From Health IT App Idea to Prototype in 5 Steps: A Guide for Physicians

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I recently had a conversation with a well-known anesthesiologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The anesthesiologist had an idea for a scientific research and technology IT app and needed guidance on next steps.

As I listened to his questions, I realized his situation is increasingly common. Physicians often have ideas for new apps, but aren’t sure how to get started.

As a co-founder of medical research app Case, my team and I have developed intelligent mobile and web applications used by physicians in over 50 countries.

In this post, I’ll walk you through the five steps to taking your health IT app from idea to prototype.

1. Develop your value proposition

The first step is to research and develop your value proposition, a statement that explains the unique benefit your IT application provides for a customer.

Consider your target customer: what are the customer’s characteristics, priorities and unmet needs? How does your application address the customer’s unmet needs better than alternatives? How will the customer benefit from your application? For an example, see this worksheet developed by Dr. Geoffrey Moore.

Next, sketch a set of draft screens for your application, using pencil and paper.

To start, imagine the first screen the customer sees when using your application. Will the customer need to register with his or her name, specialty, or other information? What options or screens will the customer see next? Step by step, how does your application help the customer address unmet needs and realize key benefits?

Draw sketches for each of your app’s screens, concluding with a successful last step. See this example from UX Collective.

2. Create mock-ups

The second step is to convert your sketches into mock-ups: non-working, visual prototypes that convey your application’s functionality.

These mock-ups allow you to share your prototype with friendly colleagues and ask their feedback before you start the coding process. There are many wireframe software options available for developing mock-ups.

3. Get initial feedback

When you show colleagues your mock-ups, ask them the following questions:

  1. Would you use the application? Why or why not?
  2. Would you pay for this app? If so, how much and why?

Use their feedback to refine your mock-ups, then show them to potential customers. If you’re uncertain how to find potential customers, Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham has a few suggestions here.

Once you have your target audience in mind, ask the people who fit into that category the following questions:

  1. Would you download this app? Why or why not?
  2. Would you pay for this app? If so, how much and why?
  3. Would you pay in advance for this app, while it’s in development?
  4. If you wouldn’t commit to paying in development, which features or functionalities could we add to change your mind?

As with scientific discovery, this process requires considerable exploration and iteration.

After these steps, it should become clear whether your application addresses a critical unmet need for customers. If customers respond dispassionately, you may need to revisit either your value proposition or your target market.

However, if customers respond enthusiastically, then you can begin to build a working prototype.

To build a prototype, you have two primary options: a) learn to code, or b) hire a consultant. If you decide to learn to code, there are many instructional sites including Codecademy, Udemy and other options. However, since this post is written for physicians working full-time, we’ll focus our guidance on hiring a consultant.

4. Draft a features list

Before seeking a consultant, it’s useful to draft a features list which outlines the application’s features and functionality. A consultant will use this list to develop a project estimate with costs and timelines.

Here’s a features list we used to build a medical research app:

Features list: Case medical research

  • Registration
    • Users enter a name and email address
    • Users select a specialty and/or disease areas
  • View, share, and save research papers
    • Users can save papers to a list displayed in the app
    • Users can share papers with colleagues via any app on their phone (SMS, Twitter, etc.)
  • View, share, and save videos
    • Users can view, pause, and resume full-screen video within the app
  • Search for papers by Altmetric score, impact factor, and number of citations
    • When users search for a keyword, the app highlights and jump to the matching text in the page

At this stage, it’s beneficial to be as clear and comprehensive as possible. This clarity will help you avoid miscommunication, save time, and minimize expenses.

5. Hire a consultant

After completing your features list, you’re ready to hire a consultant. To identify the right consultant for your prototype, you have three primary options:

  • Solicit recommendations from friends and colleagues: It’s helpful to state the category of prototype you wish to build. For example, are you building a website, mobile app or medical device? Consultants typically specialize in one category, so it’s essential to identify a consultant with relevant expertise. For example, an engineer with experience developing scalable websites will be irrelevant if your intention is to build a medical device. Specifying your requirements will help your friends and colleagues offer useful recommendations.
  • Use a freelance website: There are many well-regarded platforms including Toptal, Upwork and other options. Notably, Toptal offers a no-risk approach which allows you to work with a consultant on a trial basis, then decide whether to continue the relationship. Upwork enables you to post a feature list and requirements, then select a consultant who matches your qualifications. Regardless of which option you choose, these sites enable you to manage your financial, temporal, and other risks when hiring a consultant.
  • Seek referrals from healthcare accelerators: They support early-stage companies through financing, mentorship, and other programs. Over the last decade, we’ve seen the formation of many accelerators including Blueprint Health in New York, StartX Med in Silicon Valley, and other options. These organizations maintain lists of qualified consultants, experienced advisors, and potential co-founders who may complement your strengths and help overcome challenges. However, accelerators receive a considerable number of requests, so a best practice is to solicit an introduction via a trusted third-party.

Once you’ve hired a consultant, it may take several months or more to build the prototype, depending on your features list. While the consultant is developing your prototype—and even after its completion—you should continue soliciting feedback from prospective customers. This feedback will enable you to better understand your customers’ unmet needs, as well as discover valuable insights that can help you grow your application and business.

Additional resources for building app prototypes

Here is a list of well-regarded resources to help new entrepreneurs make faster progress:

Check out these posts for more helpful tips:

Looking for Medical Practice Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Medical Practice Management software solutions.

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About the Author

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Avikk Ghose

Avikk Ghose is co-founder and CEO of Case, a medical research app that delivers the latest in a disease area, protein, or pathway across all scientific journals. Previously, he directed strategic mobile initiatives at Intuit where his team was responsible for product strategy, mergers & acquisitions, and best-practice innovations in the wireless ecosystem. Before Intuit, he was vice president, marketing and business development at Mercora and worked in corporate development at RealNetworks. Avikk serves on the board of trustees at the Ghose Foundation. He is on the board of advisors at Virtual Mobile Technologies (Pty) Ltd in Cape Town, South Africa and a mentor at Endeavor. Avikk received an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Washington and an MBA from New York University.

Comments

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Can the author share any thoughts on how physicians should proceed with regard to hiring a team, advisors, etc?

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@Lauren, thanks for your question. Paul Graham has a detailed answer here: http://paulgraham.com/fr.html

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Thank you for this. I have a question about funding. At what point should I start looking for funding or venture capital? And how to go about this? Thanks in advance for your answer.

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Nice article and very thorough, but you forgot to mention IndieBio. 😉

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