Navigating Healthcare Design and AI
In this episode, we sit down with Regis Becarte, Head of UX Design and Research at Natera, a biotech company specializing in non-invasive prenatal testing and women’s health.
Join us as we delve into the fascinating world of healthcare design and explore the challenges and successes of building a design team in a clinical tech company. Let’s learn how the intersection of physical and digital experiences can transform patient care and how AI-powered chatbots are enhancing patient support. Let’s dive into this journey of innovation and empathy in healthcare design with Regis.
Vandana: Hey Regis, welcome to the Fail Faster podcast. How are you today?
Vandana: Good morning. Very good morning to you. It is exciting for us to you know, bring you on and all the stuff that comes with you, the experience, the expertise, the stories that you’re about to share. So let’s begin by bringing a little bit about you Regis, like talk about a little bit about your background, any highlights in your career that brought you to today’s role?
Regis: Yeah, of course. And thanks for the kind words Vandana, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you on this podcast. And share a little bit of my background and design journey a little bit. My accent doesn’t give it away. I was, I was born and raised in France, and also study actually in France.
Back in the late 90s, you know, user interface design wasn’t quite a thing yet, nor was user experience design. And so I studied communication. It was an interesting, you know, time when communication was moving from traditional medias like prints, voice, of course, was multimedia. And so universities, you know, in France were kind of like scrambling to create curriculums that will train folks to create the new multimedia contents. That’s what you know, what I studied, you know, how to create multimedia contents. Of course, as years went by, the internet came up and offered yet another way of like, creating media and reaching out to your audience there.
And so we moved to like, from communication to human computer interaction. And that’s kind of like what started my career, looking at how human interact with one another, or interact with a computer system through a variety of channels.
Vandana: Awesome. And so what is your role today?
Regis: Today, I’m the head of UX design and research at Natera. Natera is a biotech company that specialize in liquid biopsy, and in the domain of like women health in non-invasive pre nasal testing. If you or someone you know, has been as in pregnancy, you know, in the past, you know, 10 years, I want to say, there’s a very high probability that you might have been tested using one of Natera products.
I mean, the health of your baby and more specifically, whether your baby might have a JT condition, or the design team was launched there two and a half years ago. The luck and the good fortune of being the one to build a design team, and actually start delivering some of what UX design can do to the different product Natera has.
Vandana: Awesome, how cool and what a great way to create an impact like it’s something that when you said that it is as prevalent as if anybody in that role has touched that product, that is huge.
Regis: Yeah, exactly. It’s very satisfactory. You know, there’s always questions around how can we be impactful as designers and what your mission. Healthcare is one such domain where the impact is fairly obvious, especially when the product is a clinical product. We have testimony from patients who have testimony from providers, who both benefit from the insights delivered by our test.
So we play as a designer, we play a small part in supporting providers, healthcare providers decision-making, and providing the same clarity to patients as well, as it navigates their condition, as it navigates their healthcare journey. So it’s a very frustrating domain to be working in.
Vandana: Awesome, very good. Well, congratulations on making it to the right place and being able to do your magic as you know, well, I wanted to also talk about some, some successes, Regis, like you said, you started this team here. What are some of the things that you are embarking upon? And what are some of the ways that you are thinking as you’re going ahead in this role?
Regis: Yeah, so it’s a very interesting question. I think what stands out for me in building the team at Natera is that the company is not at its core, she was a digital tech company, it’s a chemical tech company, which means that a lot of the employees, you know, come from like a medical background, chemistry, biochemistry, genetic background, and might not the chance in the past to working with designers and UX designers. So you find yourself in a little bit in similar position that some of us were in the 90s, you know, where design UX design UI design where it was new.
And we had to work with engineers and try to find a way to collaborate and show what design could bring to that domain there. So I think in Natera, I was faced with the same with the same challenge, you know, is that working with folks who don’t know design, don’t design very well. And we sort of like slowly build that relationship by build that understanding of what design can bring to their artistic domain of expertise. Right.
So that’s the overall context, maybe for the team there. Maybe if I can be more specific, some of the things we launched recently, we’ve created a what we call a unified patient portal. So it’s a one-stop shop for patients to actually track their test, get educated on the result that they get from us. And we’re all you know, interact with our company, getting some really good feedback on that. And that was for us an important milestone.
