On Product Development with HealthTap’s Sean Mehra

We spoke with Sean Mehra, Head of Product at HealthTap, about product development in health tech, his favorite tools for lean startups, and why product roles are the most rewarding. Sean will be sharing how lean developer teams can use HTML5 to create and deploy leading health apps on multiple platforms on the UI, UX, & U: Designing for Health track at Health:Refactored, a code and design focused conference taking place on May 13 - 14.  This is the first of a Health:Refactored interview series that you can follow here.

Jennifer: We are speaking today with Sean Mehra, Head of Product at HealthTap, who will be giving a talk on the UI, UX & U: Designing for Health track at Health:Refactored. Hi Sean!

Sean Mehra: Hi there!

Jennifer: So you obviously have been at HealthTap for a couple of years now. HealthTap is an interactive health network that connects doctors with patients on mobile devices. I have heard you guys follow quick iteration strategies. When dealing with fast cross-product development, what do you think is the most important consideration to take?

Sean Mehra: Yeah. Well, when it comes to cross-product development, I think there’s two major areas to really think through ahead of time and plan before you even set up such a structure in your company, organization, or startup. That has to do one: with the technical architecture, and two: with the organizational process around development and deployment.

With regards to technical architecture, you want to do whatever you can to reduce the maintenance cost of different code bases that need to stay in sync, especially if you are trying to maintain future parity between different platforms.

One architectural decision we made was thinking about the desktop and the tablet as a similar form factor, which is that of a large screen with just different forms of input, whether it’s keyboard, or mouse, or touch. Then thinking about all smartphones as a different form factor, which is a small screen.

In that sense, instead of building a different code base for tablets, for PCs and laptops, for Androids, for iPhones, for iPods, etc, we have two simple code bases based on the form factor, which allows us to minimize the maintenance cost. So, if we would need to release one feature and we want to maintain future parity on our mobile apps, our web and our tablet, we can really just build it twice rather than six, seven, or eight times.

And then on the process side, I think having a set schedule that allows you to keep both your mobile development teams, your web tablet development teams in sync, and the QA teams in sync is important, especially if you want to roll features out into the market around the same time on every platform.

Jennifer: You have brought up cost considerations a lot, an important part of how startups figure out their roadmap. At Health:Refactored, you’ll be giving tips on how a lean developer team can use HTML5 to create and deploy health apps on multiple platforms.

For an early stage startup that is just starting to build their product, might still want to go through the Apple App store or Google Play, don’t know if they are going to charge in the future and whatnot…what would you say to them?

Sean Mehra: I don’t think it’s a matter of much controversy at all to be honest. I think the trade-offs are really well-known, and it’s a matter of what the business goals are, and what the use case of the application is.

The benefits of HTML5 are: it allows you to build and iterate quickly using skill sets that are more commonly found amongst the developer community, and further, it allows you to build it in once and deploy across multiple platforms.

Frameworks like PhoneGap, or Cordova allow you to take your single HTML codebase and wrap it natively into apps that you can submit to Google Play or the iTunes Store. The tradeoff that you end up making for that tends to have to do with performance, smoothness, and speediness of the app. Those things are all addressable with the way you design the application to the point where it’s mostly imperceptible to most users, except if your app relies on heavy animations and smooth transitions. I mean, if you are building a health game, I certainly don’t recommend anything based on HTML5, because of the amount of hardware acceleration you have to take into consideration.

If your app is some kind of self-tracker that really relies heavily on integration with the native hardware of the device, then certainly I think the native application approach is the better way to go. But, if your application is essentially something that could be made into an HTML5 web app, that’s sending data back and forth from servers to beautiful pages and beautiful forms, there’s a lot of advantage with using HTML5.

Jennifer: Speaking of the nature of the product…for HealthTap, you guys have housed a lot of information; I was wondering, what’s the biggest product challenge when curating and designing a framework to house so much health information?

And in thinking of services like Quora and Yelp, what’s the biggest challenge to make sure that you are always producing relevant information in a way that benefits all the users; for both the doctors and their patients?

Sean Mehra: I will break it down into something specific that you may be asking for, which is the challenges of designing an app for health that dispels health information, and I would say a lot of it has to do with things specific to health, as well as things that are pretty general to all applications.

With regards to things specific for health, when it comes to an application that is inserting itself in the flow of a user that has a health concern, or dealing with some kind of illness, or has anxiety around some acute episode that they are experiencing, the goal of the application, if you empathize with the user, really becomes to reduce that anxiety and to orient them and to provide them support right away.

In terms of the design language, the layout, and the look and feel, you really want to instill a lot of trust, calmness, and credibility. The combination of those things makes the way you layout your pages, how you present your information, and what colors you use, really important decisions.

When it comes to apps in general though, yeah, I think an aspect of personalization in any application is important, like knowing who your user is, creating the user experience for them, by either smartly presenting them with the right search results, or sending them down a path that is probably most relevant to them in that moment, and also just general responsiveness and performance.

Especially for people on mobile devices, who are less patient and more on the go and have a lower tolerance for spinners, causing wait time for information to load. When architecting and designing the app, building it for responsiveness, building it for personalization, and instilling a lot of trust and credibility are all very important dimensions.

Jennifer: Thanks for touching up on a lot of different things I asked there. Do you have any favorite tools you use when determining the product roadmap?

Sean Mehra: I think there are tried and true general best practices, which is, one: going with a vision that you have of the way things should be. I think as any founder or innovative team working on something that is disrupting a paradigm, or trying to do something novel, you need to stay true to a vision.

