These days everyone is trying to “do design thinking.” And why not? When studies show human centered design done right can save 50% of the cost of developer rework, this trend makes perfect sense. Yet human centricity in healthcare and technology remains elusive. That’s because it’s easy to say and VERY, VERY hard to do. Human centricity requires that the innovator and stakeholders suspend their own assumptions, biases, desires, and political calculations and instead look at a problem from the lens of the people whom the innovation will impact and serve. Such a shift in perspective can be challenging. 

According to research by organizational psychologists at Cornell University, human beings might actually be hard wired to reject creativity and creative ideas at the outset. Indeed, there are plenty of well-meaning innovators who believe they or members of their engineering and business teams can engage in user research and human centered design despite having no training, education or real experience in the field. 

I remember sitting in a corporate meeting room presenting a vision for design and user research only to be sneered at by a colleague in engineering who went on to say, “Everyone can do design thinking!” He might as well have said, What’s the big deal? You are not so special — that’s how hostile the comment felt. Not only did the environment feel unsafe for me, but I realized the colleague probably felt intimidated, too. He was probably going on the attack because he felt threatened by the possibility that a creative new approach could erode his control over the work and potentially render his job irrelevant.

Add to this toxic mix the stakeholder politics and budget and time constraints that are rampant in the industry, and you’ve got a cauldron of negativity. All of this fuels the age-old bias that artists/creatives (including designers) are somehow not “STEM-y” enough (code for not intelligent enough) to be held as equal partners to the engineers and MBAs who also play a crucial part in healthcare design. Under these conditions, it’s no surprise that the healthcare universe is littered with great unusable tech, misguided innovations that result from poor communication and unclear priorities. Electronic health records are but one example. 

Instead, organizations must evolve beyond the top down culture that keeps the status quo in place in order to shift their focus to understanding what is usable and desirable to humans. One pillar of this human centered design approach is user research, a process similar to the scientific method that allows designers to create products and services that truly serve their users. For example, understanding how individuals with low health literacy might wish to experience a health interaction through a new technology like telemedicine can ensure that designers and developers build products and services that are more likely to achieve patient engagement, deliver business value and establish trust.  

If organizations could evolve to create safe spaces in which such new ideas are welcomed; if all players could trust they’ll have a voice in the conversation; if painful but necessary shifts in power structure could take place; then organizations could focus their efforts on user research and other pillars of human centered design.

Over the years we’ve figured out some crucial practices for ensuring this shift takes place and that human centricity is allowed to thrive. Here are three: 

  1. Create a culture where all disciplines thrive.  Innovation happens at the intersection of many disciplines. Starting with the board of directors and CEO, ensure that all levels of the company are  inclusive of all disciplines, ways of thinking, problem solving methods and perspectives.  
  2. Be aware of what you don’t know, and don’t skimp on talent to fill those gaps. For example, hire qualified user researchers and designers. These days master’s degrees and PhDs in design and human computer interaction are increasingly the norm. Some of the best talent can be sourced from well-regarded design schools. Can’t afford this investment? Consider working closely with professors to identify graduate students for internships or contract work. And don’t overlook seasoned professionals — age is never a barrier to good talent.
  3. Be intentional while adopting a nothing-is-sacred attitude. Don’t be tied to your ego, assumptions, personal experience or planned trajectory. Allow the research to go where it will go, but also realize that not everything that comes out of user research needs to be done today, tomorrow or ever. Feasibility and viability also come into the mix when creating products and services. The goal here is to understand, learn and modify your business with intention. Censoring user research — and we’ve seen it done — is a bit like censoring free speech. You may not like what is said by your users, but choosing not to hear it puts you at risk for a big miss.

Increasingly, the criticality of human centricity is being recognized across industries. At this year’s TWIN Global, an “annual gathering of innovation and growth leaders from across sectors and geographies including business, government, non-profit, the arts, academia, and defense,” participants were challenged to think about the future and our place in it as humans. Many of these thought-provoking conversations focused on a vision of the future in which technology becomes inextricably linked to our health, environment and work and to our very humanity. Not surprisingly this exploration was fueled by poetry, music, dance and the visual and digital arts. As one presenter asked, “With whom do you want to wander?” It was clear the best answer was  “ You have to wander with everyone.”

In our next Conversation, we’ll take on domain expertise and why it’s so crucial to establishing trust in healthcare. Until then we hope you’ll keep the conversation going!

Be well /E