Technology: The iPad Buzz, Usability and the Health Care Industry

Yesterday, Apple unveiled the iPad to the world in San Francisco and the online ‘verse promptly went nuts with the blogging, tweeting etc. about the device and whether or not it was as cool as everyone expected or if it fell short. One of the most common things I’ve heard people saying over and over again, in many cases in a highly disparaging tone is: “Oh it’s just a big iTouch. Why would you want to use something of that size when you can just stick your iPhone or similar device in your pocket?”

I have an answer for that: many pocket devices are too small to actually provide many users with a comfortable user experience for consuming the type of media that we want to be able to consume.

This is something that I notice all the time when I’m commuting: people squinting at their phones or awkwardly clutching them while trying to thumb-key something into a browser window or phone-based app. Granted, I haven’t played with an iPhone, I don’t have one and my brother has only let me touch his for about 2 minutes over lunch, once while he was visiting, but it seems to me that what anyone broaching the tablet space is trying to resolve is a very simple human factor: the device-size issue.

Ideally any device that lets us interact with email, web browsing, apps to carry out particular tasks should be highly portable and not awkward to carry around, however, under a certain size the simple fact of not being able to read the screen efficiently gets in the way. When I first got a Blackberry, I made sure to get the version that had a full QWERTY keyboard because at the time, I thought that this would handily solve my desire to be able to type while sitting on the train commuting back and forth to work. My laptop is too big and too unwieldy to haul out for casual use on the train or when out and about away from home, but what I quickly found is that the Blackberry keyboard is too small and cramped for comfortable, much less speedy typing.

This Christmas, I received a Kindle as a gift and immediately felt much more comfortable with this size for a device. Even thumb-keying on the Kindle is much more comfortable and less error-prone than trying to eke out a sentence on the Blackberry. Overall, the Kindle is a nice e-reader, though it falls down for the purpose that I really wanted it for: reading my secured eBooks from the University of Phoenix for the graduate program I’m currently enrolled in. Though UoP fulfills its eBooks through Amazon, they are protected with digital security – not just a simple password-protected PDF – and the Kindle isn’t capable of unlocking the digitally secured eBooks. Big bummer, because what I really wanted that Kindle for, was to be able to read my textbooks, scholarly journals and various other digitally rendered print sources on the go without having to print them out and waste the paper on things I’m only going to read once or twice for class.

Unless I’m misunderstanding the specs for the iPad, I should actually be able to download and unlock my eBooks for my classes and also not have to lug around a heavy laptop to read them and in my mind that is part of the power of this type of device. The usability factor for any kind of student of any age is very high and much more engaging than the black-and-white display on the Kindle or the Sony eReader especially since the iPad isn’t just a reader, but a device oriented on the consumption of different kinds of media.

Where I agree with some about where the iPad falls down, is the lack of multi-tasking. Given the iPad’s size however, browsing websites should be a much more comfortable experience and if the iPad supports a full-featured browser, then a certain amount of multi-tasking can be achieved through the use of web applications. This brings me to my other big hope for any type of tablet device, which is providing a better way to foster portable interaction with health care applications such as electronic medical records and electronic practice solutions.

Currently, the health care industry is somewhat bogged down in trying to go digital, mostly because the means of input is not well-suited to the type of workflow that doctors, nurses and other health care professionals require. While there are many useful apps for handheld devices for the health care industry and many health care organizations are implementing desktop or laptop-based electronic solutions, a high-level observation of how those solutions are used in hospitals and practices shows that they are not ideal for the people who need to use them because they are either too small for the large amounts of data entry that most forms and charts require or too static, in the case of desktops and laptops, interrupting a workflow that requires most health care professionals to be on their feet walking around seeing patients and interacting with those patients for many hours a day.

Tablets are the ideal size to help bridge this big gap in the successful adoption and efficient use of these technologies in the health care space, but up until now the ways to interact with the tablet have not been very good or the tablets themselves have been too heavy to carry around in the way that most of us would carry around an armload of folders, charts or a notebook. It’s this notebook-type experience that I’d really love a tablet to emulate and I think that the iPad gets very very close, but possibly missed the boat about tapping into uses of the tablet in the health care industry.

We’re still on the cusp of something with the tablet format and I think that the iPad goes a long way towards moving us down that road, but I’ll be keeping an eye on other vendors who are bringing tablet devices to market this year to see if anyone really hits the tablet-as-interactive-notebook paradigm out of the park.

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