How Building a Human-Centered Product Helped an Organization Strengthen Its Mission


Meeting Joe

A contact put me in touch with Joe. I knew little about Joe but what I did know about him was compelling. Joe had cognitive and physical disabilities as well as PTSD — the effects which stemmed from his time in the military. He was polypharmic — which means he had been prescribed multiple medications which he was required to take each day, multiple time per day. From what I understood of Joe’s daily activities revolved around his medications. He took medications at certain intervals throughout his day. Some required food, some were to be taken on an empty stomach, while others had restrictions and warnings about combining with other medications and various types of food. In short, Joe needed help remembering when and how to take his meds.

I had been given directions to Joe’s trailer park and he knew I was coming but I had been warned that because of his cognitive impairment he may not remember all the details of my visit. After a short search I found his lot and knocked on his door. Joe opened his door, “Hi, I’m Pete”. Without missing a beat he replied, “You must be here to talk about Amy.” He was right. Joe invited me into his home and we began to talk about his life, his experience, and of course about Amy.

“Without Amy’s help I’m sure I’d be laid up in bed all day and someone would eventually find me unconscious or dead.”

We started right in and Joe told me about his time in the military and “… how I ended up in this damned wheelchair.” He told me how it’s difficult to remember certain things and pointed out the post-it note he placed next to his front door reminding him of my arrival. “Without Amy’s help I’m sure I’d be laid up in bed all day and someone would eventually find me unconscious or dead.” We spoke about Joe’s reliance on Amy and how she kept his days regular, literally. “One of my meds helps keep my bowels moving.” He described how Amy helped him beyond just taking his meds — she wakes him up every morning and also reminds him to order more medications when he’s running low. “She can be a bit of a nag too and doesn’t always do what I need, when I need it.” He went on to describe how Amy woke him up one morning but wouldn’t give him his meds. “I don’t know what I did to upset her but she wasn’t interested in helping me that day.

The population of “65 and over” and “85 and over” in the United States are going to both double in the next 35 years.

Now is a good time for me to let you know that Amy isn’t a who — she’s a what. “Amy” is medical device designed to assist cognitively and physically disabled patients who are polypharmic. As I spoke with Joe and others it became clear that most of “Amy’s” patients saw her as a trusted helper and in some cases as a friend.

The medical device company who built Amy had a team comprised of current and former clinicians — doctors and nurses who had a clear Mission. Their Mission: To assist patients in achieving the highest quality of life possible while remaining at the lowest practical level of care. Going forward we’re going to have a real need for companies who share this mission. The US Census Bureau tells us that the population of “65 and over” and “85 and over” in the United States are going to both double in the next 35 years. Yes, double.

The actualization of the Mission means giving their patient’s the ability to stay in their homes and for others this means staying at the most reasonable level of community living or assisted care. Because they were Mission-driven and principled in their approach, I knew that we were going to work well together. We shared a fundamental guiding principle— a strong belief in the respect and care for the human experience.

The Contextual Inquiry Process

The company had an existing version of the device which was largely used as a pilot to test the validity of their approach. While they cared about usability and usefulness, the initial version of the product went to market quickly and focused on utility and functionality.

Understanding the Patient Journey

The journey for the patient extended well beyond the daily use of the device. There was the physician approval to use the device — the setup procedure — receiving meds and inputing meds just to name a few. It was important to understand and to take into account the entire patient journey to understand the discrete aspects of their journeys.

2 Hypotheses - 2 Prototypes

We went into the field with two prototypes. Without going into great detail, the purpose was to understand the mechanism — “the door” — patients would use to bulk-insert their medication. Going into the research phase we felt we needed to determine should the door “fold up” or “fold down”.

Transforming the Design – Aligning the Organization

To list what we learned seems … insufficient. Tallying the change in perspective or trying to quantify connecting the company’s Mission and core beliefs to a process which brings their intentions to life felt more impactful than the following list can demonstrate. Still …

Physical Ergonomic and Interface Design

  1. Touch targets needed to be 3x larger
    Because of tremors or mobility issues, many patients found it difficult and frustrating to “touch” icons which would be acceptable on most typical interfaces.
  2. The screen needed a better angle and to be adjustable
    The screen on the original device (and the prototype) was angled upwards. That is, it was designed to be used by a person standing at the device. In patient’s homes we observed patients in wheelchairs who couldn’t see the device screen when it was placed on a standard-height countertop. To make the device (at minimum) usable we needed to make significant adjustments to the screen angle.
  3. The door didn’t fold up or down — it retracted
    The 2 Hypotheses were wrong. As we watched patients interacting with the door, it became apparent that the “fold-up” approach blocked the screen at critical moments and the “fold-down” approach … well, patients were just getting their sleeves caught on the door way too often. The result – a retractable, garage-like door which solved both issues.
Mission: To assist patients in achieving the highest quality of life possible while remaining at the lowest practical level of care.

Aligning the Organization

The activity of testing the prototypes in patient’s homes brought a new and visceral understanding of the patient experience to all layers of the organization. Videos, photos, and pull quotes from patients were used to help illustrate the patient experience with the prototypes.

  1. We Aligned a New Organizational Value with the Mission
    As evidenced by their Mission, the company already valued the patient experience. Empathizing with the patient by literally seeing the patient experience with their product the company was able to truly value the patient-centered process.
  2. We Created a New, Sustainable Patient-Centered Process
    The process of working directly with patients to understand (and yes, even to measure) their experience helped the team to iterate on insights. Bringing contextual insights into the product team’s equation brought a focused and informed approach to their decision-making.

Methods Matter – Principles Matter Most

The human-centered approach works anywhere but can really thrive and have a broad-based impact in these types of organizations. The reason the patient-centered approach worked so well is a direct reflection of the organizational Mission and Values. Leadership supported the effort and demonstrated their commitment to their Mission by investing in this approach. As a result the patients win and so too does the company all stemming from a focus on the humans at the center of the product.


Pete is an Experience Design professional in Denver, CO where he leads innovation, strategy, and design projects and teams. He works with leaders and teams to help educate and encourage human-centered mindsets within organizations. Pete is also a Adjunct Professor at the University of Denver where he teaches courses focused on design thinking, user-centered design, and customer experience.

@petekinser | LinkedIn