Mar 28, 2019

3 min read

The importance of design’s bedside manner

We know that well-designed products, environments, and services have a positive effect on our wellbeing. Yet we have all experienced healthcare products and medical devices that are cold, emotionless and difficult to use. So why aren’t all things designed for health beautiful, emotionally rewarding and intuitive? After all an important quality of any caregiver, a nurse or doctor, parent or family member is warmth, compassion, and empathy. Someone who’s there with you, to hold you and comfort you, give you peace of mind and lift your spirits when you are low. These qualities are those we must look for in designing for health.

The trend in contemporary medical practice is to empower the individual, placing the patient and/or the career are at the center of healthcare decisions. As a patient we are consulted by professionals, we research our own health, expected to take responsibility and make our own decisions. Knowledge and responsibility have become distributed beyond just the medic and the hospital. As such, the design of new technologies are becoming more user-friendly, focused on personalised care, enhancing our connection to professional healthcare at home. 

Old design wisdom is form follows function. That being; what a product, piece of communication, furniture or environment looks like is informed by the hard realities it is used for. However, us humans are a little more complex than the idea allows. Our lives aren’t defined in binary ways like the kettle in our kitchen; on or off. We aren’t happy or sad, well or unwell, rather we are many things in between, and at the same time. Design’s ‘form follows function’ approach to healthcare has resulted in generations of objects, information and environments, intended to make us healthy but with a myopic attention to the conditions they are intended to improve. Our mental and social health often not a considered ‘function’ of design and therefore not considered as a function of us. 

“You’re using it wrong. You have to use two hands.’ To which a nurse responded, ‘But I don’t have two hands; I need to comfort the patient, I need to hold their hand.”

About 15 years ago a team of designers in North America received feedback on how difficult a medical device they had recently designed was to use during a challenging and painful procedure. A procedure they had investigated in detail and specifically designed a device to improve. After observing how the nurses were using the device the designers quickly realised the problem, it wasn’t the device it was the nurse; ‘You’re using it wrong. You have to use two hands.’ To which a nurse responded, ‘But I don’t have two hands; I need to comfort the patient, I need to hold their hand.’ This is why at the heart of ONiO’s design process we focus on problems and solutions from the hard side of medical science and the soft side of compassion and care; what we call continuous touch.

Medical devices have come a long way from the horror aesthetics of early medicine. The journey to good design has been slow up to now, but today we in an age of ‘design’s bedside manner’. As technology is revolutionising healthcare we are seeing a revolution in how design focuses on our emotional interactions. The design of healthcare technology being centered upon human closeness and the power of touch. Design for healthcare is now a powerful caregiver and as parent, carer or medic we should expect nothing less.

About the author

Tom Morgan

Design Strategist

Tom is the Executive Creative Strategy Director & Partner at ANTI, a Norwegian creative agency. Previously, Tom was a senior design academic and consultant in the UK.

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