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Five Tips for Experience Designers Working to Improve Healthcare Innovation

by Tracy Brown
6 min read
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Our ability to find the underlying problems puts experience designers in a unique position to bring positive change to healthcare efforts on a global scale.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to work within an innovation lab called The Digital Innovation group (DIG), created as a collaboration between DigitasLBi and Astrazeneca to allow small, multi-disciplined teams the freedom to rapidly prototype and test new ideas for solving a variety of healthcare issues. I got to focus on two big problems: how to help doctors around the world cope with their continual medical education (CME) needs and also how to solve the unique problems doctors and patients faced in the Chinese healthcare system.

The ability to contribute impactful solutions to such complex problems invigorated my faith in the role of experience design and reminded me of how many opportunities there are for us to make a very real contribution to the world. What I learned was that even the biggest challenges—ones that have been plaguing the smartest medical professionals from all over the world—can possibly be solved by the humble experience designer. But by “experience designer” I mean people with multi-disciplinary backgrounds (technologists, designers, strategists) who can understand and meet deeper user needs by creating a uniquely useful product or service.

I also realized that innovation must always solve a real problem, but sometimes the output might fall under the category of “things you never knew you needed.” For very literal UXers who look to primary research to find the problem, that is a challenge, because users can’t always tell us what they don’t know they need. By using design thinking, and following some simple guidelines, I believe that we are perfectly positioned to contribute innovative solutions to the phenomenally meaningful healthcare space.

Here are five things I learned that will help us rise to the challenge of designing effective solutions in the healthcare sector:

1. Start By Understanding the Difference Between a Problem and a Symptom

Much has been written about this, and I just have to re-iterate: if you don’t figure out what the problem is, you won’t be able to find an innovative solution. We are often briefed to solve symptoms like, “our customers don’t like our product, so please make them like it.” This is the brief that advertising agencies have been taking for years—usually responding with great campaigns that don’t solve the underlying problem but make it look as though the problem doesn’t exist.

In the innovation space, the problem-finders are as important as the people who solve them

Finding the problem is what experience professionals do. We ask “why don’t your customers or patients like this experience?” which means that the answer may sometimes be “you have a bad product or service that doesn’t solve any of your customer’s problems. But these are the things they really need help with.” That takes bravery, because your clients may only be prepared to patch up the symptoms. In healthcare, this is particularly challenging, as the systems at play are so expansive that they take tremendous effort to pivot even slightly. However, understanding the real problem is where innovation opportunities lie. In the innovation space, the problem-finders are as important as the people who solve them.

2. Sometimes There Isn’t an App for That

We have a tendency to force fit solutions into our skill set, but sometimes the solution is a change to a service or a low-tech doohickey. I recently ran a healthcare hackathon with my talented team at DT in Australia. Their task was to hack a Fitbit to somehow make workplaces healthier. They attached RFIDs to the band and tinkered with electronics so that people could scan in and out when they were playing an office table tennis game, creating a virtual scoreboard and matching people to other players, as well as tracking the outcomes of the games and how often people played. They attached a satisfying big red button to each side of the table, allowing people to slap it every time they scored, which added arcade-level fun to the game. Now everyone wants to have a go, increasing their activity and improving relationships with their colleagues. Job well done!

3. Don’t Resign Yourself to What You Have Permission to Solve

Regardless of whether you are working on a healthcare project or not, most of us have been programmed to find a solution within limitations that are pre-determined by our clients. “We can’t get around this departments’ requirements, so you can’t do that,” or “there are a number of compliance hoops we have to jump through, so don’t even think about this,” or “we can’t afford to build this properly, so let’s just improve it on the cheap.”

These are real challenges, but they are also the reason why innovation remains out of reach for so many companies. They will not grant full permission to solve a real problem because they are already worrying about the impact on their current operation. As a part of the DIG project, my team recognized that there was a large skills gap between Chinese doctors working in class 3, 2, and 1 hospitals, which was having a substantial effect on the management of chronic illness. We also saw that the doctors who do have the skills are so overbooked that they struggle to offer even basic support to their patients. So we knew we had to fix the flow of patients by grappling with some complex cultural and logistical issues outside of our immediate understanding.

If we were to ask for permission to attempt to create a new referral system in China, most clients would have told us we were crazy. But because we chose not to resign ourselves to a convenient solution to a symptom, after a substantial amount of work and dedication, our solution is currently being trialed in China.

4. Sometimes Not Being a Medical Professional Is Useful

I’m not a doctor, so when I have to read through medical studies it presents a massive challenge for me. However, it means that I also notice the confusing leaps of logic, which often puts me in a position to find the holes in the experience. For example, if the Body Mass Index (BMI) has been criticized by so many medical and fitness professionals alike as being an inaccurate measure of physiological health—in addition to the fact that so many obviously fit and healthy people (like rugby players) are categorized as overweight and, therefore, unhealthy—why do doctors will still reference it as if it is a solid part of a treatment pathway? This might be because it is only one building block of many for them and it is a cheap and efficient way to evaluate a patient. The challenge to take on would be to find a cheaper and more efficient way to make, for example, visceral fat scans and genetic screening more accessible within the treatment process instead of accepting an institutionalized evaluation that isn’t very every effective. Doctors often don’t have the time, inclination, or even skills to pursue those challenges. But with a multidisciplinary team following an innovation mindset, you do.

5. Challenges Will Come in Every Size and Shape

We know the challenges of trying to be everything to everyone because there is an assumption made by most businesses that the more people you serve, the more money you will make. If you have ever tried to run a persona workshop with a client, you’ve probably have been told at some point that their customers are “everyone” and the persona’s end up being almost useless because they represent such a broad range that you may as well not have bothered.

One of the most interesting definitions of innovation comes from technology analyst Horace Dediu, who says that, “Innovation is something new and uniquely useful.” Sometimes this might mean helping a unique group of people with a unique problem. In healthcare, there are many such people with unique illnesses or social environments, but that doesn’t mean their problems are any less real or worth solving. In fact, they are primary candidates for innovation.

So Get Going

Secondary research is your friend. You don’t have to get a medical degree, but start by reading about topics like adherence and behavioral economics. Learn why it is so difficult for people to make good choices about their health. Refresh your basic understanding about anatomy and try to understand the basics about the chronic illnesses that are rising at a rapid rate in almost all societies. Then talk to people about the daily challenges they face in managing their health, and don’t shy away from difficult and painful topics like terminal illness. Understand how stress and distress impact your own life and how you feel about eating well and exercising regularly. Then stop yourself from becoming overwhelmed and open your mind to the innovation opportunities that present themselves to you.


Image of doctor and patient courtesy Shutterstock.

post authorTracy Brown

Tracy Brown, Tracy started as a digital designer in London during the late 90's. "It was a great time to start because you had to do so much: graphic design, front end development, content development, Information Architecture etc. The methodologies weren't formalised, and mostly we just had to take chances and figure stuff out as we went. Good old trial and error!" Since then she has worked within agencies, corporate institutions, charities and with small business owners, picking up rich information about users and stakeholders, the creative process and the not so creative process. Her relatively diverse background in creative direction, visual design and front end development makes her a (proud) generalist. "Sometimes I get to work with specialists, working to create intuitive, elegant interfaces and experiences that a business can be proud of and that their customers can enjoy. I help enterprises of all varieties to think about how to create experiences that are useful to their customers before they attempt to make them usable. I am always looking for different tools and methods, with the main aim of helping people to get to the crux."


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