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How empathy drives better health technologies

At the heart of human-centered design (HCD), empathy becomes an indispensable means to innovating technologies in global public health.


Like you, I was once a patient. Unbeknownst to nurses on my floor, they used a human-centered approach to innovate solutions that led to extraordinary results during my stay. I call this empathy.


Empathy liberates. It brings presence and awareness to the human experience, one-on-one interaction, and the experience of people interacting with products, processes and procedures, all within the context of their environment. Empathy is indispensable to improving the human experience of health. Healthcare is a user-centric industry that requires human-centered design thinking (HCD). HCD is an approach that allows designers to integrate the needs of people (the end user), the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success for innovation. It is a process by the people and for the people. At the heart of human-centered design is empathy in action.


W.K. Kellogg was notably the first to practice HCD in 1894. After applying a customer-focused approach, iteratively prototyping with corn and carefully considering the entire product experience for patients with special dietary needs, Kellogg invented corn flakes. The brand is worth $22.5 billion dollars today. Product design, especially in the context of healthcare products and technologies, is a fundamentally compassionate act.


Human-centered design has proven to direct health technologies that improve patient safety and decision-making, ameliorate the quality of patient care experience and satisfaction, and decrease healthcare waste and inefficiency. So, how do we practice empathy and the principals of HCD in the sphere of health technology to generate better health outcomes? Three key lessons I learned in my career from assisting in the launch of health technologies that put empathy into action for solution ideation.


Actively engage and listen

Your most engaged customers in public health will often come from the edges of the market. Therefore, listening actively to the stories of your clients, probing their narratives with the right questions, and conducting appropriate group interviews will allow leaders to build deep empathy. As a result, we can build solutions tailored to the unique needs of our end-users, ensuring their voices are heard.


Swapnil Chaturvedi, founder of Samagra and fellow at Ashoka India, demonstrates the power of empathic listening in the pursuit of providing adequate sanitation in India. Over 50% of the population defecate in the open and millions of women and girls are at risk of rape, abuse, and harassment for this. Lack of access to private toilets in India is inherently a women’s issue. Previous sanitation efforts failed due to the lack of appropriate toilets begetting a design issue, lack of user engagement indicative of behavioral issues and lack of operational models highlighting operational issues.


To understand the wants and needs of his end-users, Chaturvedi performed intense ethnographic research across slums in various cities in India. As a result, Chaturvedi’s team designed community toilets in the slums of Pune and introduced a Loot Rewards systems. Based on the community’s needs, this system rewards toilet users with discounts on sanitation and hygiene products, water purification systems, and fortified locally-produced nutritious snacks. This allowed Samagra to engage over 100 first-time toilet users.

Empathy reshapes our focus of failed experimentation on process and constructive learning over the outcome. It highlights a masterful process of small successes to help designers gain courage and transcend the fear of failure.

Seek feedback frequently

Constructive feedback is important because it acknowledges actions and shows results to keep people informed. Because human-centered design is dependent on a continuous process of iteration and experimentation, involving the customer in feedback throughout the entire design process reduces innovation risk and increases engagement and product success.


MomConnect, a South African National Department of Health initiative (NDOH), practices strong feedback loops. It uses mobile technology to improve the health of pregnant women and newborns nationally. This platform allows every pregnant woman in South Africa to register to receive free, informative, stage-based messaging for the first year of her baby’s life. Since MomConnect’s launch in August 2014, more than 500,000 women have registered on the app, and 50% of all pregnant women South Africa are currently on the network, cutting down maternal deaths as part of the global SDGs.


MomConnect is successful because feedback loops are incorporated into the platform to improve service delivery at critical points. It allows patients to rate the services at the clinics and access an SMS Helpdesk. Rating and questions are sent directly to NDOH officials who can respond to queries and ensure that a high level of service is available at every clinic. The technology actively engages between high-level decision-makers and end users via a central health information system to ensure that feedback from mothers reaches the highest levels of government.


Embrace failure and rapid improvement

Failure is an expected option in human-centered design (HCD). A key component in HCD is performing rapid prototyping and iteration of the product over and over. The iterative process of HCD, especially in health technologies, allows innovators to quickly find weaknesses during an innovation cycle and improve what needs fixing. Much of empathy in HCD is designing for smart mistakes to fail better and succeed sooner. It reshapes our focus of failed experimentation on process and constructive learning over the outcome. Empathy highlights a masterful process of small successes to help designers gain courage and transcend the fear of failure.


Embrace Warmer is an example of failing better. The warmer is an ultra-portable incubator, allowing mother to wrap it around her newborn without the need to access remote hospitals. Embrace warmers have been used to care for over 200,000 low birth weight and premature infants across 20 countries. Initially framing the solution as an incubator to help premature and sick babies to thrive, the team failed to develop a product that met the needs of their target populations in remote villages in Nepal who had no access to hospitals. Failed iterations allowed the team to reframe their challenge to a warming device rather than a new kind of incubator.


The end result was the warmer with the capability to perform better than an incubator due to its portability and dramatically reduced production costs. The objective with empathic failure is uncovering intangible needs and feelings that indicate what should change in a target product, system, or environment. It revealed to the Embrace Warmer team deep needs and root causes, if addressed correctly, can reshape problem definition and improve solution ideation.


Where do we go from here? The opportunity to capitalize on human-centered design and empathetic applications is immense in health technology including in areas of personalized medicine, wearable technology, precision medicine, mhealth, and digital health. In a transformative industry like healthcare, empathy evolves as design grows. As a result, empathy is actionable, not static. By weaving empathy into other methodologies such as process and performance improvement, we harness the ingenuity of end users, their narratives and challenges to create sustainable solutions. Practicing empathy is a means to better design and better outcomes in global public health.