News  |  August 29, 2017

As public health departments invest in modernization and improving outcomes in their communities, public health officials must implement an intentional process that guides their department towards public health innovation. To accomplish this, departments need to practice design thinking with their teams, but how do you bring design thinking to public health? Before we can answer this question, perhaps we should start by defining design thinking.

If you Google the term, you’ll get over 48 million hits. I doubt you want to wade through that many websites, so I’m going to discuss design thinking using the work of IDEO, one of the world’s leading design consulting firms. But first, consider a scenario many of us have been through.

How many times have you done the following?

You come up with a good idea for a health department program or service. “Hey,” you say, “we need a program for xyz.” Then you find a foundation that funds ‘xyz’, you put in a proposal, and get funded. Then you create the program and get it started, taking several months just to get going. All without talking to those you’ll target and finding out if they even wanted the new program in the first place.

Now, I’ll get back to my original question. Design thinking is an exploratory process that is open-ended, open-minded, and iterative. It is a system that has you fall in love with the problem, not a pre-determined solution.

Falling in love with the problem

The fact of the matter is that design thinking in public health is custom made for developing innovations in public health. It’s a human-centered approach in which you collect and test solutions that benefit the customer that the program or service is targeting. You find out – through conversation and observation – what they want and need, and helps them uncover the true root of a problem and clearly define the challenge at hand.

Design thinking in public health has three main components – to inspire, to ideate and to implement.

  • To inspire is to gain insights from the lives of others through what they say or don’t say, and do or don’t do. In this phase, you gain empathy for the problems and needs of others. It’s not about us and them or us versus them but us with them.

  • To ideate is to frame the opportunities and brainstorm ideas. As I mentioned, design thinking focuses on the problem and on determining what the real problem is. After working through to end up with the real issue, you move on to tossing out as many solutions and ideas as possible. It involves a new way to think about brainstorming. A lot of times when brainstorming, our team will get caught up in analyzing some idea ad nauseam, instead of letting an idea lead to more ideas. In design thinking, you work in teams (it’s very collaborative, by the way) to develop multiple possibilities, even wild ideas, where you seek the best answer, not necessarily the “right” answer. Too often our current process of brainstorming is where innovative ideas go to die.

  • To implement is to experiment with possible solutions, testing them and being willing to fail. During this phase, you work through all those potential answers to select one at a time to test. You develop a way to do a small test of the solution or idea by prototyping or “thinking with your hands”. A prototype is anything tangible that lets you explore an idea. This doesn’t necessarily create a working model, it gives you a way to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the idea and provides a way to advance – either with the selected solution or a new one.

Why you should care about design thinking

So, why should you even care about design thinking and why would you want to use it in public health? It is an interdisciplinary process that, when allowed, fosters seemingly unlimited creativity across silos leading to innovation. It uses your imagination, new insights, and inspiration to explore new possibilities that you haven’t considered before.

Even better, a design thinking approach allows you to consider new possibilities that you may have discarded before and decided wouldn’t work. Just think of what we can do when we unleash that creativity and innovation, seeing innovation in our health departments as a way of doing business and the way to public health modernization, improving the health of everyone we serve.

Tim Brown, in his book Change by Design, from which this article is based, gives the concept that cubicle-sized ideas produce cubicle-sized solutions. Now, I know that we in public health have ideas that can’t be contained in a cubicle. Together, we need to explore, experiment, fail, and end up designing solutions that are wild, bold, and innovative.

If you’d like more information about design thinking in public health, contact us at PHNCI. We’d be excited to share more with you.