how they can manipulate them. Effectively communicating this information prevents user errors and is essential to the design of usable medical devices and systems.

Despite all other error-prevention measures, user errors are bound to occur. When this happens, we must provide an easy way for users to undo their actions, without risking the loss of work or putting others in danger.

Conducting evaluative user experience research methods such as usability testing and expert reviews can enable you to discover common user errors, help you understand why users are making particular errors, and learn about users’ expectations for how they can recover from those errors.


In health, we need to provide sufficient instructional information to support data quality and ensure such information is accessible. Any changes and updates of critical information must be notified to users before they act to mitigate the potential errors from unexpected actions.

Users are bound to make errors, no matter how good the design solutions are. However, it’s possible to prevent mistakes from becoming a common occurrence and, thus, enhance the user experience. By designing usable user interfaces and communicating effectively with users, we can reduce the number of errors they make.

By following this approach, we can help your users work more confidently, increase effective communication, and ensure that your systems and consequently, your business, enjoy long-term success.

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