Design thinking



Design thinking isn’t only for products such as the Apple watch. It is a methodology used to improve customer experiences not only with products but also with services. Much in the same way that the SOAP note shaped our thinking about diagnosis and treatment, design thinking provides a scaffold to help us better understand the needs and wants of customers, or in our case, patients.

Design thinking uses specific tools and methodologies to understand experiences from others’ perspectives. From its roots in Silicon Valley, design thinking has grown steadily in its influence. Its first high priests were people such as Steve Jobs and David Kelly, who famously designed the computer mouse. The principles learned or applied to increasingly complicated products and services led to the growth of an entire industry in Palo Alto, Calif., with companies such as IDEO and gurus such as IDEO CEO and President Tim Brown of Stanford (Calif.) University has an entire graduate school program on design thinking called while Coursera offers online courses on design thinking.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

The principles are simple: The better you understand your customers and their needs, the better you can design your services. There are many toolkits that are available for you to try for free. Empathy Mapping is an easy one you could apply to your practice to enhance your patients’ experience.

The idea behind this technique is to immerse yourself in your patient’s world. Pick a time when your practice is closed. Then take a journey through your office as if you were a patient. It’s important that you keep the experience as close to reality as possible. Start before you even arrive at your office. What is the experience like driving to your office? Do patients have to fight traffic to get to you? Is parking easy to find? How far must they walk from their car to get to your office? What is your check-in process like? Are patients greeted by name? Are they first handed paperwork to complete? Or are they introduced and warmly welcomed to your practice first?

What’s the experience like in the waiting room? Take note of not only what your patients see but also what they hear, smell, touch, and say. What experience does your furniture give patients? What type of magazines are available to them? Do you have Wi-Fi? Is there a television? If so, is it showing simply an advertisement, or is it something that your patients would connect with? Is there music playing?

Using the same process, continue your journey through an entire patient visit. Make note of what the experience is like walking back to your exam rooms. What do your patients see and smell while sitting in an exam room waiting for you? Does it smell of isopropyl alcohol? Is it cold or hot? What’s it like to sit in your room wearing nothing but a patient gown? Are there instruments such as cryo guns that could be intimidating to patients? All of these factors can be modified and thus “designed” to optimize the experience for your patients. Continue this journey including a physical exam and discussion with the doctor and other providers and assistants.

This is a great exercise not only for you but more importantly for your staff. Ask your staff to take notes as they walk through the same empathy mapping journey. It will give them an entirely new and valuable perspective on what it’s like to be a patient in your office. Once you’ve completed your empathy mapping, sit with your team and brainstorm about opportunities to improve the experience for your patients. Ask yourselves what things surprised you. What things do you feel could have the largest impact on your patients’ experience in your office? In what ways can you modify the spaces in your office to optimize your patients’ experience?

Having done this exercise in my own clinic, I found it highly impactful. It gave me a deeper understanding of and appreciation for my patients and caused me to make several minor but important changes in my exam room and to my and my staff’s interactions with patients. I hope you have a similarly informative experience.

If you’re interested in learning more about design thinking, then check out the following books and articles:

• “Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organization and Inspires Innovation,” by Tim Brown (New York: Harper Business, 2009).

• “The Art of Innovation,” by Tom Kelley (New York: A Currency Book, Doubleday, Random House, 2001).


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