Inspiration From Our End-Users Comes First in Design Thinking

Douglas Solomon, Ph.D., MPH, 19 July 2016

Design is a very simple thought process and set of tools that has been developed over many years and is now in use in healthcare as well as virtually every other industry around the world. The problem I often see as a design thinker is that organizations simply forget to apply the most simple elements of it. This could make a huge impact on their work.

For example, a core belief in Design Thinking is a focus on the end-user, client, patient or customer—whatever you call the people you are serving.  This is such a simple concept, but it is so often ignored. Why? Because, many people, especially in healthcare, believe they already know what their core constituents or clients need. Undoubtedly, they do know a great deal about their clients, but probably not enough to successfully create new programs, products or services for them.

We know this is true as time and time again we see projects that fail because they simply didn’t properly consult with the end users. This can be as simple as the problems faced when moving into a new hospital and clinic because the nurses and doctors were not asked about their needs, or it could be a new service that fails to achieve expected traction because potential patients do not see the value in what is being offered or simply don’t understand what it is all about.

So, how can we properly understand our clients or other key constituents which can often be our colleagues in healthcare? I’d like to suggest three simple ways to do this.

First, we can simply ask them what they really care about in regard to something we are considering designing. Often times, understanding their core needs can be more powerful and generate better insights than specifically asking them about a particular program we are planning. For example, rather than asking a patient about why they are not taking their prescribed drugs, it might be better to start by asking him/her about what her typical day is like to gain insights into how to create a program that fits her lifestyle and is not asking her to fit into our preconceived notions.

Second, we can observe the world around us. For example, if we are going to design a new emergency room or process to properly dispose of unused narcotics in a hospital, we can spend some time simply observing how people work today. Watching people in action and being able to ask questions like “why did you just do that?” or “what were you thinking when you just put the syringe in your coat pocket?” can help us understand things that might never come up in a formal interview setting.  Doing this in the real-world setting is much more powerful than doing an interview in an artificial lab or “focus group” type setting. Analogous observations can be very influential and inspiring. If you are developing new signage for a hospital or clinic, you can go and observe analogous settings such as a mall or stadium or zoo or airport to gain insights from different disciplines.

Third, we can ask people to co-create with us. Let’s say we want to design a new welcome packet for inpatients and their families. One way to do this would be to gather some former patients and family members together and ask them to prototype the welcome packet that they would have liked to receive when they were with us.  Not only is co-creation powerful and creative, it also sends a message to our clients/patients/end users that we truly care about their needs and want to find solutions that are helpful and supportive of them.  This can make a huge different in the later adoption of our new efforts.  We call this “designing with, and not for.” When you are designing with people, this is a good time to make things together in as a hands-on way as possible. Prototyping using everything from paper and pencil to play dough to 3D printing are all useful tools in this approach.

Careful focus on the needs and lifestyle of the end users is a core part of Design Thinking. There is much more to it, of course. But, if we only did this simple work of really caring about the needs of our key constituents, we would be well on the way to realizing the benefits of Design Thinking.

The MedStar Institute for Innovation has developed a course in design thinking for health professionals. Taught by experts from IDEO and beyond, the video course covers the “Process of Design Thinking” (David Webster); “Brainstorming” (Doug Solomon); “Design Research” (Lucie Richter); “Design for Behavior Change” (David Fetherstonhaugh); “Rapid and Nimble Prototyping” (Andre Yousefi); and “Prototyping – Beyond the Physical” (Kara Harrington).

The course is available to all MedStar Associates here. If you are a nonprofit interested in using this course, you may submit a request here.

Douglas Solomon, Ph.D., MPH is an innovation consultant and IDEO Fellow.  He is a former Senior Fellow at MedStar Institute for Innovation and Co-Creator of the Design Thinking Course for Medical Professionals


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