Vandana: Super amazing. And can you tell us like, this is very, very interesting when you are, you know, when people don’t know about the discipline. So how are you establishing credibility? What are some of the examples of introducing how you are thinking about a particular feature or when you are talking about the dashboard design, a portal design?
They were doing that before this department started too. So how are you making this and taking, you know, making little tweaks and making them understand that this is why this department on this role is important?
Regis: Yeah. So I think there are a couple of approaches. The first one is meeting people where they are, to some extent. People have maybe an expectation or an a priori as to what design might be. Sometimes it’s not quite you would like it to be as designers or when people come and say, hey, can you make it pretty?
And we hold that at some point and say, well, you know, I’m not making things pretty. I’m making things more functional. Right. More effective. But it might be a place to start and say, well, we’ll maybe we’ll get pretty later by making sure it helps meet the user’s goals. You know, and what are the goals, by the way?
Regis: So in engaging with your stakeholders based on where they are and slowly bringing them along in the journey toward discovering what UX design is all about. So I think that’s one approach. The other approach that I think is very important in technical environments is just a business domain expertise.
If you don’t understand the business, if you don’t understand the process, if you don’t learn the jargon and are able to demonstrate that, hey, I know what the tests are all about, I understand how we work as a company, how the tests get done, then it’s going to be much harder to establish your credibility. And so it’s a steep learning curve because I don’t have a PhD in biochemistry.
Yet, I try to understand enough to have a communication at the same level as my stakeholders and understand how this gets done. And from there, you can start building a better experience. So I think that’s the two strategies that my team and myself have been focusing on.
Vandana: Awesome, awesome. And could you share any of the hiccups as you are, you know, in this role as you’re moving ahead and doing stuff that you are creating?
Regis: Right, of course. You see there are many companies in the Valley and many tech companies that are either engineering driven, because you know, you need to build a product at the end of the day and adding your hands in code is probably the fastest way of building a product. It’s always a great one, but product gets out there and does some things.
Other companies tend to be more sales driven. Well, because of course, revenue is very, very important there. So I think aligning with these two drivers, you know, on the one side, understanding that you need to build a product and ship a product so that you can see how the audience reacts to it and whether it works or not. And the other end, making sure that while the quality of experience is critical, aligning the quality of experience with something that impacts the company bottom line is of importance.
You know, any public company has quarterly earning calls. And so reporting on how happy we make our customers is important. You rarely hear a CEO not mentioning some kind of revenue, some kind of gross goal. So understanding that, aligning to that, figuring out ways in which design can accelerate or can deliver better quality products. At the same time, one that support the company while making the end users happy, I think is a challenge that designers are facing these days. And some of, again, what we, the driving principle that we try to stick with as we work with the different teams.
Vandana: Absolutely. And especially right now, Regis, like with the market, you know, getting bootstrapped, a lot of companies are struggling to keep the designers on board. And the design department seems to be one of the first few to be laid off.
So how do you work in those circumstances, like when the funding is tight, and you, you know, you still have to deliver a good product? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in that space?
Regis: It’s an excellent question, and one that’s very relevant. It seems like there’s not a week going by where there’s not announces of layoff. I think just yesterday, I was reading that Cisco is planning on laying off like 350 people. So it’s on the mind of every employee, and of course, of the design team. I think on my side, there are a couple of things that I try to keep an eye on.
First one is that how ambitious you are in your plan, right? We all want to have a good ratio of product manager to engineer to designers. And of course, you know, with more designers, you can deliver, you know, better quality work, or you can, you can have greater impact because you touch more products. But it’s a balance there. And so again, when you look at the company cash burning rates, or the company cash the runway, it will try to be as soon as possible.
So Natera, for instance, sells roughly over 35 digital products that are being used either externally or internally. And so if you think about, you know, one designer may be supporting two to three application, which is already ambitious, you find yourself with a team of, you know, 10 to 15 designers. Well, we are about half that size. So it’s a very, it’s a very lean team. Meaning that if any designers, you know, goes away, then it’s like three to five applications that’s no longer supported. So it’s a way of having some amount of job security. Not the best one, but one that kind of work.
