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Caring for Carers: Could Design Thinking Help?

Jen Drexler
Managing Partner, US
Hall & Partners OpenMind

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Design thinking is a solution-based invention methodology that many of today’s largest brands are at least dabbling in. Depending on who you ask, the approach is grounded in five or six steps that involve immersion, ideation, prototyping and testing. Beware though, it is far from a linear process, and marketers could and should find themselves revisiting previous steps.

The process is credited for massive growth at companies like Pepsi, Airbnb, and P&G. What would happen if the same principles of innovation were used to alleviate some of the pressure and worry that comes from taking care of a loved one?

Our team at Hall & Partners OpenMind challenged ourselves to think about how the healthcare ecosystem might benefit from a design thinking approach. Could caregiving be made easier by even small changes? And could these small changes add up to systemic change?

Design thinking infographic


An effective solution has to be grounded in a deep understanding of how people behave and feel in their real lives. True empathy can reveal through observation and interaction a problem that people don’t even know they need solved.

So, if we were to put ourselves in the shoes of the average caregiver, we could assume that those shoes would likely be heels and be worn by working women ages 48+. Women dominate caregiving and represent 60% of the more than 40 million caregivers in the US. This doesn’t include any informal caregiving like bringing someone chicken soup when they have the flu or covering an ill colleague’s shift at work. That kind of care is valued between $148 billion and $188 billion per year.

Now imagine being embedded into a woman’s life for one week while she cares for a long-term ill or disabled loved one. We would notice how much time is spent driving to appointments, trying to talk to doctors, or figuring out who needs to know what and when. We might observe that taking care of someone is draining and can be like a second full-time job. What we’d undoubtedly see is how her experiences within the health ecosystem are fraught with friction.


This is the ‘design’ part of design thinking, where the real problem gets defined. In this case, it isn’t about how to make hospitals or doctors better. You’re looking for an elevated root question that gets to the thing behind the thing versus a rational objective. In this case, the essential question is how can we care for caregivers?


The sheer quantity of ideas is a priority during this stage. There are many methods to brainstorm and produce ideas. For our example, imagine being with a group of other smart thinkers, armed with sticky notes and markers, to think creatively about how to make the caregiving experience better by resolving key pain points. We can envisage ideas like these surfacing:

  • An app for booking hospital rounds: think OpenTable reservations, so the caregiver doesn’t go to the gift shop and miss the doctor’s instructions
  • Caregiver meal menu
  • Reclining chairs that turn into beds/cots
  • Light up medicine bottles that glow when it’s time for the next dose
  • Care Cams so that caregivers can check in via webcam
  • Business centres in waiting rooms
  • An Uber service that picks up prescriptions

You know you’re finished when you’re able to look at all of your ideas, mash them up, and optimize them into more specific solutions you want to take forward.


Some of the ideas will work, and many won’t, but great innovation comes from trying them all. Think of this stage as beta testing. One hospital might try to install Care Cams, and a pharmacy might agree to test glowing medicine bottles in a small region.


After introducing these new ideas into the universe, real-world testing will be the ultimate judge of what really works. At this stage, ideas may get optimized or abandoned based on specific criteria for success.

This healthcare example demonstrates how the need to ease anxiety associated with hospitalization was approached using design thinking methodology. A hospital group studied the patient experience and realized that the hospital environment might be the cause of readmittance. Bright lights, sleep disruptions and loud noises not only induce stress; they can also contribute to infection, depression, and more. To address this the group looked to their own pediatric units and borrowed elements to apply to adults. Toned-down lighting was calming. Adult coloring books lowered anxiety. And grouping diagnostic tests into one chunk of time eliminated middle-of-the-night testing.

Our hypothetical solutions to our hypothetical healthcare challenge would, in the real world, be tested, evaluated and refined. But we certainly felt that a design thinking approach revealed opportunities to take some of the pain out of the caregiving experience – as well as the potential for small changes to have a big economic impact.

Design thinking is an important tool for OpenMind, allowing us to deliver Hall & Partners’ signature hallmark of creativity with discipline. Our team specialises in idea creation, insights, and invention to help brands across categories provide human-centered solutions for a world that’s changing by the second.