Human-Centred Design in Healthcare

‘Human-Centred Design’ might sound like a new trend a graphic designer with a man-bun is peddling - but the reality couldn’t be more different.
Arthur Ong
January 29, 2021
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4 min read


The overarching aim of this fancy-sounding approach to developing new products is really quite simple - it aims to take the view of the people who are going to be affected by whatever it is you’re designing.

We talked to our Strategic Designer and human-centred design expert, Irith Williams, to get her take on why human-centred design is so important in healthcare.

What is ‘design thinking’ in Human-Centred Design? 


In human-centred design, ‘design thinking’ is a mindset and toolset that attempts to answer the questions:

  1. What is the risk that the intended users will not want to use this?
  2. What is the risk that the intended users will not be able to use this?
  3. Who are the people who will need to interact with this? 
  4. Will all of those people want to use this?
  5. Will all of those people be able to use this?


These questions address the end users (and other relevant people’s) points of view about:

  1. What is the right thing to design?
  2. How do we design it right?


This process, which Irith explains as the ‘double diamond’ approach, follows a ‘divergent’ and ‘convergent’ pattern of activities to collect, analyse and iterate from data at each phase. 

Source: UK Design Council, Designforhealth.org


This is the core mindset of human-centred design. We use ‘human-centred design’ to explicitly commit to understanding the needs of the end user and beyond, to everyone impacted by a design.

Why is Human Centred Design important in healthcare?


Irith considers it worth noting from the get-go, that human-centred design is universally important and not just limited to use in the healthcare arena - every product or service should consider humans first and balance the needs of real people with project priorities.

But in the world of digital technology, “it is arguably even more important to consider the ergonomics of how users interact with digital products and services that exist to improve health outcomes,” Irith explains.

A design story


Consider that the first printing press was created 600 years ago. Since then, we’ve continually iterated on printing technology by:

  • Learning what typefaces are easy to read
  • Identifying what line lengths are easy and harder to work with
  • Comparing colours, contrast, the weight of paper, size of books

Meanwhile, the world wide web is only 25 years old!

“Not only are the technicalities and ergonomics not well understood, but neither is the behaviour of people who engage with technology,” Irith stresses.

She adds that, layered on top of this, is the fact that “healthcare is a highly complex, risk intensive and sensitive area - which is why I consider human-centred design a critical methodology... to get as deep an understanding as possible of the real-world impacts of health technology.”

A (slowly) growing industry


As is often the case, Australia is lagging behind in this critical area.

Experience-Based Co-Design (EBCD), pioneered by the UK’s NHS, has been applied widely in the UK and New Zealand but the EBCD case studies in Australia are rare and ad hoc.

In other parts of the world, like the US, funding models and maturity of understanding more broadly support human-centred design and UX research.

And while institutions are yet to formally recognise the benefits of the human-centred design process, healthcare stakeholders are discovering it for themselves. 

Irith notes that “while Australia doesn't have the same level of human-centred design built into the delivery of digital healthcare as other countries, there are still some fantastic healthcare professionals who use the process to their advantage, despite being largely isolated in their efforts.”

Applying human-centred design to your work as a healthcare professional


If you’re a healthcare provider or practitioner looking to incorporate human-centred design into your work, the good news is that a lot of what we call ‘design thinking’ is actually common sense, and you might already be doing it without realising the label!

Irith considers that the core tenets of design thinking are:

  • To identify your assumptions
  • To look for ways to test assumptions
  • To be prepared to change your design, depending on the ‘real world’ answers you get to these questions

and to repeatedly ask yourself:

  • who is going to be using this thing that I’m building?
  • who is going to be affected by it?
  • what is their point-of-view of the problem I’m trying to solve?
  • what might success look like for them? (Often a clinician's view of success may be different from a patient's view of success.)

Where to learn more about human-centred design in healthcare


If you’re not lucky enough to have access to your own human-centred design expert, like we are, the good news is that the internet is a wonderful place full of many free resources but some great places to start when it comes to design thinking in healthcare.

Irith’s suggestions of where to start on your human-centred design journey include: 


Additional resource: Designing for Health in Australasia - LinkedIn


In 2012 Irith was hired to work on a health project for Alfred Health. The more she became embedded in the project and understood the view of clinicians, researchers and social workers, the less useful she found accepted UX wisdom/advice.

Best practice from prior corporate experiences couldn’t translate directly into health and so, in order to start a conversation that included designers, clinicians, patients and healthcare stakeholders, she created the Designing for Health LinkedIn Group to foster discussion about what good design might look like in healthcare. 

A member-run group, 485 health and technology professionals now conduct regular conversations about design practice in healthcare - and she’d love for you to join!

Ready to change the world?

If you’ve got a healthcare idea you’re ready to bring to life, get in touch today - we can’t wait to help you make it a reality.
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