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Meeting user needs in the face of winter

Brie Whyatt, Interaction Design Graduate, explains how the NHS App team improved the appointment booking process in the app by creating user stories, using the NHS digital service manual and doing usability tests to help patients and GP surgeries during this exceptionally challenging winter.

Many GP surgeries across the country offer patients the ability to book their appointments in the NHS App. Online appointment booking enables patients to access primary care digitally, which eases pressure on GP surgery staff, who are facing the extreme clinical challenges of the coronavirus pandemic during the already difficult winter months.

Photo of Brie Whyatt

As a default, appointments were bookable up to 8 weeks in advance in the NHS App. However, we received feedback from GP surgeries that making appointments bookable further in advance would allow them to better manage their clinics and help maintain social distancing in their surgeries.

This clinical need prompted our work to improve the appointment booking process in the NHS App. As a first step, we made appointments bookable up to 16 weeks in advance to accommodate their request.

That was just the beginning of our work to improve the process, however.

GP surgeries are not the main users of the NHS App – people, like you and me, across England are, so this is who we had to ensure the appointment booking process works for. Plus, with the added layer of complexity around the pandemic, we could not safely assume that our users would interact with the NHS App in the same way as we have seen previously.

We had to consider how our users interact with the app, and what they expect to happen when they book appointments. We used the principles of user-centred design to guide our work, and user stories were a useful method to first define the things a user would need.

A user story looks like this:

As a [person in a particular role - the user]

I want to [perform an action or find something out - the user's need]

So that [I can achieve my goal of…]

We used the insights gained during user research sessions with real NHS App users to create our user stories. This gave us actionable statements that helped us understand if we were meeting the requirements of our users.

An example of one of our user stories:

As someone who wants to book an appointment

I need to be able to see when my GP surgery is running the right clinic

so that I can book a relevant appointment, at a date and time that is suitable for me.

By going through user stories, we created some high-level requirements. These were used to evaluate ideas throughout the whole design process. Some examples included:

  • making appointments bookable further in advance to accommodate clinics being held outside of the next 8 weeks
  • allowing users to see all available dates, and times for each of those dates to enable them to pick the right appointment for them
  • giving the ability to limit the number of individual slots the user sees at one time both to make it easier to select a relevant time, as well as to mitigate any load issues that may happen as a result of showing lots of appointments at the same time

The existing components section of the NHS digital service manual was crucial to our final design outcome. This is because it enabled us to call on previous research and tested components to quickly evaluate, iterate and ideate about potential solutions. After such, we agreed upon the final design:

Screen capture showing the NHS App ‘Book a GP appointment’ screen. It demonstrates the dates and times of appointments available to book.

We agreed within the team that this design would offer our users the most effective way to book in advance, but we had to validate this with people who would actually be doing the booking. Therefore, we ran through our design ideas with our user researchers and they set up some usability tests. This meant that we were able to give real NHS App users the task of booking a clinic using the new layout to see if it worked for them or if anything needed changing.

Throughout 5 sessions, we found that all users could select a date by opening the expanders and all the users could go on to select an appointment time that was suitable for them. Plus, we got to validate that users would be likely to add the booked appointment to their phone calendar, which is especially important when considering how far in advance clinics may be booked.

All in all, the usability testing helped to reassure us that what we had designed would be right for our users before we implemented any changes. Furthermore, our work won’t end now – we will be monitoring and iterating based on live feedback from app users. So, if you’ve used the NHS App to book an appointment, let us know in the ‘Feedback’ tab on the app whether it worked for you!

Our users are at the heart of the work we do on the NHS App and we will continue to put them first so that we constantly improve the way they access primary care digitally. This year, the user-centred design process has enabled us to help ease some winter pressures across England in what can only be described as very extraordinary circumstances.

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Last edited: 23 December 2021 11:52 am