The other one is operating, you know, on an agency model, app designers embedded with every team of UCNF. So we kind of like prioritize with our product stakeholders and with the business, which project would benefit the most from design involvement. What’s been very interesting over time is, again, we build that credibility. And we’re able to show how much more successful a product is with the designers supporting the work.
And so we went from, you know, let’s try and see what design can bring to, even on the complex projects, design really make a huge difference that actually really drive the business. Let’s use our design team and our design resources with intense on this project that are most critical. So it’s not, you know, it’s not an ideal situation, but I think one that, that has been supporting my team quite well. We’ve not, my team has not been impacted by layoff. Natera has, but it’s been quite lean. I think that the first time around was 10%. I think the second time it was even leaner than that.
So I think Natera as a whole has been a bit more parsimonious speed at which it hired. And as a result, you know, we, I think we’ve been able to navigate the economic times, you know, in a slightly better way than some property tools. Not easy, but kind of like working for those.
Vandana: Okay, great. Well, I hope that it stays that way and becomes better.
Regis: Not in one word.
Vandana: Also wanted to check in about some of the trends that you’re seeing with the patients, you know, especially in this clinical research tech space that you are at and with your user research activities and everything. What are some of the customers doing in the space of specially non-invasive approach to healing?
Regis: Yeah, so it’s very interesting. I think we see three themes that tends to come back, you know, fairly regularly.
The first one is, you know, any healthcare company has kind of like a symbiotic relationship with the US healthcare system. And what that means is, can you afford your care? So this question of like access to care, affordability of care, I think is on the mind of most patients, and also on the mind of like many companies providing care there.
On our side, you know, from a US standpoint, what we’re trying to do is help educate people on what is co-pay? What is a deductible? Why is it so hard to predict how much you’re going to pay? When do you need to have, you know, a prior authorization?
So a lot of these questions are more dependent on the US healthcare system. But as a company that also builds, you know, patients and health insurance company, providing education and transparency, I think is a really important one. And it’s a theme that’s very hard to ignore in the US, you know, given the US healthcare system.
The other one that’s very interesting is making sense of the results. You know, not everybody has a background in genetics. And so the data we provide from our tests are not always obvious to somebody who doesn’t, again, doesn’t have the right background. So how do we help, you know, an expecting mother understand what a high risk means, you know, and what’s a diagnostic as opposed to a screening test, for instance. So that education on what a company does, how the tests work, how to make sense from our tests, you know, is also another piece that’s really important.
And it’s the companion patients on that journey that start with a prescription. And that often ends, as far as we’re concerned, with results and a report being delivered. So there’s an aspect there that I think is worth mentioning.
But the third one is, you know, the question of adherence, which is very interesting. You know, in the US, there are a lot of prescriptions being written. But I think there’s over half of these prescriptions that never get fulfilled, either because it’s difficult, or because it’s expensive, or because patients are not sure if they need it.
So all the little things that create friction in the patient experience, I think, increase the chance of patients not being adherent to their treatments. And so if you’re not adherent, and you’re not getting better, it’s very hard for a physician to know whether you’re not getting better, because while you’re not taking the drugs, or you’re not taking the test that was prescribed to you, or because it’s not the right test or the right drug for you.
That matter of making the patient experience as smooth and easy as possible, is another thing that’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do in our team. So most of the tests that Natera delivers require a blood sample. So you have to have your blood drawn, which is not pleasant. How can we make that easier?
How can we make patients know where they are? So Natera, for instance, had a team of like mobile phlebotomists. Blood draw happens in the comfort of the patient home. We can come in or attend that convenience, get professional nurses, we do that. And instead of the stress of driving, you know, to a clinic, or to a lab somewhere, we actually come to you.
So things like that, you know, are part of like improving the patient experience, or at least making it easier to work with a company like Natera. And something that also we think about, you know, how to make the experience of the patient easier, as they’re as they navigate the condition, or they navigate whatever, whatever treatment they are in.
Vandana: I love that. And making that whole experience better, like always keeping the patient at the center of, you know, their comfort at the center of whatever you’re designing.
