When Good Web Design Can Save Lives

When it comes to preventing diabetes, a good user experience can save you much more than a headache. Here we speak with Sean Duffy of Omada Health about how to fix health care’s UX problem.


Sean Duffy is the CEO of Omada Health, a startup that wants to revolutionize health care using the web. Omada is one of the first companies spun out of Rock Health, a health-care startup incubator Fast Company has written about before. We caught up with Duffy to chat about why doctor’s visits are so frustrating–and how the web can fix that–and at scale.

FAST COMPANY: What’s Omada Health?

SEAN DUFFY: Omada Health is building a web program for people with prediabetes to reduce their risk of converting to diabetes. The progression from having normal glucose physiology to having diabetic glucose physiology is kind of a smooth curve, and for people at risk, but not there yet, that’s called prediabetes. One in three adults in the U.S. has prediabetes. There’s an enormous amount of evidence that making certain changes can reduce the risk of converting to diabetes; Omada Health is trying to bring this to the web.

Why do you need to use the web to treat prediabetes?

Many clinically validated programs are relatively high intensity. The diabetes prevention program we’re building off of involved meeting with a lifestyle coach once a week–you really need manpower to do it, and it’s difficult for a doctor to provide that kind of intervention. This diabetes prevention program had an enormous result in clinical trials. If it were a pill, it might have been commercialized–but it was a program. The “pill” for diabetes is not a pill, but a program. The question becomes, how do you roll that out to the nation?

You think the answer is a web-based regimen. You recently earned $800,000 in funding–how have you put that to use?


We hired a designer, a developer, and we’ve just extended an offer to another developer. The last three months have been really heads-down on product, working nonstop to make something as scalable as possible.

You’re working on a new iteration of Omada. How does it work? Is it all text-based? Is there videoconferencing?

If a patient fits the CDC criteria for the program, we match you into a small group of 8-12 people, plus a health coach, and you go through a 16-week program with those people. You learn about nutrition, about the behavioral science around eating, and you have a target weight-loss goal. There are conference calls, but we haven’t tried videoconferencing yet.

You say that you want to pair health care with the “best in consumer-web technology.” What does that mean exactly?

What I mean is creating rich visual interactions, a rich web experience. The best consumer web companies can capture the attention and engagement of their user base. We need to adopt a lot of those philosophies and approaches, and hold ourselves to enormously high standards.

So who do you look to for inspiration? User-experience success stories like Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple?


Those, plus it’s reading design blogs, following trends.

You’re in a pretty high-stakes field here. Can good design actually save lives?

We’re in a space where creating the best user experience possible matters so much because it’s going to directly influence your outcomes. The more thought we put into how we bring patients through the program, the better the clinical outcomes we’re going to have. The product needs to be exceptional.

I went to the doctor recently, and he gave me a long series of complex instructions. He expected me to remember most of what he said, and when he finally wrote some things down at my request, it was in illegible chicken scrawl on a prescription pad. Why is this so hard?

It shouldn’t be that hard. There should be an amazing system and technology in place to improve communication. It hasn’t quite happened yet, and the biggest reason for that is really that the financial model set up in health care right now makes it difficult. Who’s going to take ownership and improve that experience you had? Right now, fundamentally, we’re in a fee-for-service world where doctors are paid for everything they do. In a nice way, it feels like that’s starting to shift. There are going to be some enormous innovations in patient care in the future.

Our April 2012 print edition featured several health-care innovators in the Fast Talk column; click here to read about them.


This interview has been condensed and edited. For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here. Know someone who’d make a good Fast Talk subject? Mention it to David Zax.

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal