Why Meaning Matters in Healthcare Design

January 24  

When considering the priorities of design for healthcare it can be easy to see functional performance, clinical approval and the realities and practicalities of procurement as ‘all’, and of course, they are vital. But the meanings embedded in these objects, experiences and interactions can have huge implications on uptake, adherence and usage as well as functional and practical performance.

A meaning-centered approach demands that we hear the unspoken and observe what is so often unseen. In healthcare it’s especially important to stretch beyond preconceptions and paradigms that may be driven by function, clinical best practice or theory. Instead, we need to understand individuals based upon their own realities, how they make sense of their world and their condition, and the complexities and context of their individual experience.  Our customers are practitioners and patients who may be in the early days of diagnosis and treatment, in the long-term management of an ongoing condition, or facing the realities of a final hope.  To them meaning matters.

Understandably there is often discomfort in the direct association with a diagnosis or disease. Condition management is commonly a very private affair, hidden from colleagues and acquaintances. Even the current discourse surrounding Covid-19 and the labelling and discussion of the ‘vulnerable’, ‘at risk’ and those with ‘comorbidities’ shows why meaning holds so much importance. Simple, invisible, sometimes hidden conditions have very suddenly created huge shifts and divisions in society and dramatic changes in behaviors and feelings of safety.

The power of meaning centered design is in understanding the complexities of both the cultural discourses and the visual cues. Understanding where individuals are looking for assistance and support and where they want to celebrate independence and freedom. Where the paraphernalia of healthcare should reassure and be seen, and where it needs to recede. Where it needs to signal its vital importance, and where it needs to downplay its seriousness and reduce stigma. These are not simple decisions, but an understanding of the complexity of meaning can help make a device, brand eco-system, service or experience mirror the needs of a patient or practitioner that go beyond function and performance.

Compliance and correct usage of healthcare devices and treatments are key when considering efficacy. A meaning centered approach helped ensure both when designing the device, packaging and training materials for the breath-triggered asthma inhaler k-haler®. Exploring the cultural meanings around breathing and long-term condition management we were able to signify and support power, control and agency for patients across the designed objects and interactions. Through visual and discursive analysis, observation and iterative testing, we were able to encode meaning cues that dramatically improve adherence of their device – a teenage patient even tweeted about the empowerment the new inhaler made them feel.

The understanding of meaning can also support the signaling of expertise and the importance and accuracy of process. For Circassia’s gold standard NIOX VERO® diagnostic device and supporting material, it was important to signify its class-leading accuracy at every touchpoint. This communicated the value of thorough diagnostic process to both healthcare practitioners and patients, with resonance across markets from the US and Europe to Asia Pacific.

Meaning centered design can even support the process of clinical development and approval. In our pain management work, these methodologies ensure intuitive understanding with clarity and simplicity in training manuals and instructional videos for participants and practitioners in clinical trials. It can also bolster marketing stories to significantly improve investor decks, helping to secure critical investment.

In other cases, the importance of meaning has been about providing support and reassurance for patients between visits with their healthcare practitioner. For Sanofi, it has been important to create a sense of dialogue and tangible response between the patient, the daily data they are collecting, their healthcare practitioner, and the adjustment of their treatment protocol. We discuss the importance and opportunities for more empathetic approaches in our article ‘Empathetic AI: Can AI go beyond data collection?’

As society transitions to a world where more and more of our health and wellness is managed at home, both through choice and necessity, how does this change the meaning of healthcare design?  It’s important to consider what these changes mean to you and how they affect your organization and product pipeline.

There will no doubt be a fine balance to achieve. We will require reassurance of superior, clinical and trustworthy performance while allowing for a seamless integration with our own curated environments and lifestyle choices. Responsive, connected technologies and AI will have a role to play but they will need to amplify or recede to align with our changing needs and contexts. And of course, they will need to allow for human warmth and expertise in the interactions between patients and practitioners. But most of all they will need to adapt to the shifting and layered meanings of importance to individuals within the healthcare system.

So yes, function, clinical review and validation are vital, but the importance of meaning in healthcare should not be underestimated nor its ability to enhance the functional performance and efficacy of healthcare design.

Do you want to understand how people think about, perceive, and understand what you stand for and what you have to offer? Do you want to develop powerful experiences that add value in people’s lives?

To do this, you must go beyond preconceptions and paradigms to address the more subtle, deeper meanings that really matter. 

A Meaning Centered Design Assessment can help you understand its current position within your organization. It takes just 5 minutes to complete and can give you expert results and recommendations instantly.

This interactive online tool can be accessed here.

As much as the world is changing around us, there are fundamental needs and principles that will always remain. Our core values as humans, the value of our health and what this means to us all.

About Recipe Design

Recipe Design delivers Meaning Centered Design solutions for clients such as Sanofi, Kohler, Braun, Galderma and Mundipharma. www.recipe-design.com

Everything we do is focused on what things mean to people and why these meanings matter.

Our world-class team has pioneered the use of semiotics and cultural analysis as integral to the design and NPD process for over 15 years. Blending insight, strategy and creativity allows us to see the opportunities, express them with clarity and bring them to life through design.

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