Designing for the vulnerable - Chapter Three - Shared Learnings

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 final part of three blog posts. Start with Chapter One.

Our shared thoughts and guidance for a designer looking to work on often-stigmatised health issues

Empathy is a core skill of a service designer (or user researcher for that matter). Yet when it comes to vulnerable topics it’s even more important to be just that little more sensitive when talking with people about their challenges and fears. People might want to protect themselves and will not tell you straight away what they struggle with. The ability to be patient, genuinely listen to people and hear what they really say is even more acutely important within healthcare. It’s about establishing a professional yet personal connection. It’s about allowing people their personal space. Learning to be comfortable with silence and highly emotional situations might also help.

The healthcare space is a large, complex beast. Whether you’re coming at it from the inside or the outside, we often encounter great complexity due to its large scale and sometimes a wide patient/user population and many systems interacting and overlapping. And its closed silos make the whole system very slow to change. Therefore, to manage change, service designers need to be able to understand how to navigate in the political landscape of healthcare, public as well as private. They need to be comfortable operating within these different entities - and a little bit of patience doesn’t hurt either. Finding high-quality and stable leadership that knows how to engage stakeholders and drive change forward is key to implementing new service systems. 

Key challenges and opportunities for healthcare at the moment and what the role of service design might be

Many organisations still restrict themselves by adopting a very traditional approach to designing healthcare services, or services in general. There is a barrier and fear of trying novel things and following the usual way is safe and easy, especially for public service organisations who are on a tight budget. But solutions that are assumed and created internally in an organisation are rarely what users really need. In the end these solutions often create more costs in the long term, because solutions might not work the way they were intended to, are not accepted by the people using it and therefore might need a lot of changes before they can be implemented, if at all.

By introducing the user in the problem solving process, businesses can start to understand the real underlying need. They then can design solutions that reach people where they need to be reached.

In the particular case of mental wellbeing services, it is essential to take into consideration that there is a high stigma and low awareness of the problem itself. Organisations can’t assume that people with mental health difficulties will take action themselves. Especially because many people don’t even know that what they are experiencing is something that could be helped. Practically speaking, instead of designing another website, platform or service, and hoping that people will come and use the service, organisations should start to think of how they can meet their users in the environments they already inhabit and where they feel comfortable and safe in.

Generally, we see two major trends that are influencing the adoption of service design when designing for healthcare:

Digital health interventions: Digital transformation has entered the healthcare sector and it’s creating great opportunities for organisations as well as users. Tech should never be intended to replace human interaction where inappropriate, but can provide quicker access to information and services, personal data, quality advice, and connect people to relevant peers. The service will look inherently different depending on the patient/user population and the needs you are trying to solve, but the great news is that by leveraging digital and by creating accessible and safe online spaces we can help people who are in need much faster and/or more effectively.

With all of this also comes complexity – which is where service design plays an important role. Adopting service design can help organisations understand the bigger picture, reduce complexity in the digital landscape, and design better access to information and services for the population.

Digital health has grown immensely in the last few years, but only recently and increasingly has “examining the human element” in digital health design become a hot topic in the tech space. We are super excited to see this happening, because essentially it’s all about coupling great human understanding with new tech that might enable new ways of interaction or open up for new (product-)service-systems.

Empowered users: Also in healthcare have we witnessed a shift from passive to empowered users. People are now in the driver’s seat and take responsibility for their own health (or at least some do), and feel empowered to provide help for others. Health is no longer a one-way system with provider and receiver - it’s also growing in complexity.

Organisations will need to connect with users on the platforms of their choice, whilst creating a safe and trusted environment. It’s all about supporting people and meeting them where they’re at. Some might then be willing to reach out for help and share their experiences and challenges, while others might need just that little bit more support.

Service design can help to design these environments with the human element at its core. By uncovering what empowered users need, organisations will get a much better understanding on how to design for them.