GE transforms MRI experience with design thinking

August 18, 2015 The Architech Team

Doug Dietz had built a beautiful machine. For more than 20 years, the principal designer at GE Healthcare poured his talents into creating the MRI and CT scanners that help doctors save millions of lives each year by giving them a window into the human body. His latest model gave him particular pride – it was his best yet. In his excitement, Doug headed down to a local hospital that had recently acquired one of his scanners to watch his masterpiece in action.

That’s when his creative bubble burst.

MRI machine

Above: View of a traditional MRI

A young girl walked into the room, both small hands clutching the larger hands of her parents. Clad in her cotton hospital gown, she approached the diagnostic imaging machine like a prisoner heading to the gallows. She was clearly terrified. Her parents tried to console her, telling her to be brave, but as soon as the machine began to emit its first loud brawp – the kind of noise that reverberates like a sonic boom to a scared kid – she began to sob. Doug felt like a failure. In all the hours he’d spent crafting the ideal design, he never once imagined the user experience of a child.

Suddenly, he could see it from her perspective. As he explained it to The Pulse, GE’s Health, Science, and Technology blog: “Everything was kind of like, beige,” he said, describing what he calls ‘crime scene’ stickers (which tell patients where to go), and the exclamation mark warning sign on the door. “The room itself is kind of dark and has those flickering fluorescent lights,” and he adds, “that machine that I had designed basically looked like a brick with a hole in it.”

A scared child poses a number of challenges for radiologists. As anyone who’s had a scan knows, it’s imperative to keep perfectly still for long periods of time during an MRI, which is hard enough when you’re an adult. An anxious kid will naturally fidget or, in many cases, be unable to complete the full procedure. Up to 80 per cent of pediatric patients have to be sedated before entering the machine, according to Tom and David Kelley, who write about the GE case study in their book, Creative Confidence. If the anesthesiologist is unavailable at that time, the procedure often gets rescheduled.

For the first time, Doug went back to the drawing board and knew his old, tried and true methods wouldn’t cut it. Around the same time, he began to look into an emerging field called design thinking, a method that seeks practical, creative solutions to user-generated problems. He signed up for the executive education program at the Institute of Design at Stanford, an innovation hub considered one of the top places in the world for collaborative problem solving.

At Stanford, he learned how to ask the right questions of the actual users before anticipating his design, how to map a customer journey from the beginning to the end of their experience, identify the “pain points,” and from these insights, brainstorm the best way to improve the overall experience for everyone involved, a process that ultimately refines and optimizes the finished product.

He also took a number of these questions to child life experts, including the Children’s Museum of Milwaukee, where he got a much broader and deeper understanding of how a child responds to their surroundings. “Children really rely on their senses to understand the world,” says the Museum’s director, Fern Shupeck, who was pleased to be able to contribute to such a great project.

For a child, a hospital is a scary, industrial place full of sick, suffering people and as far from the comfort of home as it gets. There’s the anticipation of pain and the isolation of the procedures. “If we want better outcomes from children,” Fern adds, “it’s in our hands to figure out how to meet their needs.”

Doug assembled a team to do just that. They sketched out some preliminary ideas, envisioning a set-up that would appeal to different childhood interests: mini adventures like an underwater dive with sharks, scuba hippos, pirates, and high-tech gear or a colourful space motif with smiling animals donning NASA-grade helmets. One room could feature a spinning disco ball, music, and even aromatherapy. Each machine now had the potential to become a vehicle into another world instead of a loud, intimidating monster.


Above and below: the new MRI machines after a design thinking approach

Throughout the design thinking process, Doug continually channelled his users’ thoughts and experiences. “I always kept in my mind that frightened child that was going through cancer or was having some problems going through their scan. That is such a tough thing for a little one,” he says.

Not surprisingly, the response has been positive from the top down. Doctors and hospital administrators at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where GE rolled out their pilot version of the project, are thrilled with the experiential difference. And while it’s doubtful any six-year-old would choose a CT scan over a day at the park, young patients are notably engaged and more relaxed when entering the room. Some even express a desire to come back the next day. Patient satisfaction scores shot up to 90 per cent, while sedation rates decreased dramatically, a shift which has allowed the hospital to fit in more scans per day and treat more patients.


The power of design thinking is in everyone’s hands. Like Doug, already a gifted, experienced designer, it’s just a matter of adding the tools to your cache to advance everything from best business practices to government to social organization.



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