Part 1: Designing for healthcare

February 02, 2017

It is a bit crazy that the design of products and services for the most human of needs, healthcare, has a history of being less than humane.

But you can probably point to an experience with a piece of medical equipment or a healthcare service that left you or a loved one feeling dissatisfied or, even worse, disrespected.

Consumers have come to expect well-designed products and services, increasing their demand for effective and delightful experiences for which they are willing to pay a premium. Design has become recognized and now has a seat at the business table. Reports like the Design Management Institute’s annual Design Value Index (DVI) legitimize the role design plays in business, showing that design-driven companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 211 percent over 10 years.

Design is known for its human-centered approach. Human-centered design begins with what is desirable and balances that with efforts to make solutions feasible and viable. In other words, balancing what is wanted with what works and what it’s worth. But this framework seems shallow when applied to healthcare and medical devices. Healthcare operates within mammoth- scale complexity and outcomes are more than desirable –  most people regard living a full life as a necessity.

Enterprises and startups are laser-focused on delivering their own unique value propositions through what they’re best at – what is feasible and viable – the science, business, technology, marketing and operations. It’s what makes them tick and what they’re great at.

Admittedly, savvy business people know that in order to be relevant to their customers they need to deliver value and be differentiated from the competition. But the devil is in the details. Healthcare businesses are often unprepared to connect the dots between what they believe their customer wants and exactly how they will deliver it and meet consumer expectations –  both their needs and wants. They’re often inexperienced in the design of human-centered solutions.

In fact, as compared to the consumer products space, human-centered design – the practice of making products and services desirable to users - is still a fairly new idea in the world of healthcare.

What does ‘desirable’ mean in healthcare anyway?

Supporting better patient and clinical outcomes is a purpose, not a desire. Healthcare companies cover this very well. It’s the science that drew many of these professionals into healthcare in the first place.

‘Desirable’ is a whole other dimension. It’s not just getting the desired outcome, it’s achieving that outcome through a seamless, simple and empathetic experience. This means using a deeply human-centered process that requires systems-level thinking.

It’s not just getting the desired outcome, it’s achieving that outcome through a seamless, simple and empathetic experience.

Desirable solutions:

  • Seamlessly fit within the overbuilt ecosystem and workflows without adding complexity or risk
  • Remove unnecessary complexity to make tasks simpler, easier, faster and safer
  • Truly empathize with and address the needs, priorities, desires, perceptions and motivations of the many different user groups.

Sounds great, right? First, before you can design ‘desire’ into a new solution, you need a “North Star” to navigate by.

 Finding your “North Star”

To effectively deliver and profitably commercialize human-centered healthcare solutions, a team needs a longer-term goal or vision to shoot for. I like to call that a “North Star.” It’s something specific and defined, far enough away that you can’t make out all the details, yet everyone can see it. It allows a large and disparate team of product developers and marketers to head in the same general direction. Establishing a North Star, or a strategy, keeps people and teams aligned.

Think of Starbucks’ goal to become your Third Place, delivering your day’s best break as a personal experience. A design strategy or North Star is different from the company’s mission, vision and values, but it supports them. The North Star provides a concise, yet long-term and actionable goal for innovators. You can see how ‘becoming your Third Place’ would provide Starbucks’ innovators and marketers with a baseline for comfort, ambiance, customer service and convenience. It would also help them understand when to say ‘no’ to requests or opportunities that don’t align with the North Star. It serves as a kind of inspiration to design, clarity to align teams, and a litmus-test to make decisions.

You might ask, “If I have a new product in the pipeline, don’t I already have a North Star?” The answer is maybe. A North Star needs to include ‘the what’ and ‘the why’ so teams understand what it is and why it makes sense for the business and consumers. Creating a next-generation heart rate monitor to show the market ‘we are still in the game and on trend’ may be part of the business plan to compete, but is very different from creating a monitoring wearable device to become a market leader in reducing stress for teens and young adults.

Sometimes this strategy has already been identified by your organization or founder and you may be ready to implement. Other times, what you are missing is a North Star or strategy. You may recognize the need to start from scratch and think ‘blue sky.’ You likely want to use some Design Thinking methods, which are good for imagining future states, identifying long-term opportunities, navigating complicated and holistic systems, and for solving wicked problems. This is the opportunity to discover possibilities, establish a vision and work backwards for your implementation plan.

With market and business demands, it is easy to skip this step or not address it fully. Part of a North Star is a roadmap to lay the foundation in achieving your goals. That roadmap and plan will need to be a work in progress that’s updated as things unfold, teams gain clarity, you encounter challenges, and your competition changes. But in essence, the end goal does not change much. Keep in mind that a strategy is not just ‘the what and how,’ but also ‘the why.’ This means that you must choose what you are not going to do just as intentionally as what you are going to do.

Identify, define or refine your North Star to make sure everyone is headed in the same direction. It provides focus and meaning that drives and motivates a team. Establish the goal and get aligned. You will be more effective with every decision made and time spent while practicing human-centered design, the desirability piece of the product development puzzle.

Delivering on desirability requires careful attention to laying the foundation of your longer-term objective. Your North Star allows teams to use a human-centered design process that delivers seamless, simple and empathetic solutions.

Please check back in a week for part three of this article series to learn about mapping the way to seamless solutions.