Things I tell people who want to become a designer in healthcare

Once or twice a week, I get emails from people who are interested in getting into healthcare design (usually UX design). I find myself saying the same things to many of them, so I thought I’d compile those nuggets here.


Healthcare is an awesome place to be a designer

It’s complex. There are innumerable problems to be solved. It’s emotional, and you feel the work in your heart (if you don’t think you will, or if you’re not interested in feeling the work in your heart, maybe you’ll pick something else.) Working in healthcare helps you improve life for people who may be stressed or vulnerable, and that feels good.

I currently work in a hospital environment; there, we have unparalleled access to patients, visitors, healthcare providers, and other staff. For me, being able to help real people in my own community is rewarding; the positive impact of design is very real and tangible. Here’s more on why hospitals need designers and what I do on a daily basis.

Finally, there’s plenty of demand for designers in healthcare (in startups, bigger companies, healthcare institutions, and more.) Your prospects will be good, especially in larger cities.


How can you get started in design and UX (User Experience)?

There are many paths. I became a designer after attending a graduate program at the University of Michigan School of Information, with a specialty in Human-Computer Interaction (which is an old-fashioned academic term that approximately means digital design and research.) I wrote up a post a few years back about how my graduate education prepared me to be an Interaction Designer. (Interaction Designer is another fancy term that relates more to the logic and flow aspects of designing and less to the visual beautification parts.) My graduate education was very valuable to me; it gave my career a huge kick-start that would not have been possible otherwise.

You don’t necessarily have to go to graduate school, though. That takes a lot of time and money. I know people who have participated in one of the short-term UX Design Immersive courses, like the one offered by General Assembly.

If schooling is a path you want to take, I can’t tell you which school to choose — you’ll have to do the research to figure out which one would be the best fit. I highly recommend speaking with the folks at the program; they can give you more details and even put you in touch with current students and alumni.

To break into healthcare design, you don’t necessarily need prior health-related experience. But you’ll need to demonstrate your design process and your ability to solve problems within complex systems. Design schooling (or training) helps you refine your process, better understand the design tools available to you, and learn to design with others. It also gives you some great stories to tell during interviews, and it helps you build a portfolio — more on portfolios below.


What if schooling isn’t an option?

I’ve been talking a lot about schooling, which is a familiar path to me because it’s the one I took. But I know plenty of designers who have come from other disciplines and have not had formal training; they’ve apprenticed or learned on the job. This is a totally valid pathway into design. It does require a set of ideal conditions, including (but not limited to) quality design mentorship, a team who is open to collaborating and learning from you, and your own passion, dedication and voracious appetite for learning.


What is life like as a designer?

For this, I love Jon Kolko’s book Thoughts on Interaction Design. He interviews designers and has them explain the ‘soft’ skills they need to employ in their work; things like negotiation, collaboration, argument. Design isn’t only about making things, but it’s very much about working well with people and being a great advocate.

To experience what daily life is like as a designer, you might explore whether there are local organizations who have designers on staff that may let you shadow them for a day. Or find a local designer and offer to take them out for coffee.


What’s it like working in a hospital?

I’ve worked in an agency, with startups, with a non-profit, and now I’m consulting pretty much full-time in a hospital setting. Each has its pros and cons, but I’m loving the hospital environment right now. Here are a few interviews (one of which is with me) of designers who work in healthcare institutions — collected by my pal James Turner. I’ve also started collecting articles about design in healthcare systems — so far all of them are written by me, but soon there should be more from diverse authors.


Do you need a portfolio?

Yep. You’ll eventually need some sort of portfolio that highlights *how* you work and what your process looks like. Hiring managers are going to value process storytelling way more than ‘finished’ work. Show and describe your process; talk about what you did and what you learned; include in-progress photos of things like sketches and prototypes. If your portfolio includes group projects, make sure to be specific about your role and how you fit into the team. A good portfolio helps people understand how you work, how you think, what tools you bring to the table, and how you collaborate.

Here are all the above links + more, brought to you by Medium’s EmbedFeature™:

On design, and breaking into design

(Just read everything by Julie Zhuo; I promise it will enrich you and I consider her one of my spirit animals.)

On healthcare + design

Staying updated on healthcare + technology

Here are a few sites/email lists that’ll help you stay updated on what’s going on in the healthcare + technology world, which is important:

Events

Events have been hugely important for my career — I’ve gotten most of my jobs through people I’ve met at various events. Below are some important events for design + healthcare; you should also see whether there may be local meet-up groups dedicated to design and/or healthcare.

There are also lots of diverse design events — many of these have student rates! If you’re a student, make use of that. Here are a few I’ve loved:

Schooling

Here are some notable graduate programs:

Here’s mine:

Here are some recommended by friends of mine:

And my blog post about how my schooling helped me be a better designer:

Here’s the General Assembly UX immersive:

I hope this is helpful for you

Please let me know how I could make it better! Or what other questions you have.

Also, you are going to be awesome. Designing in healthcare is numero uno.

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Thank you to a few of my helpful healthcare + design brethren who gave input on this article: Sean Malloy, Lenny Naar, and James Turner