Regis: Yeah, yeah, exactly. That’s the thing that’s, you know, we talk about empathy and the empathy for users. I think when you, when you work with patients, you know, what they’re going through is much more significant and not able to access a warm coffee in the morning, maybe. And so as a result, you know, the impact of work is also much more significant, because your patients are at a time of their life where they’re particularly vulnerable. And so you don’t want to add, you know, to the burden of again, the condition, being a bad experience or by making it hard for them to work with your company.
Regis: So I think it’s something that’s particularly captivating and challenging when working for a healthcare company.
Vandana: Absolutely, absolutely. And I know that you have a special interest in the women’s health and cancer, you know, in that space, too. So can you share some more work that you have done in that space?
Regis: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So maybe I’ll speak a bit more for cancer. There’s an interesting story that I can tell there. A previous employer was a company named Proteus Digital Health, that made the news for a range of reasons.
The first one is they invented a very complex pill that was called by the FDA an ingestible events marker. What it is going to ask me what it’s very simple, if you explain it, it’s a pill you swallow. And when the pill is being swallowed, it sends a little signal that tells your mobile device that you’ve actually taken the drug you’re supposed to take.
Well, that company was working on helping patients who are on oral chemotherapy. So you have a cancer, you’re going through chemotherapy. One solution is to have that therapy infused, so through an IV.
The other one is to take a pill there. And what was fascinating at the time when I was working in that space there, is that providers, oncologists, specifically were telling me that it’s not easy to assess whether the therapy is effective or not. It was a reliance on side effects and on how the body was reacting to the therapy.
Well, Natera came up, you know, a few years later with a test that predicts very efficiently whether the cancer is actually relapsing or in remission. And they do that 18 months ahead or earlier than any other technique than we had before. So what that means very concretely is that when you’ve been diagnosed with a cancer and when you’re being put on the treatments, all Natera products can help the providers and the patient tell ahead of time whether the treatment is successful or not.
So it was very interesting because we went from Proteus Digital Health was helping patients take chemotherapy and so being adherence and treatments to Natera being able to tell with a high degree of certainty whether the treatment is working or not. So kind of like going full circle, supporting patients with cancer and we’re going either through immunotherapy or chemotherapy to help them defeat the cancer.
Vandana: Wow, what a great way to go ahead and, you know, tell people how to plan their lives ahead. And yeah.
Regis: Yeah. Yeah. It makes a difference. It takes away in the case of cancer, you know, it kind of takes a little bit of the pressure away because patients now know that they have a reliable way of keeping track of their cancer and intervening earlier. And as often the case in healthcare, if you can catch things earlier, you have more chances of defeating your condition. So it’s wonderful to hear, you know, the feedback from patients again saying, hey, see Natera give us me, give us, you know, peace of mind to now know that I can detect, you know, a return of the cancer earlier than with most other solutions available.
Vandana: Awesome. Awesome. What are some of the challenges Regis that you are seeing as you are proceeding in this? Like are there are the patients adapting to the new ways of working? Are they, are they easy to, you know, to get engaged or what are some of the challenges that you see in your role today?
Regis: Yeah. So I’m saying that in our space, you know, all the products are prescription only products. So if you compare to a company like 23andMe, for instance, where you can go and buy a genetic test with our product is not possible. You have to go through your physician, to a specialist, we prescribe the test.
As a result, our relationship with patients is a little bit different. We kind of like begin by having a relationship with providers. Providers are the one who route patients to us. We go, go through the test. The challenge I think comes in our case from a different direction. And it’s a fact that a lot of the digital product that we’re working on are applications that drive a physical process.
So think about, you know, a company like Amazon that has to manage in a massive warehouse. You can dream up, you know, fantastic software and says, well, it’s going to work that way. But at the end of the day, you’ve got shelves and boxes and robots moving things around. And so your digital solution has to match in some ways, or at least have to take into account the physical constraint of the environment. The same is true for our company.
A lot of our work is dealing with like blood sample, you know, coming through our labs or tissue samples. And so all the solution, the digital solution that we build are tethered to physical process, to the manipulation of physical objects, which is a little bit different mindset that you have if you work, you know, let’s say on a digital marketplace.
