Design thinking with empathy creates human-centred solutions

July 23, 2015 Ramy Nassar

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has a bloody problem.

Admittedly, that sounds dramatic, but the situation really is quite serious. The publicly-funded health care provider is struggling to attract blood donorship from its minority populations around London.

Of the 1.5 million Brits who give blood each year, under five per cent come from ethnic minorities – those of Indian, South Asian, and African descent.

While this doesn’t sound like an issue (after all, that’s still a lot of blood in the bank) it’s important to note that the closer the genetic similarities, the more effective the blood match. For example, a man of Egyptian Arab descent with A-positive blood can successfully receive a transfusion from another A-positive blood type, but he’ll have optimal success with A-positive blood from another Egyptian Arab donor.

Based on the stats, it’s clear there’s something holding back certain communities from giving blood. How could the NHS launch a strategic campaign to identify those roadblocks and develop user empathy-based solutions?

This is the problem they brought to us during the Design Thinkers Bootcamp I attended  in London in June. For the uninitiated, design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem solving that probes its users’ direct needs in order to find technically feasible solutions that optimize provider and user value. In broader terms, design thinking can be described as a set of tools and methodologies that, when brought together, have the potential to inspire the designer mindset in each of us.

What this ultimately boils down to, however, is a ton of fieldwork. It means going out on the streets, into communities, into small businesses and public parks, and getting to know the people you’re trying to serve. It means asking them questions about where they work, where they spend their time, who’s important to them? It means establishing trust before getting into more personal questions, like what’s holding them back from donating blood. It means having enough empathy to pay attention to what they’re truly saying and imagining how these services will affect their daily lives.

What it doesn’t mean: Cherry-picking demographic stereotypes from high up in corporate HQ to decide what you think your customer wants.

So off we headed toward central London to ask a lot of questions. In one afternoon, we farmed out into two communities with a high concentration of minority residents: Elephant & Castle and Tooting, a neighbourhood near Charing Cross. We spent time in restaurants, real estate offices, markets, and dry cleaners simply talking to people and listening to what they said.

Based on those conversations, we were able to identify one of the main culprits behind low donor turnout: misinformation. Many residents believed they were too old to give blood. A few were even concerned they smoked too much. Mostly, it wasn’t even on their radar.

We took our field research back to the lab and broke off into five groups. Each group developed its own persona – a hybrid of several people we met in the community. For each persona, we built a backstory, created a family, and identified what motivates them. We would then use these personas to engage in the ideation phase of the service design process.

My team created a persona named Lamar, a 46-year-old London resident originally from Nassau. Lamar was loosely based on an individual we met that day who literally took me by the hand to introduce my team to all the people we “needed to know” in his neighbourhood. He was what you could call a “low-tech social butterfly” – a well-connected person whose joy came from knowing everyone in real life, not on Twitter. I summed him up by the quote: “Let me introduce you to…”

After we created Lamar’s persona, we moved to Customer Journey Mapping, a tool that covers all the opportunities to improve a customer’s individual experience. During this phase, we figured out all the major stages in Lamar’s journey to donate blood – from the day-to-day reality of his life in the community to the moment he makes a decision to enter the mobile donor clinic.

Based on an understanding of this journey, we worked through the ideation phase to come up with conceptual service solutions, which we would ultimately prototype and test. Our solution was based on the idea of person-to-person gratitude, instituting a volunteer recognition program, and prompting donors to consider pre-booking subsequent donations. Ultimately, our solution ended up winning the competition and NHS is now evaluating the solution in its outreach models.

If you’re keen on digging deeper into this kind of human-centred approach, feel free to get in touch with us. We'd love to work with you on discovering how your empathy can drive concepts and products that have the potential to impact countless lives.


About the Author

Ramy Nassar

As Managing Director, Ramy focuses on promoting Service Design -- working with internal teams and clients to create innovative and differentiated customer experiences. Operating at the intersection of Service Design and the Internet of Things, Ramy pushes the boundaries of how technology can integrate with everyday experiences.

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