• Mercè Bonjorn Dalmau

Why is it important to go deeper into research and apply design thinking in eHealth?

In the management literature, it is commonly mentioned that the current market challenges and changes constantly force companies to look for new ways to build a competitive advantage, promoting the use of new tools and processes to create distinctive products and services.

In the last few years, design thinking has become a buzzword among managers. It has gained popularity and it is now seen as a new paradigm for dealing with problems in various sectors: IT, business, education and medicine. Design thinking is the practice of creating things, solving problems, making decisions, devising strategies and learning to use human design talents in every phase of the development and commercialization process.

In this article, I will explore the tendencies that get in the way of innovation in eHealth and explain how tools of design thinking and clear process steps help teams break free of them.

Design Thinking

Integrating aspects of business and society – innovation

One of the most popular advocates of design thinking, Tim Brown, defines design thinking in the following way: "a discipline that uses the designer's sensitivity and methods to meet the needs of people with which is technologically viable and what a viable commercial strategy can turn into customer value and market opportunity". Brown insists that “what we need is an approach to innovation (…) that can be integrated into all aspects of business and society, and that individuals and teams can use to generate breakthrough ideas that are implemented and that therefore have an impact. Design thinking offers just such an approach”.

Even though design thinking is an emergent paradigm it has already shown its powerful usefulness for innovation. It combines human, business and technological factors in problem-solving. Design Thinking is a concept widely used both in theory and practice, with two discourses: one more scholarly design-based and another more widely utilized in business. The first, ‘designerly thinking’ denotes the academic component of the professional practice of designer (skills and competence). The other, ‘design thinking’ is about the use of design practice beyond the design context, such as in business.

Currently, the researchers are focused on understanding the design thinking approach as a creative process of development service innovation. This will allow them to integrate IT solutions in a sequential way and involve all the stakeholders in all phases.

Moreover, there are three ways of working with design thinking in the innovation and management area:

1. Design thinking can be approached as the design company IDEO’s way of working. For instance, Brown describes Design Thinking as a method to solve complex problems with innovative solutions, by deliberately incorporating the concerns, interests, and values of humans into the design process.

2. Design thinking can also be viewed as a mode to approach organizational problems. This is also emphasized by Martin who presents design thinking as combining abductive, as well as inductive and deductive reasoning. This can give a business a competitive advantage with methods because it has moved from product development to development of strategies, business models and organizational structures.

3. Finally, design thinking can be understood as part of a management theory, exchanging this concept with design attitude and style.

Research criticism to design thinking

These fairly broad and flexible concepts of design thinking have found criticism in the design research community. The main criticism is that despite their popularity, they are presenting the concept of too simplistic and overly optimistic forms, with vague and general terms.

Researchers point out that the management discourse on design thinking has been blamed for presenting the concept as something that will create value in any configuration, and is easy to implement. Other researchers also point out that it is too simplistic to import a set of design thinking practices and expect their use to automatically resolve perverse problems in an organization.

Challenges around application of Design Thinking

Studies have described the opportunities and challenges of applying service design techniques to health services, but there is still a lack of empirical evidence on how such techniques can be implemented in the context of eHealth services.

Martin defends that the design thinking balances analytical and intuitive thinking. It combines an openness to explorative thoughts with an exploitative mentality, striking the balance between innovation and a systematic scalable process. It pulls resources back into the knowledge funnel and allows them to progress through the stages.

Companies need a human-centered design approach to navigate the blurring of lines between product and service, producer and consumer, and the contemporary innovation should focus on designing the user’s emotional experience. When design thinking is used beyond the design context it gets relevant to acquire different skills and competencies that are closely linked together. These are

  1. The human-centered approach,

  2. Strong integration of experimenting,

  3. Multidisciplinary team

  4. Holistic views of problems, therefore defining problems as complex and,

  5. The five-step process covering understand, observe, define, idea, prototype and test.

5 step process

Stakeholders in health services play important roles

Another important idea is to apply design thinking into the health services environment considering all the key stakeholders related to the process of service innovation. Stakeholders in eHealth services play important roles when adopting or integrating new technologies in their work.

The design process of eHealth services is characterized by insufficient stakeholder engagement. Design thinking of service innovation can provide the tools to help redesign value propositions to incorporate solutions that meet customer needs and sustain competitive advantage in the market.

This departure is highly relevant in eHealth as service innovation solutions in this area have considerable potential to transform the health sector, for the better. If we are to maximize the benefits associated with eHealth interventions whilst minimizing risks, we must be able simultaneously to evaluate eHealth interventions while they are being designed, developed, and deployed.

The evolution in design research from a user-centered approach to co-designing is changing the landscape of design practice as well as creating new domains of collective creativity. Early interaction between stakeholders is important for success. Interactions with stakeholders are represented in the entire process of service innovation, from the early stage until the late stage.

In dynamic environments in which technology and market needs change quickly, managing service innovations means not only the ability to design the service concept but also continuously redesigning and adapting new and existing services to address frequent exogenous changes and emerging opportunities through commercialization. Recent discourse attempts to provide an integrated view of design as a problem-solving process that involves players from multiple disciplines.

I would love to hear your ideas and thoughts, so feel free to comment on this post or drop me an email to

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