The Holy Grail of Healthcare Design

Simplifying complexity – the virtue of a great model

Throughout my career, modeling has always been one of my favorite activities. There’s a certain pleasure that one feels in taking an incredibly complex set of research data, organizing it, re-organizing it, and re-organizing it some more until you stand back and have that “aha!” moment –  that moment of clarity where a pattern starts to emerge. The complexity seems to dissolve before one’s eyes, and solutions instantly start to come to mind.

When I worked at Corel, for example, it truly was amazing to see how a seemingly complex photography application really boiled down to a simple set of core activity domains (create, edit, share, organize). A good design research group typically has the luxury of being able to create one really solid framework or model that simplifies a complex experience so that a company department can benefit from it for years.

A simple model simply won’t happen

Healthcare, however, is different. Complex doesn’t even begin to describe how difficult and knotty a healthcare experience model or framework can be.  I’ve discovered during my time at Mayo that the reality is there isn’t a single framework or model that you can use to describe a healthcare experience. Not even two. It takes multiple interdependent frameworks to even scratch the surface. And that’s not simple at all.

The models themselves often end up being so complex that business leaders, designers, and other team members look at you with that blank stare of hazed confusion, even when making their best efforts to support you.

Why is healthcare so damn difficult to describe, so difficult to get one’s arms around? Because modeling healthcare is basically the same as modeling life. When you really start to think about it, healthcare impacts every single facet of every single moment of our lives. Health is life. And creating a model of every aspect of life is, well, pretty much impossible.

A model for life?

Even though it really is this complex, I’ve found there a few things a design team can do to still retrieve value out of healthcare modeling.

1. Think about personas as roles

Think about all of the different hats your personas may put on. A patient, for example, puts on multiple hats when dealing with their healthcare experiences. They may put on their traveler hat when coordinating their visits, put on their insurance agent hat when dealing with their insurance issues, or put on their lawyer hat should they run into legal problems. By looking at personas from the perspective of roles, you can help your team achieve better focus.

2. Develop different models for different audiences

Due to each healthcare model having so much depth, I’ve found it valuable to create different models for different levels of the organization. Provide a few 20,000ft view models for executive leadership, and leave the detailed, in-depth, models for the design team.

3. Develop models that focus on the different human factors

I find the 6 basic human factors lenses – cognitive, emotional, physical, social, cultural, and spiritual – are an excellent way of  capturing the critical essences behind a healthcare experience.  I find that using keywords for that essence, i.e. our experience is brilliant, compassionate, and humility, can be particularly effective as a model for executive leadership (as described in number 2 above)

4. Develop connective models

When you have several different models dealing with different contexts, it can be difficult to see the big picture. One thing that helps is a connective model. A connective model is a model that acts a bridge between models by filling in the gaps that disconnect them.  Although it may not simplify your overall story as much as you’d like, it can still provide much needed clarity to a work team. It is always useful to look at several models and try to see what threads, even if thin, may connect them.

5. Try not to build models based on sequence

Experience maps that show a particular, time-based, sequence are fairly standard in the experience design world. In healthcare, however, they can often confuse the issue rather than help it. The majority of people do not follow a specific path into a healthcare experience because their medical conditions can warrant a very different path through the system. A person who has suddenly lost their thumb will skip several steps that a person with diabetes will take. A person who has had diabetes for several years will go direct to a final step, whereas a new person will start at the beginning. A person with a severe case of asthma who is diagnosed with a lung infection will start their journey in a different place than someone with asthma alone.  A model with paths is a path towards confusion for your team.

These a few of the things that have helped my team successfully navigate this complex world of healthcare modeling. I’d love to hear what has, or has not, worked for you!