User Research – Product and Service Innovation: An interview with Sean Hughes, Vice President and Chief Design Officer Healthcare at Philips Design

The aim of User Research – Product and Service Innovation series of interviews is to act as a source of inspiration and information about the role of user research. We have just started working on the series of interviews and if you would like to be interviewed please do not hesitate to contact Richard Linington.

Hi Sean could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Philips Design for Healthcare?
I studied in England but I haven’t worked in the UK since I left the Royal College of Art and I have had the opportunity to work in Holland, Asia (Hong Kong) and now I am here in the US. I have been with Philips the whole time, so 21 years this year. I am now leading the healthcare design team globally having worked in our consumer lifestyle business, lighting business and I also ran our design consulting practice. I think I have seen the company from the bottom to the top and I’ve seen Philips Design grow in terms of our role, relationship and importance to the company.

Image kindly provided by Philips

We have six healthcare design studios around the world from Seattle to Shanghai with the headquarters of the business in Andover, Massachusetts. I report to the leadership of healthcare as the executive lead for the design function.

We work with all of the different business functions. Philips has a product portfolio which stretches from making masks for people with sleep apnoea to imaging systems like MR and CT scanners as well as infomatics software and patient monitoring devices.

Image kindly provided by Philips

Could you provide an overview of the design process you use on healthcare projects to move from identifying and defining the opportunity through to the development of products and services?
We are organised as an in-house design consultancy and we get engaged as consultants within all of the individual business units and business lines. So, for example, there will be a business line for ultrasound and they will then engage us as consultants to help them make the next generation of ultrasound products.

The way we do that is that we have a very typical sort of design approach which has a number of phases. There is a research phase, concept phase, development phase and finalisation phase and in those different phases we will bring different capabilities to the table depending on the types of projects we are doing. The projects we work on will be anything from a piece of product design through to marketing communications and architect interior design solutions. I have about six or seven core capabilities in the design team and we pull them together in a multi-disciplinary team to work on a specific project.

Every project generally has a global nature because typically a business might have its headquarters in Seattle, its manufacturing in Shanghai and its most important market might be Germany.

What role does user research play in the design and development of products and services at Philips Design for Healthcare?
That (user research) plays a very important role for us, especially in the healthcare space. If you don’t really understand the context of use it is going to be very difficult to develop a meaningful solution. So for us we call user research ‘people research’.

The business unit would do the quantitative research – they will find out how big the market is. What we (the design team) try and focus on is more the qualitative research where we do the smaller-scale research with end users and other stakeholders in the project. For most projects we will have a people research component and at the beginning is the research phase of the project.

A typical example of our work is a project to look at a home healthcare device that would be worn by people who have suffered a heart attack. They have been discharged from hospital and we want to monitor them at home to make sure the condition isn’t going to reoccur. In order to do that we send our people researchers into the homes of the typical user profile. We don’t present them with the device – we want to understand how they live, how this would fit into their daily rituals, understand things they are using from a medical perspective just to get a very broad view of how they are living and maybe how our device would need to fit into their life in order for it to work effectively for them. Then having done that we ideate and develop concepts and we may show the participants variations of how this device could work for them. They may be cardboard mock ups or paper mock ups – just rough prototyping to gather feedback. Does this work for you? Is this going to be inconvenient or is it going to be really easy to use? So we get some feedback which we use in the concept development stage to improve our thinking.

What is very important is that we try to send two people – a product designer and a user researcher. We don’t want to send more than two people. I think that becomes overwhelming to the end user. Sometimes we have asked people to keep a diary and that’s acted as a very interesting prompt. Photography and video – video assets are always very important. I think letting people describe and demonstrate how they may or may not be using our current device or they might think about using or configuring a future device.

Do you face any particular challenges when carrying out user research?
I think the challenge is generally finding and recruiting the people to do it. I think the other thing you need to be careful of in the healthcare space is privacy, especially if you take photographs. You have to be very careful with document handling and privacy.

In most cases when we have found somebody who is willing to participate they have generally been very happy and actually really pleased that someone is coming and asking their opinion. They feel that their input is valuable and indirectly they are helping some other people who in the future may have the same condition.

How do you integrate the design and user research teams at Philips Design for Healthcare?
As the design function in healthcare we have multiple capabilities so I have got people research, product design, user interface design, communication design, usability engineering and testing and architecture and patient experience design capabilities. They are my six core capabilities on most projects. If we are working on an interior design project for a hospital then our people researcher will be part of that project along with the patient experience designer. They will be part of that team. They will help conceive the concept.

Image kindly provided by Philips

The people research is very visual. The research produces hundreds of pictures and we have found the tool Prezi to be quite useful for communicating the learnings of our people research. It doesn’t have to be a straight line story anymore. We have institutionalised this tool within the company which we call Experience Flow – we will always try and analyse the problem from a minimum of three perspectives in the healthcare space because you have got the patient, you have got the care provider and the institution that is charged with delivering the care. What we are very good at doing as a design function and designers is to get all of that in a visual way that is understood by the project team and then make trade-offs we are happy with.

Once a year we have what we call the Design Dialogue where I bring the creative directors the leaders from all of the studios from around the world together. We come together and share best practices and learning from all of the projects we are doing.

Sean, perhaps we could end on something about the future areas for innovation in the healthcare sector?
We need more systems thinking as in the past healthcare has been a very much silo’d business and more and more we need to glue the dots together. We are moving to be a more solutions orientated company than individual products. You still need to have the products themselves – but the proposition is more how you make them work together in the healthcare delivery system.

The whole area of what we used to call tele-medicine hasn’t really taken off but is about to become the way a lot of healthcare will be delivered. In terms of remote access to care, I think you will have your appointment with your doctor on Skype – there are all sorts of tools, technologies and apps entering into the world that will allow us to deliver healthcare in a more dispersed fashion. At the moment you always have to go somewhere to get healthcare. In the future I think it’s going to be a bit more dispersed for certain parts of healthcare.

The cost of healthcare is increasing. The number of people needing care is increasing as we live longer and there is increasing demand – so the way in which we can reduce the cost of care is a big challenge to us as a business.

To find out more about Philips Design for Healthcare please visit their website or you can follow Philips Design on Twitter.

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