Design Thinking in Healthcare

Bansi Mehta | 8 min read

The Design Thinking approach is a method of problem-solving that focuses on human behavior and needs. The process employs empathy, voluminous idea generation, rapid prototyping, and continuous testing to tackle complex challenges. Speaking from the healthcare perspective, designers focus their efforts on firstly, understanding how the system functions, and secondly, on the needs of the participants within that system (patients, providers, insurance companies, pharmacists, etc.) before coming up with solutions. They rely on their thorough understanding of all the stakeholders to map the rest of the process. And because design thinking is iterative, feedback is sought early and often, especially from users on both sides.

Design Thinking can encompass the entire spectrum of the healthcare experience — beginning from when a patient gets to the hospital/clinic to what happens when he goes back home and post-visit care.

There is an increased need to focus more on understanding the patient experience at a deeper level to solve whatever problems both sides encounter, along with enhancing the overall experience and lowering its costs.

How can Design Thinking work in Healthcare?

Design thinking makes you listen, really listen.

Design process - design thinking in healthcare

The Research and Synthesis phases of the design process involve the study of the actual user demographic to gain meaningful insights into their behavior.

Case in point –
A study investigating the hypothesis that improving access to healthcare for the transportation-disadvantaged population revealed that 3.6 million people miss or delay/reschedule their medical appointments due to issues related to unreliable transportation. This accounts for billions of dollars in annual costs for healthcare providers across the nation.

These missed or last-minute reschedules end up creating several operational challenges as well, like schedule disruptions of care providers to interference with patient care and treatment. The specific reasons behind these no-show cases hold the key to improving the overall patient experience and saving those billions that go down the drain. In such cases, User Experience (UX) research and synthesis deep dives into observing and assimilating user behavior — from what happens before people get to the hospital to what happens after they leave — reveals telling insights that usually go unnoticed.

User research techniques include contextual inquiries, user interviews, surveys and questionnaires, observational studies, etc., which do the job of mapping the user journey from the point of origin to the destination – and thereby covering their pain points at various stages.

The synthesis part of the process is where the collected data is analyzed and made sense of. Conducted in succession, these methods manage to give a voice to the patients, caregivers, as well as stakeholders, letting all three sides weigh in their opinions regarding the entire system and be heard.

Thus, in the further stages of design when the actual solution building happens based on user experience, it ends up being high on utility, practicality, and financial feasibility, solely because it is not sourced through thin air and is instead focused on solving real-world user problems in real-time.

Design thinking helps the healthcare sector become proactive instead of reactive.
Healthcare is no longer relegated to the environs of a hospital or clinic. Monitoring human health is now a 24/7 activity with apps and wearables being an integral aspect of life as we know it. Ideation – a phase of design thinking which is an iterative process of finding creative solutions – is what helps keep up with this frenetic pace of progress.

As the healthcare sector evolves, so do its problems. Improved healthcare, for instance, is a huge factor in increased longevity, which throws up complex challenges of handling a growing population of the elderly. Another instance is centered around the increased awareness of mental health – considering that isolation and loneliness can be as debilitating to human life as cancer or diabetes. These are the challenges confronting the healthcare ecosystem at the moment, the kind of questions that require a deeper understanding of user behavior and curating unique solutions directed at specific as against generic problems.

Also read: Design Standards to save lives – UX in Healthcare

The ideation techniques in the design process involve brainstorming wherein designers, based on the research data, come up with feasible and creative solutions to solve problems in an efficient, budget-friendly manner. These ideas are turned into simple prototypes, which may be used in user testing to ensure that the solution is headed in the right direction. Based on the feedback gained in the user testing phase, the prototypes are further refined before being moved to design.

Design Thinking for Healthcare at Koru

A leading consultant company in the healthcare sector, our client looked to build an interactive and responsive web application developed to help senior citizens to apply for assisted medical care. The product would help streamline the lengthy and complex process of documentation and verifications to help more and more senior citizens reap the deserved benefits of assisted medical care and close the gap separating aided healthcare funding and the needy.

The sales agents of the company would be using this application to document all the details regarding the applicants and keep track of the progress of each case.

We applied our design methodology to research the underlying issues in the workflow and conducted interviews with users and stakeholders to round up the top findings. This led us to discover that the most viable direction was to split the system in two – one app for the field agent and another for the applicant. This would help the agent scheduled to visit a facility for the elderly to meet with multiple applicants. With each applicant filling out his/her share of the application, the agent would pack more within a single appointment. The applicant would become more involved and tuned in to the process and thus wouldn’t be intimidated by it. This comfort and familiarity would lead to accurate responses, thus saving on the agent’s time and efforts.

We brainstormed and picked specific areas for enhancements considering the top challenges and focus areas in mind to develop the proposed features for the Field Agent and Applicant. We introduced minimal features, clear CTAs, higher contrasts, distinct spacing, and conversational copy after detailed user testing.

This project was a study of contrasts for our design team which stretched our capabilities to accommodate vastly varying user needs – those of the over-burdened agent and tech-challenged senior applicant, highlighting the power of user-centric thinking.

It was awarded Honorable Mention in the 2019 Creative Communication Award (C2A) in the UI & UX Design – User Experience Design category.

Design Thinking is not just for designers

Applying the principles of design thinking does not necessarily require a designer’s qualification. Amitha Kalaichandran wrote in this New York Times article how a nurse working in the ED unit of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, suggested a simple yet innovative idea that the team leader in trauma cases wear a bright, easy-to-spot orange vest. This was to deal with a situation “in which a huddle of highly stressed emergency room staff members spoke over one another and there were no clear roles.” For trauma teams that constantly deal with high-strung situations requiring lightning-fast decision making, this tiny change “has helped clarify who’s in charge and strengthened communication among members.”

Thus, the key aspects of implementing design thinking do not involve rocket science, but is only centered upon –

  • Empathy for the user, likely to be a patient or care provider
  • Interdisciplinary collaborations
  • Prompt prototyping of the innovation

Employing design thinking (UX) methodologies and techniques enables healthcare providers to revise their perspectives – they begin to see their patients as human first, and patient on a secondary level.

Areas posing design challenges in healthcare

  1. Hygiene and cleanliness
  2. Lack of empathy while dealing with patients
  3. Monitoring stocks
  4. Technology integration
  5. Patient transportation
  6. Diagnostics
  7. Treatment processes
  8. Communication issues between healthcare providers and patients
  9. Environmental impact and carbon footprint
  10. Data security threats

It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”
– Batman

YouTube video

Design thinking is just like Batman – it’s always able to look for creative solutions to problems. It organizes scattered ideas and brings about subtle differences that make an impact. The purpose of design thinking is to delight users and to do so, the process employs methods that mix science and art with creativity and innovation. It requires decision-makers to empathize with patients, think creatively, ideate, and continually test solutions to these problems.


The purpose of design thinking is to delight users and to do so, the process employs methods that mix science and art with creativity and innovation.


More Resources:

AI in Surgery: Revolutionizing Healthcare

Healthcare Industry Trends that Made an Impact in 2019 and Beyond

4 Factors That Determine the Usability of Your Healthcare App

About Author:

With an experience of over a decade in User Experience, Bansi Mehta is the Founder & CEO of Koru UX Design. Collectively, her team provides exceptional UX for enterprise applications and complex systems, working with clients ranging from healthcare giants to boutique investment banks.

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