Designing for healthcare


Design Thinking – a method drawing from the designer’s toolkit to understand and solve complex problems – has proven successful in helping turn Airbnb profitable1, shaping UberEATS as a service2, and changing the way IBM looks at business3. The question however: is it applicable outside of technology firms and startups; for example, in health facilities?

A broader scope

Human-Centered Design has been shaking things in the medical field too. As reported in the Harvard Business Review, taking a patient-centric approach has helped turn the usual “grim, human-repair shop” hospitals into “bright and comforting” places4. It has transformed the scary process for children, of going through MRI mechanical beasts, into friendlier adventure stories in which young patients are the heroes5.

But what about medical staff – can a human-centered approach to design their workflow, help them achieve key tasks? Can Design Thinking help healthcare workers adhere to infection prevention and control measures, while they carry numerous other complicated tasks?

That is what the University Hospital of Zurich (USZ) has been curious to find out, together with the help of Spark Labs, our education and research arm at the Zurich Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ).

Collaborative teamwork

Collaboration and empathy – staples of Design Thinking – were common threads along the process of this project.

It started with four USZ staff members from two teams, one from the medical field, the other from the business side, coming together and pooling resources to work with us on infection prevention and control. Not content with being spectators, the group asked us if we could train them to Design Thinking methods and workshop facilitation.

The challenge? With guidance from our side, they would facilitate two workshop days, going through the empathize, define, and ideate stages of Design Thinking, with a large and diverse group of 15 healthcare workers. They lead this group during two weeks of prototyping and testing, until we come back at the very end, to organize for them a last day of analysis and further planning. We accepted!

Challenge and reward

With only two days of training, and no prior experience, facilitation was hard for our four core team members, who had to deal with the frustrations of conciliating a busy agenda with limited time, and the difficulties of managing the expectations of a diverse group of participants. Progress, nevertheless, was being made, and with regular meetings in between workshops with our team to assess what worked, what didn’t, and how to proceed next. We ensured that our group could at the same time benefit from a valuable learning experience, and keep track of the end-goal of finding solutions related to infection prevention and control.

It felt a little bit like this:

Adopted from IDEO

After two days of interviewing staff across the hospital, exercises to understanding and narrowing the problem, and brainstorming on solutions, the multidisciplinary group had come up with two ideas to prototype and test. One, tackled the challenge of redesigning hand-wash dispensers, while the other, leaned towards digital with a system to analyze data related to the effectiveness of infection prevention measures.

A take away

Flexibility is a key feature of the Design Thinking process. Human-Centered Design is not the solution to all problems, it will not fix everything, but it is surely important to consider how broadly it can be applied. It is not the luxury of technology firms, it is not incompatible with traditional public institutions, and the outcome does not have to be tied to financial metrics. It simply has to be taken seriously, and carried out with care – in this case, the future end result may well be saved lives.

by Dorian Burkhalter, former Intern




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