And so again, it requires you as a designer to understand the physical constraints in order to build, you know, additional product that will work well, and that scale to visual constraints. Other aspect that’s interesting as well is that you cannot change the physical layout of a lab or the process by which we receive sample overnight, right?
To buy equipment, move equipment, train people on it. And so again, for a designer, it’s one more challenge that we have to take into account there. So currently we’re working on how can we receive, you know, and process sample, you know, faster with zero error, you know, how to create that process there.
Of course, you know, if you, if you have your blood being drawn, you don’t want the sample to be lost by FedEx. You don’t want the sample to be confused with somebody else’s sample. All of that becomes errors. So again, these constraints there, that’s just your health care, it’s distinct to working with like a physical processing of object, more layer of complexity to the work designers do. It’s that’s one of the challenges that we are facing in our job today.
Vandana: Very well said. And yeah, you just like painted a picture that I had no idea that you were dealing with like that. So yeah, good luck to you and more lessons to you into seeing how to, you know, unpack that because every problem would be a very different constraint, right? And then all of these things are outside of your control.
Regis: Yeah, yeah, to some extent, you know, just like technical constraints when building a software, you work with like database and APIs and things like that. Yeah. And so you can cooperate with your engineer to slowly make things evolve. It’s kind of the same thing as physical, but I would say that the turnaround time is greater. And some of the constraints are harder to move than when you’re dealing solely with like software.
Vandana: Right, right. Absolutely. So what is exciting for you Regis right now? Like, what are you working on, which is challenging and also fulfilling for you?
Regis: Well, I mean, right now, what’s exciting is that we just hired two new designers. So the team is growing. Fantastic. We’re getting people from different background who bring different skill set to the team. And so I’m looking forward to just learning what the skills of new designers are and figuring out, you know, what synergies there can be in the team. So the combination of like multiple designers is greater than what one designer can achieve there. So that’s one piece that I’m really excited about.
The other one, and I think that’s that most design teams are working with is design system. You know, how can we create a design system that scales a range of products? So we have that now where we have patient facing application, provider facing application, and application using labs that currently all use the same design system. And so as you can imagine, you know, the constraint and what we’re trying to do with the patient facing app, and we see an app that is being used by lab technician and not quite the same.
How can we build components that work in both environments? We would create custom components that meet the need of patients and to some extent, meet the need of lab techs. That’s one of the challenges that’s ahead of us for the rest of 2023 and 2024. So I think it’s a while to get there, but it’s one of the things that we’re looking at.
Vandana: Awesome. Well, good luck with that. That seems to be a big endeavor, but also one that will result in successes, in multiple successes in the following years after the design system is all set and running.
Regis: Exactly. I think we’ve seen, you know, it’s an ongoing discussion, upfront investment of building a solid design system, the upfront cost compared to the downstream benefit of having your building blocks that you can reuse, works you know, by designers and by developers. So one of the other pieces that we’re slowly making progress on, and that we’re looking forward to delivering more value to Retail as well.
Vandana: Awesome. Well, good luck with that. Is there anything Regis that I haven’t asked you that you want to say as parting words? Because we’re almost at time to wrap it up.
Regis: Yeah, it’s a good question. Well, it’s hard these days to talk about tech and design, we start talking about AI a little bit. So of course, you know, the team is interested in AI, and has been asking itself, you know, where can we fit AI? Where does it work? What can deliver value again and make a change in their innovation trends? And so where we’re working with AI today is in chatbots.
And so what’s interesting there is that again, automatizing the way we support our patients, when there are constraints on the size of teams, physical teams that are there to help people. And so that’s where AI comes into play. And we find it to be a really good way to extend what an individual can do by having them working with some AI bots, test better ways of answering patient question or giving patient access that we saw the need.
Vandana: Well, that’s a great way to use technology to your advantage.
Regis: We’re working on it.
Vandana: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Regis. This was such a wonderful episode. And I wish you all the good luck and lessons in all that you’re about to embark.
Regis: It was a pleasure speaking with you, Vandana. Thanks again for giving me a chance to share a bit of what we do at Natera, my background in design. I hope it will be helpful to you all, to the audience in any way. Thanks a lot for your time, Vandana.