I say that because while it is a little bit antithetical to the design paradigm of empathizing with your users and seeing what they want, it’s important that most inventors acknowledge that when they are building something new. If Henry Ford had asked people back in the day what they wanted, they would say faster horses, but Henry Ford had a vision for a mechanical car. So, in that sense, a little bit is your personal vision of where you think things should be in determining your roadmap.

Secondly, I do think that you do need to listen very heavily to your users, and stay in a very close communication feedback loop between users who write to your app store views, users who submit support requests, or write into support, as well as people who you consider your close circle advisors.

One of the best things that I do is literally watch my friends, family, and grandma use the application and observe moments of confusion, moments of delight, and constantly think of ways to optimize the experience for them. I never neglect the fact that they don’t have the full picture of what is possible, because I am dreaming about the future of how health care can change, and all they know to compare it to is the things that exist. So it’s an interesting combination of both to figure out what features are next.

Jennifer: What about tools like Trello? For product management and working with different teams to prioritize the next product releases, what software tools do you like to use?

Sean Mehra: Absolutely, absolutely, and by no means is this applied for any specific software use. I am sure there’s tons of alternatives, but just speaking from the choices we have made, for ticket tracking software we have tried a whole bunch of things.

We ended up landing with Atlassian JIRA as the ticket tracking system of choice. Mainly because of the flexibility it affords us in designing the development and QA process as we want.

JIRA has a very steep and big learning curve, but once mastered, it’s one of the most flexible ticket tracking systems available in allowing you to customize the workflows that you want. Being that we were doing something pretty unique in the way we architect our cross-platform development process, we needed a tool that also was just as customizable and saying: this is how we want to set up the interplay between our smartphone system and our web, or this is how we want our resources to be shared, or this is how we want a specific roadmap feature to go through the workflow in this software, which is really great.

We compound that with PBworks, which is our wiki of choice, and it’s a great wiki all around. We use that to store our specs.

Finally, we use Smartsheet, or I should say I use Smartsheet, to build my Gantt charts. Gantt charts are such an unbelievably awesome way to diagram a project plan, and it’s surprising to me how few software actually address the use case of creating beautiful, easy-to-use, quick-to-set-up Gantt charts.

Jennifer: Yes, that’s a pretty surprising answer-the Gantt chart one at least. That actually leads me to my last and final question: I see that you hold varied degrees and experience. You are a designer, obviously, a biomedical engineer by training, and then you also hold an MBA degree from Stanford. With that skill set, there so many roles that you could have chosen at a health tech startup, why did you choose to work on products specifically?

Sean Mehra: Oh, that’s an easy answer, it is probably the best job ever. I mean, if you think about it, I get to do all of the awesome things that a CEO does, but none of the bad things that a CEO has to do.

Jennifer: Well said!

Sean Mehra: In that sense it’s the perfect balance of having a lot of say in the vision and the roadmap of the future, or the mission of the company, and needing to basically be similar to a producer on the set of Hollywood movies. There, you are not the one acting in it, you are not the one always with the details of all division and of all the components, but it’s your job to coordinate all the resources to work towards a common deadline, with a common budget, and make sure it’s successful when it goes to market, facilitate all of the communication, and work along the way.

Of course the producer has a lot of say. Each part of the step, each step along the way, but there is that idea of corralling a team around a common vision, and making it happen, and doing an execution that’s super exciting. That’s not the kind of position you have in ideating and brainstorming new and novel things; it gives you the same satisfaction as inventors get when they are in the lab and tinkering with new ideas and coming up with things that could really change the world.

And finally, getting immediate feedback. So, as a person in product you are really close to marketing and customer support and community management. You are constantly getting-sometimes-constructive feedback, which you have to be able to take and use to make your job, and your product better. But a lot of times it’s really, really positive feedback, which at the end of the day is so fulfilling.

At HealthTap, for example, we recently released this functionality that allows users to express when our product has saved their lives, literally done something that has prevented them from dying. In the last couple of months, we have gotten almost 4,000 people to speak up and say that something that I built, some code that we pushed together as a team, saved this many people’s lives. If there’s anything more rewarding than that, I don’t know what it is.

Jennifer: Great answer. And I hope that you convince a lot of people to jump into the space to work on product-whether they lead product, or are designer, or a product manager.

Sean Mehra: Yes. I think the last thing I will just say to end it is: I think we live in a very exciting time in health IT and health technology, and I believe it’s very similar to the way it was in Silicon Valley when the transistor chip was invented, and you had companies like Microsoft, HP, IBM and Apple sprouting up. In a very similar manner, I think we are currently going to see the pioneers of health technology, basically a new industry, a new market that doesn’t exist today.

The pie today is not going to be split amongst the new startups that enter the scene, but it’s going to grow with all of the entrants. Some set of companies founded between two or three years ago over the next five to six years will grow to be some of the biggest companies the world has seen in the next 20 or 30 years.

So it’s an exciting time to come and be a pioneer in a space that is just forming, and that ultimately is going to address one of the most fundamental problems in health and in the world today, which, besides from energy and education and infrastructure, is health.

I encourage smart people, both already in the world of medicine to come in and join the world of technology entrepreneurs, as well as the world of technology entrepreneurs, to really think about how to apply their skills towards having a positive social impact with medicine and health care.

I am excited to see what innovations come about over the next year and from all of the people that attend this conference.

Jennifer: Sing the gospel, Sean!