Insanely Great Health Technology – Ideas for Developing It!

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Insanely Great Health Technology – Ideas for Developing It!

IDEOMike Allen on designing great health technology solutions:    “IDEO, a leading high-tech innovation and design firm, shares proven ideas with medical technology leaders at HTF August session.”

Last week, 140+ entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, executives and engineers attended a presentation in San Francisco by Dennis Boyle, founding partner and head of the healthcare practice at IDEO, a leading Silicon Valley design firm.   Sponsored by the Health Technology Forum, Boyle’s presentation addressed the holy grail of medical software and product developers – “how do we design healthcare solutions that people will really use?”  

IDEO helped Apple design the 1st commercial mouse

IDEO helped Apple design the 1st commercial mouse

IDEO has developed their design thinking process through thousands of projects such as helping Apple’s Steve Jobs design the first computer mouse.  More recently, they helped a national non-profit coalition design a consumer health insurance enrollment experience (click here for more information).

They now have over 400 employees operating in offices around the world.  Although IDEO’s practice goes beyond software and healthcare, their process has broad applicability to medical professionals and others seeking to use new technologies to improve the delivery of healthcare.

According to Boyle, design thinking moves through three phases – inspiration, ideation and implementation.

Inspiration starts with empathy and an open state of mind.  For instance, in an assignment for a major hospital, IDEO team members were anonymously checked in as patients.  What an experience!  Several team members were left for hours on gurneys in hallways with no explanation.  Requests for special meals and and call buttons were ignored.  Nurses and doctors popped into the patient’s room, took tests, read charts and conferred with each other without ever acknowledging the patient.  Based on the feedback from this experience, the IDEO team worked with senior hospital staff to make major changes.

Boyle suggests that managers taking “walk-throughs” should adopt the mindset that they are visiting a foreign country.   When watching people work, cultivate responses like “interesting“,   “wow, look at what they are doing”.   Also, he insists that his team observe the extreme users.  Watching the very best and the very worst will often help to clearly identify problems and possible solutions.

His IDEO teams are also trained to be on the lookout for workarounds.  For instance, while watching a grandmother implement a medication routine, an IDEO team noted that she had solved the problem of difficult-to-open pill bottles by using her electric meat slicer to chop off the tops.  Ouch!  Dangerous, too!  This led to a re-design of the bottles for weak, arthritic hands.   A more typical situation is finding reminders and instructions on post-it notes. which is often a tell-tale sign that a process is not intuitive.

Ideation is the start of developing a solution.  Boyle advocates aggressive brainstorming with teams that “get along, but not too well”.  A little friction is a good thing.  Also, since human beings naturally gravitate towards a consensus, the IDEO process calls for pushing the team to generate crazy ideas that can’t possibly work and building on them to develop a range of out-of-the-box ideas.  His mantra is “defer convergent thinking; focus on divergent ideas”.

In a brief exercise conducted by Boyle with the San Francisco audience, a group brainstormed ways to increase traffic at the San Francisco Zoo and came up with the idea of having people pay to be locked up in the animal cages.  Crazy, right?  However, this “crazy” line of thinking led to several more practical suggestions including “behind the scenes tours” and “spend a day with a zookeeper”.

Another way to generate new ideas is to observe analogous situations.  While working with a hospital to re-think surgical workflows, IDEO had the surgical team analyze another process requiring high pressure teamwork – a NASCAR crew changing a tire and re-fueling a race car.

In the implementation stage, start with open ended questions.  How might we?  What if? How will this be done in the future?   Then, once you have an idea, go quickly to developing story boards or even a rough video showing how the new process might work.  This lets you quickly prototype a number of simple ideas which helps generate follow-on ideas and develop requirements for system design.

For instance, at Kaiser Permanente, new mothers indicated that discharge from the maternity unit was a confusing process.  Working with IDEO they developed the Perinatal Journey Home process which provides visual communication board to provide a clear view of what needs to be done at the hospital before new mothers can be discharged.

IDEO’s process provides a great starting point for developing great medical technology.  Start with empathy, act like you are visiting a foreign country, push for divergent ideas and develop stories and illustrations to prototype your ideas.  Add a little luck and good engineering, financing and promotion and you will make a major contribution to better health.

New and Notable
Pronoy Saha, the founder of Health Technology Forum briefed the group on the expansion to a total of 13 markets and updated us on recent events in Manila, Bangalore, and London. He noted that that HTF mission is global and that all chapters promote healthcare innovation by  encouraging information sharing, discussion and lively debates among physicians, technologists, entreprenuers, academics, funders, government officials and NGOs.
Jetta DeNend of the United States Commerce Department gave a brief overview of how US trade offices around the world help US companies selling their products and services in global markets.  For more information, see the Commerce Department’s San Franciso website at:


By Mike Allen, President – Mobile Health Marketplace LLC

Pronoy is the Organizer and Founder of Health Technology Forum (HTF), a socially responsible organization promoting technology access and adoption to bring better healthcare to the masses. He is an advisor, board member, and has founded companies in the health 2.0 space. Pronoy has 20 years experience in technology, most recently in the healthcare, mobile, and service provider marketplaces. Pronoy held senior management positions in large conglomerates as well as startup companies. Pronoy earned his BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington and Master’s of Business Administration from the University of San Francisco.
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