How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest
I’m a little sad, and a little excited, to share that this is my last week working at the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation on the Human Factors team. I’ll be leaving University Health Network to take up a new design position at Mozilla on their Webmaker team after the first week of April, which is pretty exciting for me! So I’ll be shifting my concentration from healthcare more to education, and I wanted to take a few paragraphs to reflect on my experiences here and where I’m going.
In January I wrote about the Disruptive Incumbent, which may appear to have been the beginning of the end, but in truth I’ve been sitting on this thought ever since I decided I would tackle healthcare design: how much can you change the direction of a heavy machine heading one way, when you desperately want it to go another?
While I believe there must be people working within the healthcare system in order for this system to change, I’ve had to question my own role as an insider. What are my own strengths? Where am I adding value?
Outsider vs. Insider
When I started I was very much an outsider, completely unfamiliar with the healthcare world. Then and still, I am comfortable with the contrasting laissez faire tech environment, am more used to experimental and sometimes haphazard creative practice, and I realize that through my experience in digital agencies, I often value the speed of innovation and “content” creation over its substance, believing that iterations will lead to incremental, meaningful impact.
To answer my own question, I believe my value at the Centre has been exposure; I have exposed people unfamiliar with design culture to a different way of thinking about problems, to new methods of problem-solving, and hopefully, to new ways of interacting with people that are necessary for great design (e.g., openness and forthrightness when it comes to critiques, quick iterations without hurt feelings, sharing of specialized knowledge and resources, and the idea that design is not magic – it is a process). I’m not just talking about the Centre, but also about new people I’ve met through this blog, through Twitter, and through community health events including Hacking Health. All of this exposure has built real value by contributing (even in some small way) to a culture change within healthcare.
At the same time, my projects, colleagues, and working environment have most definitely changed me: I am more cognizant of creating work that will have a real impact. I want to be able to measure that impact. I now think thoughtfully about potential harm my work may be inflicting upon users. These are not easy subjects to wrangle, so to have developed the skills and resources to cope with them over the course of one short year and a half is a huge advantage to me as a designer.
I have also been exposed to areas of design work I would never have come in contact with otherwise. I have watched users fiddle with my interfaces through a one-way mirror, watched patients enter an MRI machine, heard people well-versed in healthcare traverse this delicate landscape of healthcare politics, choosing which of their battles to fight. Even sitting side by side with a talented industrial designer and mentoring younger design interns straight out of school has taught me a lot about myself and how I work. It’s also been enlightening to face the challenge of encouraging other designers to join the healthcare cause, and to those who have stepped up: Keep at it. You continue to inspire me.
These challenges-slash-opportunities are often missing in your standard design briefs at your standard design agencies, and I feel lucky to know now that designers can deeply understand a complex problem, and we can influence complex processes.
I strongly believe this ability to affect change does not apply solely to designers. Anyone with insight that is willing to speak up – and sometimes fight for their beliefs – will be able to influence their environment. I hope that part of what I’ve been able to accomplish at the Centre is to have enabled the sharing of those insights as well as the ability to trust an insight without necessarily knowing where it came from. While design is a process, and its techniques can definitely be learned, the unstructured component of creative thinking (aka “play”) is also really important to anyone interested in doing things a little differently.
It’s the element of “play” that I want to focus on a bit more. I’m excited about shifting scenery and going to work for Mozilla’s Webmaker team, where I can help shape the vision for and build tools for people to play with content on the web.
A few weeks ago I saw Mark Surman speak about the Mozilla mission at Creative Mornings, and I was completely captivated. The Mozilla mission is to encourage web literacy, or the ability to understand how the web works, in order for users to be able to contribute to it in a creative way as opposed to simply consuming. I identify with the belief that the web should be able to be influenced by individuals who take part in it. This is, after all, what made me fall in love with interactive design in the first place. And not without irony, this “enabling” is very much how I felt about healthcare, too. How do we enable patients to become participants in their own care?
Also not unlike healthcare, part of my role as a user experience designer at Mozilla will be to think about what motivates certain behaviours and to imagine how we can create tools that makes those behaviours easier to accomplish or more desirable.
What will be changing, however, or at least what I imagine will change, will be that I won’t be facing the crazy inertia of a huge, complex system like healthcare that is – often rightly so – terrified of making mistakes. Education and the tech world are certainly still big industries to reckon with and are wrought with problems of their own, but in these worlds the individual consumer is granted more access, the importance of which I cannot stress enough.
Access allows people to be a part of something, to potentially change it because they are a part of it. I was lucky to have been given access to the health environment not knowing anything about it, but I know too many businesses that would love to work in healthcare and don’t know where to start. Their ability to access current work-streams, the hospital environment, and patients and doctors is extremely limited. Until that changes, I am not convinced healthcare will experience the benefits of a competitive and creative tech scene.
In tech companies, the sometimes fierce loyalty to openness and sharing has – I think – made strides for advancement easier to accomplish. (Granted, the opposite to openness, à la Apple, has also taken us places, but I’m not sure to good ones!) I’m impressed with the openness of Mozilla. For example, the Webmaker team has weekly phone calls that any member of the public can join. Can you imagine this existing in healthcare?
It isn’t easy to maintain openness in the face of growth; we tend to have the natural desire to lock down whatever it was we feel made us successful, so that we can stay on top, right? But I really love that the value system of openness is baked into the culture at Mozilla, and I’m excited about what this means for my own potential as a designer to impact the world around me.
In the meantime, Healthcare Human Factors is still going to be doing some of the best work around in healthcare. I’ll still send anyone I know to their doorstep. They still have a crackin’ team of designers with communication, graphic, and engineering backgrounds, so I’m definitely going to keep tabs on them to see what they’re creating.
It is in the spirit of openness that I want to share everything I’ve learned about building a creative team inside a hospital at Healthcare Experience Design Conference in Boston next Monday. I’m considering it my last hurrah in healthcare, at least for awhile! Do come out and hear what I have to say, and we can argue and debate about it afterward.
By the way, I’ll be keeping this blog, but will probably rename it eventually. Everything I’ve written about my journey in healthcare will still be here for others who want to take the dive and who want an excerpt of challenges they may face in this brave new world – and to those designers, I say you should definitely do it, the experience is worth it.