IDEO CoLab’s Healthcare Explore Sprint

There are a few fanciful things I love about working for Virgin Pulse. Beyond the fact that photographers will call you back and talented freelancers answer inquiries immediately, I credit my employment status with allowing for inspiring moments like this:

At one point last week, during IDEO CoLab’s healthcare design sprint, I looked up to find Jane Fulton Suri (looking very much like the above) sitting across the table from me asking “I’m Jane from IDEO. Now, what have you built?”

Backing up about two weeks before my agog moment, and we get to another thing I love about working for Virgin Pulse: you get invited to do awesome things (blanket statement). This story starts with a note from an old friend at IDEO. The CoLab (explained in a moment) was soon to run a three day design sprint focused on Healthcare—would Virgin Pulse like to participate? My answer was immediately “Yes!!” (capital Y, double exclamation point). Here’s why:

IDEO is a global design company, the pioneer for human-centered design and the approach known as design thinking. The CoLab is an offshoot of IDEO, where industry innovation leaders come together with academic fellows and IDEO’s community of designers and thinkers to rapidly concept and prototype ideas, exploring the potential of emerging technologies. The spring Healthcare Explore Sprint was described as “an immersive training experience in rapid prototyping, design thinking, building on the latest technological tools.” This is the definition of a “Hell, Yeah!” (Right, Ron?). Hence: Yes!!

Two weeks later, our gang of Virgin Pulse participants (aka: “Design Fellows”, aka: kind & wise colleagues who accepted my proselytizing and were excited to give the process a go) were sitting in a large, open space in Central Square with designers, engineers, and product managers from companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield of MA, AthenaHealth, Liberty Mutual, Citi Ventures, Fidelity, Nasdaq, Excelon, and Southern Company. We were surrounded by IDEO CoLab “guides,” facilitators with mind-blowing talents and super know-how to help bring our ideas to life via working prototypes. The sprint began with lightening talks from academic fellows: short and insightful introductions to…

  • Blockchain: an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way
  • Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning: a set of techniques to create algorithms that are trained by example (training sets or reinforced learning) rather than explicitly programmed. See neural networks.
  • Augmented/Virtual Reality: the possibility to create much richer interactions than we experience today. Mind-blowing. See the superhero study (encouraging pro-social behavior via VR) or the NYT VR channel. Also, Patagonia’s recent campaign for Bear’s Ears National Monument.
  • The Internet of Things. You’ve heard the term, maybe your kid has been asking about a Raspberry Pi? Or you have a Nest thermostat? The IoT is what happens when all your various devices can talk to each other, connect to the internet, and share data. From the CoLab write-up: “Think of the internet of things as a way to give distributed processes eyes, ears, and hands in the real world.”

The larger group then branched into smaller, interdisciplinary teams (ours, for example, consisted of an engineer/patent writer, a strategist, a front-end developer, and a designer), now well-equipped with inklings and sparks. Each team was given a challenge statement around a particular topic, phrased in a “How might we…” format to open wide a conversation around various ways to explore the idea. My team’s challenge statement focused on the idea of a wellness score (a familiar topic) — how might we use real-time data to inform and improve the wellness of communities and individuals? Teams entered a “diverge” phase, with a few hours of drawing, discussion, lots of post-its, all with the intent on honing in on a question and topic that the team could prototype in our three-day time span.

My team, considering wellness score, immediately began thinking about a representation of score without a score (number), implications of cross-generational sharing, the idea of end-of-life care, wellbeing concepts branching beyond biometrics and numbers into the ambiguous topic or definition of happiness… We spent Day One all on paper (which was refreshing), occasionally referencing Google, more often talking and brainstorming with the various “guides” in the room. By the end of the day, we had narrowed our focus to a single approach: a proposal for a project to be prototyped and showcased within a three day window.

For Day Two, teams conducted quick interviews (with potential users, subject matter experts, or taking advantage of the extensive know-how of the larger group in the room). Our team did a few coffee shop “tackle” maneuvers to talk to student-looking folks about stress and coping mechanisms. Our on-the-spot interviews evidenced a lot of interest in journaling/documentation if users could be reminded when waiting in line, when they first walk in the door, when they are sitting too long, and produced some quick persona work and scenario thinking.

This quick research allowed our team to refine our project scope. We focused on student (Gen Z and Millennials) mental health and reducing anxiety amongst college age populations to better build resilience for when they enter “real life” and the (currently overstressed, highly burnt out) workforce. Our working name was “Aura”— a product that could be used via various platforms to utilize positive psychology techniques to document lessons, create intentions, and set up aspirations for the near future.

To prototype Aura, we used sentiment analysis from IBM Watson (quick demo) to take voice-to-text inputs and deliver a response coordinated with the prevailing emotion. If angry or disgusted: prompt an action to help calm or focus the user; if joyful: let’s remember this moment to bring back joy when feeling down, etc. If you’re old enough (or researched enough) to remember ELIZA, the idea was to create an Eliza with a kindred and intelligent response, utilizing AI (and potentially IoT, once Aura could connect with a biometric reading/activity tracker to perceive HR and body temp). In addition, once a user’s entry was analyzed, Aura would show a resulting set of rings as a visualization of current sentiment (color coded to emotion, with variance based on intensity). As a broader idea of this visualization, Aura could also represent the current sentiment of a population (read: undergraduate community) with a group visualization of sentiment rings. The latter part we built “in words” vs. in practice—and had a lot of fun with future ideation around the product potential.

By the end of Day 3, all teams had a version of a prototype running—and tables were set for a mini-science fair style sharing of projects. Industry fellows from CoLab sponsor organizations came to visit and walk around the room, as well as IDEO folks from the Cambridge studio (how I came face-to-face with Jane Fulton Suri). As participants, we finally broke away from the happy fog of our own projects and got to play with the explorations of other teams. Although no AR/VR projects were in the mix, the utilization of blockchains, chatbots, and distributed web (we got a primer on IDEO’s Nomad) ideas was insightful and inspiring.

A few big ideas to take home:
Fail Faster and Talk Less, Do More: both IDEO company values, but certainly evidenced as valuable strategies for collaborative, experimental work that can push boundaries and expand ideas into the future.
Rapid Prototype & Test: building a testable prototype in a three day window was a pretty exciting accomplishment, and seeing a new technology (IBM Watson’s sentiment analysis) truly bring an idea to life only generated more ideas to follow, innovate & build on, and evolve. 
Interdisciplinary Teams play nicely: a team of different backgrounds, different experience, and different insights meant that where we arrived as a group was beyond where we might have arrived as a team of one. Seems like an obvious insight, but given how hard it is to muster a cross-organizational collaborative team, these gave me new impetus as to value and impact of such an effort.
Diverge and Converge: the ability to free-flow explore an idea in a “yes, and…” non-limiting process felt liberating and exhilarating (also, having the IDEO guides around to say “Oh, you want to do that… Let’s try this…” was particularly generative). This process landed us in a really interesting place that would not have been the linear outcome of our particular assignment. Although this takes some extra time (at the least, an additional hour or two of ideation), it seems like a key step in the process to explore avenues when building and concepting products and product features.

In closing: if you’d like to hear more details about the team’s individual product prototypes, or want to talk through how to bring some of this process home to our own organization, join the product team for a lunch & learn on Friday, April 19 (send Ann a note and she’ll fill you in on the details).

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