While advancements in computing continue at a breakneck pace, many industries still rely heavily on paper-based processes. This may seem unsurprising, as slow-moving, risk-averse businesses naturally shy away from new methods, preferring to stick with the tried and true. But digital innovation isn’t simply a nice-to-have luxury: As a recent Toptal Insights article explains, it has become a necessity for remaining competitive.
Still, the form in which digital innovation should manifest often remains unclear. Once an organization decides to embrace digital practices, it must also answer a number of complicated questions: How can an organization minimize the friction and disruption caused by implementing new practices and processes? What is the best way of measuring the impact that digital innovation can make? And how can organizations implement repeatable processes and continue to innovate effectively?
The answers depend largely on the context in which an organization operates and the capabilities an organization has. There are, however, practices that can prove useful regardless of an organization’s specific circumstances.
This article examines how such practices can foster successful digital product innovation. Using a large clinical diagnostic laboratory (for the sake of confidentiality, referred to as CDL) as a case study, we will understand some of the key drivers that enable successful digital product development, even in complex contexts.
From Paper Survey to Digital Rules Engine
As a full service clinical diagnostic laboratory, CDL works with doctors, hospitals, governments, and others to test, analyze, and diagnose a wide range of medical ailments. Testing for hereditary gynecologic cancers stands as a particularly high stakes use case, and one in which CDL regularly engages.
CDL realized the need to innovate on the conventional survey and decided to create a more user-friendly, analytically powerful screening tool for hereditary cancer syndromes.
As the Foundation for Women’s Cancer describes, hereditary cancer syndromes emerge in people with inherited mutations in cancer-causing genes. Roughly 5 to 10 percent of cancers fall into this category, the most common being hereditary breast-ovarian cancer and Lynch Syndrome – a type of colorectal cancer. A 2015 report published by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states that “A hereditary cancer risk assessment is the key to identifying patients and families who may be at increased risk of developing certain types of cancer,” and articulates the key markers such assessments should examine.
Despite the importance of testing for these hereditary cancers, CDL found that medical professionals did not always know the right questions to ask of their patients, and that many patients who should have been tested were not receiving the attention they needed. Compounding problems further, the survey that screened for potentially at-risk women was paper-based, arduous to complete, and inefficient to evaluate. The paper format also made modifying the survey – which needed to happen annually as clinical guidelines changed – very difficult.
CDL realized the need to innovate on the conventional survey and decided to create a more user-friendly, analytically powerful screening tool for hereditary gynecological cancers. CDL began developing a “rules engine” product, allowing patients to input traits and OBGYN physicians to analyze those traits for hereditary cancer risks. Additionally, switching from a paper-based to a rules-based digital model would make modifying the survey far easier going forward as national clinical guidelines changed.
Distinguishing the Brand Through Partnership and Feedback
Given the competitive nature of the clinical testing market, CDL needed ways to distinguish its tool from those of its competitors. As an initial step, CDL launched both a public-facing tool and a branded tool built exclusively for client use. Relying on elite freelance developers, CDL built the first version of its product and, in partnership with a large medical group, obtained user feedback.
CDL needed to go back to the drawing board and develop a way of simplifying the user data submittal process without sacrificing clinical comprehensiveness and rigor.
Balancing comprehensiveness and ease of use emerged as one of CDL ongoing early challenges. For the survey to prove useful, it needed to capture a wide range of patient data – family history, medical history, and a long list of personal traits that map to specific risk factors – while maintaining ease of use. Though the initial product captured the vast scope of the original survey, physicians reported that it simply took too long for patients to complete. CDL needed to go back to the drawing board and develop a way of simplifying the user data submittal process without sacrificing clinical comprehensiveness and rigor.
According to an executive at CDL, the process of soliciting and obtaining user feedback was a crucial – and often overlooked – step toward creating a successful product.
CDL’s partnership with another medical group also stands as a crucial component of the company’s strategy for developing a successful product. In addition to providing CDL access to a built-in patient population for user testing, the partnership also enabled the company to distinguish its brand and service from those of its competitors and to take client needs into account. This manifested as customizability – CDL took the health provider’s feedback into account to develop a survey that organizations could adapt to their individual brands and specific formatting needs.
The partnership propelled CDL’s product forward and stood as a component of the company’s strategy that others could not replicate.
Simplifying the Product Without Sacrificing Comprehensiveness
In response to patient feedback, CDL iterated on its product and developed a pre-screener tool, which optimized for ease of use. Following further enhancements and another round of user testing, CDL presented the tool to its partner health provider and received positive feedback.
Through establishing a strong partnership, soliciting feedback, and iterating, CDL created a customizable product that catered to its client physicians and patients. CDL believes the goodwill it has engendered among physicians and patients will pay dividends down the road.
Today, CDL continues to iterate on its product and measure impact. As a Genetic Counselor at CDL explained, the act of simplifying a complex process that may ultimately save more lives stands as a fundamental, lasting upshot of the company’s work.
Though this case study includes many elements specific to CDL, the company’s product development success hinged on a number of practices and ideas that organizations can apply in a wide variety of contexts.
First and foremost, CDL’s successful product launch depended on a willingness to listen to the needs of its end-users in the development stage and to iterate based on user feedback. Soliciting feedback early on allowed CDL to learn what worked, what did not, and fine-tune its product to match the specific needs of its users. Soliciting this feedback also depended on CDL’s strong partnership with the health provider. The willingness to solicit feedback, iterate, and embrace partnership stand out as crucial drivers behind CDL’s product development success and its advantage in a competitive market.
The product’s success also depended on CDL’s willingness to look outside its core team for technical expertise. This is not to say that every organization must use freelance talent to achieve success as CDL did, but rather, that the flexibility and willingness to embrace outside perspectives can jumpstart innovation and accelerate a project’s progress.
CDL recognized further that success is not always necessarily synonymous with immediate financial gain. Specifically, the company recognizes the long-term value of fostering goodwill from physicians and patients. Promoting a long-term mindset and a broad view of what constitutes value is crucial in identifying projects that may not yield immediate financial results yet remain worthwhile.
In keeping with this long-term view, CDL also developed its product with others in mind down the road. Indeed, the survey development process, though focused on hereditary gynecological cancers, could lead to other similar products in the future, such as a survey to better test for cardiomyopathy. Thinking about product development not simply as an isolated process, but as a way to create an engine for a range of future initiatives can help ensure that an organization’s digital product innovation is scalable, repeatable, and ongoing.