power your advice

The Evolution of the Design Thinker From the Operating Room

Designers don’t typically spend much time inside operating rooms, but this July, I found myself scrubbing in for back-to-back open-heart surgeries in the nation’s top-rated cardiology hospital. Brian Ferguson, CEO and founder of Arena Labs, and the hospital team invited me to offer feedback on how they might improve the communication before, during, and after complex heart and vascular surgeries.

The demand for design thinking is growing

John Maeda, former Partner at Kleiner Perkins, views designers as imperative partners to technology companies, regardless of size. Google, Facebook, and Amazon have collectively grown their design staffs by 65 percent. Maeda also touched on various design types necessary to businesses, including classical, computational, and design thinking.

I found myself thinking how true this is in the Operating Room that day. I realized that several other spaces could benefit from a designer’s expertise. Designers could enjoy more opportunities to do dynamic, meaningful work and industries, from health care to automotive to aviation, would benefit.

A mutually beneficial relationship

According to TechCrunch, design is the technology industry’s best kept secret. While engineering is increasingly becoming more commoditized, a brand’s experience separates the wheat from the chaff. Spinning a successful user experience is something designers do in their sleep. Because patient, citizen, or user experience can’t be automated, it’s understandable that companies are desperate for design thinking.

According to Willem Van Lancker, designers are shifting their focus, as well: instead of working broadly in the industry, they’re now specializing in more specific trades. Thus, the relationship between executives and designers becomes symbiotic: A business adopts new capabilities, products and service within a better user experience, while a designer gains experience broadening her skills and driving impact in new industries.

Design Thinking in the Operating Room and beyond

Decision makers and top executives are realizing that designers who take their expertise off the screen and into the physical world can solve a myriad of problems that plague legacy industries. That’s how I found myself in the operating room.

Watching the surgeon was like watching Beethoven perform his Ninth Symphony. From a design perspective, however, there was room for improvement. After the surgeries, I met with the surgical team. We brainstormed about different procedures and surgical protocols and also discussed the emotional component of communication. Given our always-on culture, we need to be more aware of how those behaviors affect our mindset during critical moments. By examining the full spectrum of the surgical experience, we were able to improve dialogues between doctors, nurses, and other staff members by designing better communication workflows.

As a young designer, I imagined what I supposed would be impossible scenarios of impactful change. Yet, here I was, making an impact in a surgical theater. After witnessing the gravity of such procedures firsthand, I couldn’t fathom applying my design skills to anything but the most critical problems of our day. Designers have massive opportunities to make a difference in the medical field, from improving surgery protocols to facilitating better family practice experiences to creating life-saving interventions for senior citizens.

Consider this: While surgeons are focused on their patient, designers are focused on the interactions between practitioners. We can arrive at design solutions through observation, postoperative interviews, and design sprints while applying what we know of human-centered design from other industries. This results in the insight and transformative recommendations that medicine desperately requires.

The process for arriving at transformation in medicine, is the same for arriving at transformation in financial services – the methods are, in fact, interchangeable. Interview clinicians regarding day-to-day details and the tools they use to execute it. Reveal pain points, and use your expertise to arrive at helpful, actionable solutions. Relay what you’ve landed on to the network of people in the medical field with whom you have relationships, and get their feedback.

Related: 4 Quick and Simple Tips for Effective Design

And just like the operating room could be disrupted through elevated design thinking, so can other industries, including:

1. Automotive : The move toward driverless cars is raising a wide range of questions for automakers. When people no longer need to be actively involved in driving, how will they interact with their vehicles? And with subscription services becoming the norm in a number of industries, auto companies must pivot, too. Such industry shifts raise significant questions about how best to meet changing consumer demands for convenience, safety, and accessibility. Executive decision makers must evolve their offerings through the lens of the new consumer experience.

Design researchers are equipped to understand how user behavior and motivations affect how products and services are perceived by users. We need cars designed by user needs, not designed to serve the existing requirements of the industry's manufacturing and product lines.

And a note for designers looking to disrupt this space: do your research. Study as many vehicles as you can — visit luxury and standard lots; sit in as many cars as you’re able; take notes on design, possible improvements and eliminations, and any other relevant observations. Know the product, and then discern how your designer’s mind can disrupt it.

2. Aviation : As a pilot and passenger, I can tell you that aviation and all of its supporting industry verticals require profound redesign and business model innovation. The amount of cognitive load that pilots bear at all times is enormous, and there are many ways technology can reduce that burden. Considering that the passenger experience has changed little in recent decades, design thinking will help customers as well. By accounting for people’s greatest fears and stressors while flying, we can create a more seamless, positive flight environment for pilots and their passengers.

Passenger experience can be improved from the last seat available to the comforts of first-class cabins, but that change will require a mindset shift from airline executives — one that may have to come on the heels of business model innovation. The thinking required to challenge assumptions and invent new methods and models is part of the designer’s natural skill set. Our methods and tools will provide the necessary, non-linear processes that can eradicate entrenched thinking and reject “that’s the way it’s always been done” thinking.

Our designers at MU/DAI are applying these methods beyond the health care, automotive, and aviation industries. We are preparing federal and local governments, utilities, security forces and top businesses, for change. Most designers don’t think of themselves as driving critical operational impact for such a wide spectrum of industries. It's time.