Practicing Play As a Tool for Unlocking the Possible

Diving into Design Thinking at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital

We can all agree that the U.S. healthcare system is due for a human-centered makeover. Our current system is challenging for patients and providers alike, with few people describing their experience with the healthcare system as intuitive or easy to navigate.

As an Experience and Product Designer, one of the things that I love the most about human-centered design (HCD) is that it allows us to explore the world from an empathetic viewpoint, investigating how systems, products, and experience can be improved to be better for all those involved.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to teach a Design Thinking 101 workshop for the leadership of the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Center for Community Health and Engagement. This is a group who is deeply committed to the community. The Center for Community Health and Engagement is the bridge between the Benioff Children’s hospitals (both San Francisco and Oakland) and the broader community. They work tirelessly to strengthening the hospital’s focus on community needs, health equity, disease prevention, and supporting healthy kids.

Our workshop was set against the backdrop of some real-world challenges. Not only is the Affordable Healthcare Act being revisited, but the Center for Community Health and Engagement is navigating the merger of two hospitals and the complexities of collaborations and resource constraints across county lines. During a typical meeting, this group would be focused on working through challenges and finding ways to improve process and outcomes of their various programs.

Over the course of our 90 minutes together, I walked everyone through the phases of design thinking from empathizing and interview techniques, to brainstorming and rapid prototyping. We practiced brainstorming, tapped into our own experiences and shared a great deal of laughter — something that can easily be lost in the workplace.

One of the ‘How Might We’ prompts we chose as a group was, ‘How might we ensure that every caregiver and patient that walks through our doors feel supported and empowered?’ In lieu of interview data, I invited participants to reflect on moments, places, and activities that have brought them the most joy, relaxation or a general sense of happiness.

We split into groups and did a quick brainstorming and rapid prototyping exercise merging experiences that made the group feel happy, safe, content, or excited with the workflow of the clinics in which they currently work. People were immediately engaged with one another in an energetic, playful exchange — soon we had healthy snack stations being made from items found around the room and friendly clowns welcoming guests in an imaginary clinic.

‘This presentation reminded me again, of the usefulness of supporting the inherent creativity on a “team”. Use of that energy, invariably begets solid product!!’ — Karen Daley, Children’s Hospital Oakland

Stepping out of their normal routine proved to be ‘a breath of fresh air’, according to one attendee, who remarked on how great it was to step back and thinking about the big picture in a playful manner.

Tips for Uncovering New Ideas in a Short Time Frame

When looking at ways to apply human-centered design in your personal life or work setting, here is a quick and easy exercise to try:

1. Identify a situation you would like to change (a product, a space, an experience, a system), and what type of feeling or experience you would like to have with it moving forward

2. Now, think of all the most extreme instances in your life that trigger that feeling or action. Write a quick list.

3. Look for ways to apply these insights from your life (often a completely different part of our lived experience) to the situation and see how a new solution or path forward emerges.

Healthcare is a field in which rigor, discipline, and diplomacy are essential. When empathy, human-centered discovery and play are added to the mix — you have a powerful combination for both ideation and execution.

Red Balloon Ideas is an innovation firm that supports social impact work through ethnographic research, human-centered design, product innovation and strategy consulting. We believe that game-changing products, life-changing experiences, and world-renowned organizations are built on a deep understanding of people and what drives them.

Everything around us is designed — from our spaces to our experiences — it’s just a matter of how intentionally this is done. Therefore, we believe that individuals across an organization, regardless of their role, can benefit from the tools of design thinking.

To learn more about human-centered design workshops or our product innovation work, please contact us: