My guiding principles

How I work (and live)

Hi. I’m a Human-Centered/UX Designer and I work in healthcare. I’m also a patient with some complicated autoimmune issues. Recently I’ve had the chance to crystallize some of the working practices, goals, aspirations, and beliefs that guide my work.

For now, let’s assume that I believe in and practice human-centered design, and that I aim for accessibility and universal design. So I won’t go much into my design process today. What follows is more of a way of being and doing; it’s basically the ‘me’ that I bring to the challenges that crop up in work and life.


Help people see the invisible

I suppose this is one of my defining characteristics. In many arenas of life, I visualize information to help people understand what’s going on. At home, I keep a timeline sketch on the refrigerator so my husband has a ‘visual’ of upcoming trips and events. In doctor’s visits, I usually bring some combination of a symptom map (drawn on a body shape) and a timeline of what’s been going on. (More on that here.) At work, I take visual notes on the whiteboard during meetings, create maps and diagrams of findings and processes, put work up on the walls and in the halls to get people’s eyes on it, and encourage others to do the same.

I’ve found that visualizing information is a more efficient way of working with others; it helps us communicate and get on the same page better and faster. It’s also been a great way for me to understand (and sometimes grapple with) complicated situations in work and my personal life.


Write clearly and simply

Words matter. I scout about for ornate phraseology that requires simplification (I look for ways to simplify words.) Often I find myself translating complicated concepts into human-readable language. In healthcare, especially, people are stressed; they might be experiencing the worst day of their life and have limited capacity to absorb information. Let’s make sure our words aren’t compounding the situation (making it worse).


Find meaning and order in chaos

At the beginning of design projects, we face a big mystery. What are the underlying problems? What are the emotional factors? How do we make sense of what we’re learning? You know that part of detective shows where they put photos of the suspects and crime scene on the wall and connect them with pieces of multicolored string? I often find myself in a similar state, standing next to a wall full of information gleaned in interviews, observation, and other research activities. I get a large amount of satisfaction from carefully sifting through this rubble of data (along with my team, of course) and finding shining gems of meaning — usually these help set the direction of the rest of the project.


Co-create

The best work happens when we invite others into the design process and work together. In my healthcare work my teams have invited patients, doctors, staff, volunteers, and others into participatory design workshops so that we can draw on diverse expertise to imagine better alternatives to the ‘way things are.’ Inviting others in throughout a project helps us create more interesting and appropriate solutions, facilitate buy-in, and it’s just more fun.


Support teamwork and collaboration

A woman I don’t know recently threw an offhand comment in my direction: “collaboration — that’s where the juice is.” I heartily agree. I thrive on working with a team, and I nurture team culture through facilitation, project planning, and encouraging somewhat radical collaboration. I keep meetings visual and try to maintain a fun and casual atmosphere. When potential conflicts arise, I follow the ‘if you see something, say something’ philosophy; when our problems are out in the open, we can more easily deal with them.

I work best and happiest when I’m right there in the middle of things (and not on the periphery of projects.) Likewise, I believe in-person collaboration results in the best work, though I do work remotely from time to time.


Find power in pairs

Maybe you’ve experienced that perfect collaboration, when you have the chance to work with someone who perfectly compliments you; alone, you do pretty good work, but together you can shine. It’s rare and exciting. When you have it, it’s magical. When you lose it, if you’re like me, you spend lots of time and energy trying to rediscover it. I’ve had superb collaborations with visual designers, developers, other UX/interaction designers, project managers, and others. Strong interdisciplinary pairs help us compliment one another, keep one another accountable, share brainpower, and more efficiently tackle the challenges that arise on projects.


Connect people and ideas

I believe in the power of personal relationships and cross-pollination of ideas to enrich our communities, ideas, and well-being. I maintain close connections with forward-thinking patients, designers, and providers all around the country; with my friend Kerry Swift I co-organize a meet-up group dedicated to healthcare innovation in Burlington, VT that has grown to over 600 people, and along with James Turner and Jeremy Beaudry and I help organize a Slack group of over 100 hospital designers from around the world. I find joy and energy in getting to know other people and helping them connect with others.


Write to understand

Writing helps me untangle my thoughts about design, healthcare, and my own health. Words flow from my hands in a more organized fashion than they do from my mouth (no offense to my mouth.) I like to mix words and pictures, as you can see; drawing ideas helps me understand them in a different way, and I think it also helps you better absorb them.


Be generous

Sharing and giving back are important to me. I try to make my work public through case studies and articles so that others can learn from my teams’ successes and failures. I mentor and support the next generation of designers, (healthcare or otherwise) through email, phone, and writing articles. Finally, I dedicate time to cultivating the communities of designers and healthcare enthusiasts my colleagues and I have created. Lifting others up feels good, and I should do more of it.


Reduce stress

This is a guiding principle that comes up over and over on design projects, especially those in healthcare. Most people experience stress to some degree, and in healthcare we know that patients, caregivers, doctors, nurses, and other staff members deal with a high level of stress. As designers I think we have an obligation to ease stress: on the people we’re designing with and for, on our project teams, and on ourselves. I try to do this through everything mentioned above: clear and plain writing, making the invisible visible, effective project planning and collaboration, being silly, having good team culture, and of course following a solid human-centered design process.


Use nature to heal

This is a little bit of an outlier, but it’s something I think about a lot. Speaking of stress, there’s one more gadget in our toolbox, or trick up our sleeve, or secret weapon to consider. Research shows that exposure to nature can help offset the negative effects of stress and help people heal in mind and body. It also helps bolster creativity and problem-solving.

I use this principle throughout my life. I spend most weekends outdoors, hiking or skiing. At home, my office is filled with plants and interesting rocks and I constantly have essential oil scents filling the air. At work, I put up photos and art depicting nature scenes: of forests, which have a calming and nurturing quality, and of mountains, which I find inspiring.

I believe there is massive untapped potential for us to use elements of nature to help support better health: in our healthcare facilities, homes, workspaces, and public spaces. This is always in the back of my mind.


Do work that matters

I focus on healthcare, but I also use my skills to help with environmental causes. I’m newly interested in the intersection between design + death. My work makes me cry on a regular basis; when it doesn’t, I’m doing something wrong.

Here are some topics I’m interested in, when it comes to healthcare + design:

  • the sensory experience of healthcare
  • designing better end-of-life experiences
  • visualizing symptoms and stories
  • improving communication (especially with visual tools)
  • better transparency
  • solving medical mysteries (I’ve had my fair share of these)

Keep things weird

It’s just life. Might as well put on some costumes, eat chocolate, draw a bunch of pictures and write on sticky notes. I love my work and find it very fun. That is infectious, and I hope it helps people enjoy being part of the design process.


Thus concludes this journey. Hope to meet or see you soon.