Design thinking—a hands-on process for creative problem solving that puts end users at the core—is prevalent among some of the world’s leading organizations. Companies like Apple and Google understand that this human-centred approach to innovation is good for business and the bottom line.

At its core, design thinking is a means to simplify and humanize processes and products to create great user experiences. In tech, that might mean an easy-to use interface, but the process can be applied to almost every sector, including healthcare.

If we think of patients as ‘users’ then it’s easier to understand how design thinking can play a key role in developing patient-centric solutions and improving the patient experience in all areas.

Rather then a top-down approach whereby the system and professionals define and dictate the healthcare journey, design thinking puts patients at the centre when developing everything from treatments to touch points.

For instance, internationally, the average no-show rate for medical appointments is 23%. Numbers vary here in Canada, but according to a piece published by the Canadian Medication Association Journal, it costs the system valuable time and money.

Those who understand the principles of design thinking also understand that problems like this cannot be solved without a deeper understanding of the user experience—if we don’t understand why patients miss appointments (transportation issues, wayfinding signage, communication) we can’t develop an effective fix.

Don Norman, co-founder and Principal Emeritus of Nielsen Norman Group, is member of the National Academy of Engineering, as well as the founder and director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego. While he didn’t invent design thinking (Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon first outlined the principles in The Sciences of the Artificial in 1969), he is largely considered the face of the movement and sums it up like this:

“…the more I pondered the nature of design and reflected on my recent encounters with engineers, business people and others who blindly solved the problems they thought they were facing without question or further study, I realized that these people could benefit from a good dose of design thinking. Designers have developed a number of techniques to avoid being captured by too facile a solution. They take the original problem as a suggestion, not as a final statement, then think broadly about what the real issues underlying this problem statement might really be (for example by using the “Five Whys” approach to get at root causes). Most important of all, is that the process is iterative and expansive. Designers resist the temptation to jump immediately to a solution to the stated problem. Instead, they first spend time determining what the basic, fundamental (root) issue is that needs to be addressed. They don’t try to search for a solution until they have determined the real problem, and even then, instead of solving that problem, they stop to consider a wide range of potential solutions. Only then will they finally converge upon their proposal. This process is called “Design Thinking.”

The five phases of design thinking are:

  1. Empathize – with your users
  2. Define – your users’ needs, their problem, and your insights
  3. Ideate – by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions
  4. Prototype – to start creating solutions
  5. Test – solutions

There are countless ways design thinking can be used to improve healthcare. “Unlike traditional approaches to problem solving, design thinkers take great efforts to understand patients and their experiences before coming up with solutions. This thorough understanding of patients (for example, those who regularly miss appointments) is what guides the rest of the process. And because design thinking involves continuously testing and refining ideas, feedback is sought early and often, especially from patients,” according to a piece in the Harvard Business Review, which outlines a number of refreshing ways the healthcare system is putting design thinking at the centre of innovation and problem-solving.

Major organizations know that the fundamentals of design thinking make good business sense—happy users fuel the sale of products and services. Apple isn’t a market leader by accident, but rather because the company made user experience paramount in the creation of its products services.

In healthcare, it’s widely accepted that better patient experiences lead to better patient outcomes. Treating patients as individuals, understanding their priorities and empowering them to be active stakeholders, steering their healthcare journey, is the foundation of patient-centred care.

The principles of design thinking are the ideal roadmap from which to develop solutions and innovate in the healthcare space. Leaders in healthcare, like leaders in business, understand that empathizing with end users—patients—is a fundamental starting point.