Designing for the vulnerable - Chapter One - Coloplast

What does it take to design healthcare for vulnerable people? This Saturday, at the Service Design Fringe Festival, we’re hosting a joint event between Livework and Coloplast, where Jennifer Bagehorn and Lilith Hasbeck will each be bringing a different perspective to the table. In advance of the talk, the two of them have contributed to a three-part long read. This is the first of three blog posts.

COLOPLAST’S PERSPECTIVE: Working closely with users from within a large healthcare organisation

Let’s turn the clock back 60 years. We’re in Denmark. It all started with a lady called Elise Sørensen. Elise was a nurse, and she saw her sister suffer with her new stoma: She’d become isolated, not leaving the house as her collecting device - a big rubber ‘jar’ strapped on a leather belt - was just too embarrassing and impractical. Determined to get her sister enjoy life again, Elise invented the first disposable, self-adhesive ostomy pouch. And that’s what led to Coloplast’s existence.

Now let’s fast-forward to today again. ‘Listening and responding’ has been in Coloplast’s DNA for a little over 60 years. That’s how it all started. Elise had a close understanding of the emotional and practical challenges her sister was facing and because she was so close to her sister, she’d developed a lot of empathy for her situation. She listened and found a solution that fitted into her life rather than the other way around. While it has always been in the company’s DNA to listen and respond to users, in the last nine years Coloplast has made a step change in innovating through user research and design.

Back in 2010, design was pretty new to Coloplast. The company didn’t have the experience nor the tools to deliver design. And by design we mean industrial design. Product design. Conversations were often about personal taste. Some of you might recognise one of those moments when someone senior in the room puts their foot down and says ‘but I like green!’

We’ve come a long way since then, and today the company is in an entirely different place. But we still have some way to go.

I’m part of a relatively small team of soon-to-be seven people. We all have various design backgrounds, working under the title of user researcher, and all share the same vision: We want to help Coloplast enable people to live easier lives with their condition. This all starts with listening and responding, professionally and holistically.

As a team, we’ve first had to professionalise how user research is conducted within the company. We’re constantly asking and challenging ourselves on how we listen and respond in a modern world. And on how to have intimate conversations with users who are suffering from taboo-ridden health conditions that they may have never spoken to anyone else about.

But it doesn’t stop there. Building on our rich history of listening and responding, we’re also looking and starting to grow discussions within the organisation about other types of design apart from industrial design. Design of more holistic experiences. Design of services. And the timing is just right.

Sadly we, as a company, can’t cure people. What we hope to achieve with these products is to enable our users to live their life as normally as possible. Products are and will always be core to our business, as one simply cannot solve our users’ healthcare issues without some form of product (at least for the time being). But we also live in an increasingly digital world, where people’s expectations for how health is delivered are rapidly changing. Companies like Coloplast have to respond and sometimes even adapt. Again, this all begins with listening to the user. Finding that Elise Sørensen moment, where empathy, understanding, and vision all come neatly together.

In some ways, one could say that we’re working on the inside of a healthcare organisation in its early stages of servitization. It’s exciting. It holds a lot of promise. But it’s also challenging. Sometimes very challenging. At the Service Design Fringe Festival, we will openly share some of the challenges we face every day in the hope of starting honest conversations about these things within our practice.

Read Chapter Two