Meeting “Consumer-Grade” Expectations

By Drake Pusey, Founder & Principal Strategist at Volition Project

In the early days of the internet, back when we called it the “World Wide Web”, user experience designers were hit with a grim reality:

The users they were designing websites for spent 99% of their time on other websites.

Designers realized that in this rapidly-evolving space, consumer expectations were not being set by them, or even by their direct competitors. Expectations were being set by the internet as a whole.

Today, the entire consumer marketplace is evolving at hyperspeed, and now the same grim reality applies to all businesses, not just dot-coms:

Your customers are spending 99% of their time with other companies and brands, in other categories outside of your own.

The Blindspots of Innovation

Competitive companies want to innovate, and they do this by forging ahead, trying to do what their direct competitors cannot (yet). This focus creates a kind of tunnel vision. What they can lose sight of is the fact that baseline expectations are always rising behind them, often in other industries – effectively in their blind spot.

When it comes to raw functionality, there’s always been a bit of a trickle-down effect, from military-grade, to industrial-grade, to professional-grade, to consumer-grade.

  • Military-grade: Your country depends on it.
  • Industrial-grade: The economy depends on it.
  • Professional-grade: Your job depends on it.
  • Consumer-grade: …Your day will kinda suck if it doesn’t work, but no big deal.

However, when it comes to the quality of the experience, this hierarchy gets reversed. Consumer-grade products are the easiest to use. Sure, maybe the functionality has been dumbed down, but it’s usually more convenient and requires less training.

Today, the “Pro” label, so popular on software a decade ago, is often seen as an apology for being difficult to use. It says, “You can’t use this – this is for people who have been trained.” Today, the upgrade isn’t from Basic to Pro, it’s from Standard to Premium – an even better experience, not just more gizmos.

In healthcare, medical advances have never stopped forging ahead. Innovations in pharmaceuticals, treatments, genetic understanding, etc. have increased our lifespans, transformed terminal diseases into livable conditions, and opened new doors to predictive, personalized medicine.

The problem is, the customer experience has been left behind as consumer-grade expectations have outpaced it. Here are a few examples most patients have faced:

  • You can book a hotel room, airline flight, or restaurant table online, with full visibility of the choices, but you still need to call a receptionist to book a doctor’s appointment.
  • Many home services will come to you and give you a free estimate, so you can comparison-shop and consider your budget – but not medical providers.
  • When something changes on your phone bill, your phone company might email you a link to a personalized video explainer. Understanding a medical explanation-of-benefits mailing is still quite a challenge.
  • You can pay for almost anything with your phone, even passing money between friends, but doctor’s bills still come in the snail mail.
  • You can read the latest articles on any topic online, but the magazines in the hospital waiting room are outdated hand-me-downs.

Ok, that last one is a nit-pick, but you get the point.

Where to Find the Cure

Consumer-grade experiences have always been the simplest and easiest. There used to be a sacrifice involved: functionality. But today, that sacrifice is getting smaller and smaller, and sometimes it’s disappeared entirely. Your iPhone, Gmail, and Sonicare toothbrush are best-in-class when it comes to both functionality and ease of use. Because of brands like these, and many more, consumers are questioning why any experience should fail to meet basic consumer-grade standards.

It comes as no surprise, then, that many healthcare disruptions are coming from brands that serve a ton of consumers: Amazon. Walmart. CVS. To compound the issue, these brands know what to look for, and have bought up promising startups like PillPack, FitBit, and Tueo Health. Entire categories like urgent care have been born to address the gap.

For hospitals and health systems to meet consumer-grade expectations, they will need to examine the entire customer experience, not just the clinical treatment portion that they consider “what they do”. Even calling it the “end-to-end customer experience” would be a limiting misnomer, because customer experiences are cyclical in nature. While designing an optimal experience from entering the parking lot to exiting it would be an improvement in many cases, it’s not enough. Every healthcare interaction informs the mindset, attitudes, and expectations that the customer will bring to their next healthcare interaction. The customer’s relationship with your healthcare brand – that intangible thing that is more about emotion than anything else – requires constant care and feeding. And this is the encouraging part: 

If we can apply a health-and-wellness approach to our customer relationships, we just might end up playing to our strengths.


Drake Pusey founded Volition Project in 2014 and serves as its Principal Strategist to help empower people through brands that care. He uses his fluency in information architecture and frameworks to uncover the strategic alignments that create opportunities for clients. Drake is a Harvard Paulson School of Engineering Expert-in-Residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab, and empowers the residents of his town as a Human Rights Commissioner.


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