Why We Need Design Thinking In Healthcare

Designers begin by understanding how people work in the real world, and then create the best IT system that's technically feasible.

Leonard D'Avolio, Contributor

May 25, 2015

3 Min Read
<p align="left">First, learn how they work, then figure out what they need.</p>

Design isn't just for designers. There is no substitute for a skilled and experienced designer. And certainly there are types of design work that simply can't be done without a designer's involvement (e.g., the design of medical devices). That said, "design thinking," or tackling a problem with the tools and philosophies of design, is not the exclusive property of designers.

Tim Brown of Ideo described the positive effects of training teams of clinicians from Kaiser Permanente in an excellent piece appearing in the Harvard Business Review. Combined Ideo and Kaiser teams applied design methods in order to create a portfolio of innovations, including improved transitions of patients between clinicians (i.e., "hand-offs"). If design involves understanding and accounting for the end-users' needs, who better to familiarize with the design process than the end-user?

Design from the start and throughout. Too often designers are invited to contribute at the end of the process. Their roles are thus limited to making the creations of engineers more palatable to the end-user by employing slick interfaces. However, this limited role delays or ignores the study of how a system will actually be used. That can be a dangerous game in the complex and interrelated world of healthcare. Instead, the tools of design should be incorporated throughout a project to ensure that any developed solution actually solves the problem the users face.

Getting started is really as simple as recognizing that design principles should be employed in order to improve the efficiency, reliability, and safety of our systems. From there, there are a number of design tools and frameworks available in books, videos, or just by searching the Web. Below are some concepts and resources I found to be helpful and accessible:

Belief systems. It's important to understand the belief systems in the context for which you're designing. In the example offered by Udaya Patnaik of Jump Associates, if doctors believe that taking time off is a sign of weakness, recruiters hoping to employ them shouldn't go out of their way to highlight generous time-off offerings.

Storyboarding. You can storyboard what currently happens, what should happen, and how different "actors" in a system will interact. This can be as simple as drawing on paper. You can also use a product like Indigo Studio.

Consider the adjacent possible. In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson argues that innovation doesn't leap ahead. I believe this has implications for proposed new designs. While brainstorming should be unconstrained, when it's time to move forward on an idea, try not to jump ahead to science fiction. Consider what is currently possible for the end-user and what would be a logical next step beyond it.  

If you're interested in exploring these topics further, here are some additional resources:  

  • Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things is written for a wide audience and offers very practical and technical approaches to design.

  • Dev Patnaik's Needfinding is more of a text book on design resulting from the design class he has taught at Stanford for years.  

  • Tim Brown's Harvard Business Review article, "Design Thinking," does a nice job of making the case for incorporating the principles of design into business. It offers some great examples of their success in the healthcare world.

A sincere thanks to Udaya Patnaik (@UdayaJump), Maja Kecman (@helixcentre), and Peter Mabardi & Allen Sayegh of Invivia for the leads and education.

[Did you miss any of the InformationWeek Conference in Las Vegas last month? Don't worry: We have you covered. Check out what our speakers had to say and see tweets from the show. Let's keep the conversation going.]

About the Author(s)

Leonard D'Avolio


Leonard D'Avolio, PhD, is the Director of Informatics at Ariadne Labs, a joint venture of Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health. He is co-creator of the healthcare prediction platform Cyft, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and a writer whose work can be found at Medicine's 4th Paradigm. He can be reached at [email protected] or via Twitter @ldavolio.

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