Using immersion in the hospital environment to identify innovation opportunities | PDD

Using immersion in the hospital environment to identify innovation opportunities


on February 7 2013

A global medical device company recently approached PDD with a request to identify product innovation opportunities*. Our human-centred approach for such projects typically involves full immersion in the environment of the user and this project was no different. In this post, I will share some of my experiences of working in the hospital environment, the techniques used, and just generally what I enjoyed from my time in the field.

*(Note: to protect the identity of the client, the clinical space and product are kept purposely vague in this post).

In my role at PDD, I get involved in a lot of medical projects, mainly because of my experience in designing a variety of medical devices, but also because I am simply passionate about improving healthcare and medical products. In partnership with the client company, we designed a research protocol that would take me to hospitals across Europe and the United States. This was great because it allowed me to work in a variety of languages I am fluent in and thus better connect with users and stakeholders. Interestingly, I didn’t expect that my expertise on the British Royal family and in particular “The Baby” would be tested so many times, but I’ll get back to that later.

While I am an engineer by training, I have always enjoyed and relished project phases in which I can immerse myself in a user’s environment. This project gave me extended exposure to the user and the product: I spent weeks in hospitals, talking to doctors, nurses, technicians and administrative staff, as well as observing procedures, and it really allowed me to get a better feeling for how this particular product is used and what drives this particular class of doctors. I can definitely say that there are some similarities across medical specialities in the hospital and many of them due to the particularities of the hospital as a working environment. However, each clinical speciality also has its own culture: personalities of orthopaedic surgeons and neurosurgeons, for example, are typically quite different! Of course, each product will also have specific features that lead to different use patterns, and there is no better way to identify these patterns than by spending time with the user and seeing them in action.

Image credit: PDD, Featured image credit: Phalinn via Flickr
That’s me, scrubbed up and looking serious.

Image credit: PDD
No shortage of coffee in this nurses’ common room – note the scale of the box to the jam jar!

As I mentioned previously, communication with stakeholders is a key component of opportunity discovery programmes. While some insights can be gained from observation alone, conversations – formal, or actually more frequently, informal, while grabbing a coffee or a sandwich – are an important means for identifying opportunities. I am French-German but also speak English and Spanish, so this project was a perfect fit: With research sites in France, Germany, Spain and the US, I was able to ask questions in the local language and thus had access to all staff, not just the anglophiles. Speaking the local language, unsurprisingly, really helped to put interviewees at ease, and it actually led to a lot of softer insights relating to the product and its packaging, as well as the touch points with the client company’s sales and customer support team.

In preparing for the research, our team had identified all the key stakeholders in the hospital that are relevant for this product and procedure. We also reached out to key opinion leaders for insights and opinions on current trends in the field (key opinion leaders, or KOLs, are high visibility doctors who tend to influence clinical practice and are respected in the clinical community). To guide interviews, we put together questions that we felt may be particularly relevant to potential areas of opportunity. Of course, before having done the research, this can only be a best guess, and questions and focus areas for the research were refined as we learned more about the product and its use.

Image credit: Johns Hopkins Hospital

The stunning exterior of the recently completed Sheikh Zayed Tower at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, one of our research sites.

As long as participants agreed to it, we used as much photography and video as possible. This is really useful for two reasons: 1) it allows for revisiting a moment that seemed interesting (maybe in order to focus on a member of staff’s body posture, or hand movement, if ergonomics are an area for innovation), and 2) it is a great way to share an insight with the client company. It’s very satisfying to show a picture or video in which a user struggles with a certain aspect of the client’s product and see the faces of the client team change as they realise this is something that can be improved. Indeed, seeing problems as opportunities is the right frame of mind for such a research programme, as the findings provide the information needed to make informed decisions on future developments.

So what about the baby? Quite possibly I was the last one to find this out, but Americans are seriously obsessed with the British Royal family. As a result, in literally every hospital that I visited, staff would ask me about the happy event and were somewhat disappointed when I couldn’t impress with nuggets of knowledge I am privy to due to me being a resident of this island. Fortunately, our client didn’t care much about our qualifications in this domain. Rather, they wanted to know what we had found out, and after weeks spent immersed in the hospital, we could comfortably point them to a range of innovation opportunities that we had identified which will soon form the basis for a completely new development programme. Happy times!