Why Healthcare Needs Designers


Designing a functional lamp is simple. Building the Mars Rover is complex. Getting a doctor to ask the right questions so that a patient feels confident about their care in a highly regulated and time constrained environment? That’s complicated.

Healthcare is filled with complicated challenges. Increasingly, healthcare companies and institutions are attacking these challenges with cross-disciplinary teams — doctors, data scientists, marketers, quality officers, financial experts, information technologists, and more. An often missing member of these teams are design leaders. Designers can provide an invaluable role in healthcare, but too often healthcare does not take advantage of all that design can offer.

Good design is invisible. Think about the last time you obtained or purchased something that was well designed. When you get a new blender, you plug it in and turn it on without looking at the user manual, and it works. You don’t necessarily think “Wow, they put that on button right where I thought it would be.” You use it and get on with your day. And every day you use that blender, putting in new mixtures of fruits and vegetables. Sometimes you get a delicious jackpot mix and think this is the best blender ever. Sometimes you get something brown and sticky and you make a mental note never to try that one again, even as you choke it down.

After weeks of using that blender, no one asks you how you would measure the value or quality of that experience. No one tries to quantify how many minutes it saves you each day not to have to clean multiple parts or how important it is that it’s quiet enough to carry a conversation with the person next to you while it’s on. You might only be able to truly capture how important it is to you is if it somehow was taken from you by a mysterious blender thief (or it broke) and then that joy it brought you was suddenly gone. This is the conundrum of measuring the value of good design.

So, why does healthcare need designers? Designers have five unique skills that are a mix of instinctual “right brained-ness” and years of formal training.

  1. Problem solving — Definitions of design include “to conceive or plan out in the mind”. Designers look to first understand the parameters or conditions in which solutions can be developed. We are comfortable with ambiguity (of which healthcare has a lot). We are “makers” by nature and the process of making can lead to new areas of opportunity. We look to clearly define a problem, and the reasons behind it, before jumping to solutions.
  2. Communication — At the core of any design curriculum is a foundational communications design class. Design is about understanding your audience and using ways to communicate to them clearly and effectively. We build concepts behind ideas and aspire to convey them in concise and approachable ways.
  3. Empathy — Designers are empathetic creatures. We understand that it takes hours, days, or longer to truly understand the mind and experiences of a user suffering from a chronic illness. In the complicated world of healthcare, we must not only help patients to move through the system with efficiency, but also consider how they feel and their lives outside of the system.
  4. Co-creating with users — Knowing when to bring the user into the design process is an art. Too early, and the user will be making decisions based on solely imagination and ideas might be too pie-in-the-sky. Too late, and business or strategic decisions will be laid without much room for big changes or pivotal insights. Designers know when and how to bring users along in the process. They ensure that there are questions and activities that give users effective entry points into the creative process and give users the opportunity to make amorphous ideas concrete.
  5. Creative Thinking — Designers infuse processes, challenges, and institutions with creative approaches and methods. They are innovative thinkers and may often brainstorm “off-the-wall” ideas that seem unlikely. They bring an arsenal of thoughtful processes that get to “why” and “how” of solutions, not just the “what”.
Designers are “makers” by nature, and the process of making can lead to new areas of opportunity. Designers are trained to clearly define a problem, and the reasons behind it, before jumping to solutions.

With these skills, designers add capabilities that healthcare teams may be missing. Moreover, design can have a transformative impact on healthcare because design focuses overwhelmingly on the user.

Healthcare is emotional. When problems are emotional humans do not always react in rational ways. People suffering from chronic disease are not motivated by death. They are motivated by wanting to live their best life. And their decisions are driven by a multitude of influences, most of which are not related to their health. These challenges and motivations need to be identified by those that suffer from them, but healthcare needs to be more aware and accepting of these nuances and see them as exciting opportunities, not unsolvable challenges. A designer’s expertise and value are in observing and extracting the complicated and often unspoken details of a patient’s experiences and translating them into tangible and addressable problems.

In addition, designers find ways to address the emotional result of an otherwise mundane interaction. Take a doctor’s visit for example: Healthcare has identified that too many patients do not adhere to appointments. Health professionals know that there are a multitude of reasons why patients may not come to appointments. Some of those reasons are more easily solved-for (doctor availability, or better scheduling and reminders) and some are not (lack of transportation, or unanticipated travel or professional conflicts). Designers might look at this challenge and ask, “What kind of experience can we build that will make the patient want to adhere to their appointment?” Designers are expert in interpreting user feedback. Hearing patients say, “I feel like Dr. Smith asks me the kinds of questions that will really make a difference in my care” and “I love that I am in and out of Dr. Smith’s office in 15 minutes or less” will highlight for a trained designer a path toward a more holistic solution — an emotional and functional approach — that can build a better overall healthcare experiences and lead to better health outcomes.

Design will not be the answer to all of healthcare’s woes, but leveraging designers’ methods and approaches, including placing the user at the center of our thinking, can help make healthcare delivery more efficient, understanding, and empathetic.

Tina Park is a Founding Partner at Diagram, a design studio dedicated to improving healthcare experiences and health outcomes by seeing through the eyes of the patient. This post originally appeared on Medium here.

2 replies »

  1. I’m a healthcare provider in the operating room and I’m constantly struggling with the constraints of working in my environment. I keep saying to myself “Who designed this place!”. I’ve worked in several hospitals, and there’s always something that gets overlooked. For example:

    1. Not enough female restrooms! Designers always put the same number of restrooms for men and women, but there are more female workers working than men, and let’s face it, women take longer. As a result, there’s usually a line, or we have to use the patient’s restroom if we can’t wait. So annoying. Also, the shower is always in a strange corner of the restrooms; it usually ends up flooding the floor so people don’t use them.

    2. The lounge is too small! The lounge is usually where staff eat lunch and take breaks, but it’s also the place where we hold meetings. Lunches are fine because people rotate through, but for meetings, there’s usually a group of people who are stuck standing for the duration of the meeting. There should be ample room for people to store their lunchboxes and for the occasional company-sponsored buffet lunch.

    3. The O.R.s are too small and with a strange design. There are so many rules pertaining to the OR, and it makes it hard when the room construct is off. For example, we use large pieces of equipment like C-arms or Arthroscopy towers, they take up a lot of room and they have to be placed in a certain spot in order to reach the patient. After use, we have to store them somewhere, and it’s usually in an O.R. or in the hallway. The anesthesia machine also needs to be in a certain spot too. It is always at the patient’s head. It’s not uncommon to have to move entire pieces of furniture around so to accommodate where anesthesia is and where we are operating on (right hand, left foot, abdomen, etc). The O.R.s need to maintain a certain temperature and air flow, meaning nothing can block the air vents, including equipment or supply carts; it ends up being wasted space. Same is true for emergency shut off valves; they can’t be blocked so we can store anything in front of them.
    4. Not enough storage! I’ve never been in a place that had enough storage, or storage that was easily accessible. There are huge pieces of machinery that need a home when not in use, and supplies that need to be stored in a controlled environment. Lots of supplies.
    5. Not enough room to process instruments. It’s hard to work in a kitchen that’s tiny, the same concept can be applied to the sterile processing room; it needs ultrasonic cleaners, a washer, autoclaves, a place to store instrument wraps, tables to assemble instrument trays, I can go on. It’s not uncommon to work elbow to elbow with people in this department and having to watch where you turn or step because it’s so crowded.

    Sorry for the rant, but I guess I wish designers knew more about O.R. flow. There is a definite need for designers that understand this very particular niche to create a work environment that is safe and easy to work with. I could go on, but I think I made my point across. Thank you for all you do!