Storytelling for Healthcare

Around a year ago, I dislocated my shoulder and ended up in the ER. No one asked me how I was doing and I waited for hours before they gave me an x-ray, handed me a cheap cloth sling, and sent me off with a packet of papers explaining what to do about by shoulder.

Three months later, I received the bill. $1200.

My current project is to improve the way billing works at One Medical and from this experience, I know just how important it is to reduce error and make payment as transparent as possible.

Stories are not fluffy nonsense.

Storytelling is the most powerful method of communication in human history. The best designers use stories as a tool to gather inspiration and drive home their design. In this article I will cover storytelling for research, design, and collaboration, along with a few case studies from my work at IDEO and One Medical.

Healthcare needs great storytelling.

And it needs them from amazing designers like you. Why?

  • Healthcare is complex. There are multiple stakeholders and a ton of regulation.
  • Healthcare is more than digital. Often you’re dealing with physical products, spaces, and services.
  • Healthcare is slow-moving. It’s dominated by large, traditional organizations that are risk and change adverse.
  • Healthcare is high stakes. If something goes wrong, you could seriously injure or kill someone.

This is where stories shine. Stories are great at building empathy, cutting down complexity, going beyond pixels, and helping your team imagine a different future.

Stories for Research

For stories in research, it’s all about qualitative, person-to-person research. We want to collect the perspectives of different kinds of people, then dig deep to uncover motivations and pain points. Stories build understanding and inspire empathy. They provide a tangible way to inspire your design.

As you look for stories, ask yourself…

  • How do I get to why? We spend so long trying to figure how something should be done, but have we asked why we should do it in the first place?
  • What kind of stories resonate the most? You feel good stories in your gut. The best stories, and the best design challenges, have tension, emotions, and surprise.
  • What stories am I missing? Make sure you seek diverse stories. It’s tempting to always design for people like yourself, but that leads to weak and shallow design.

While I worked at IDEO, I was lucky enough to work on redesigning the voting system for Los Angeles County. During research, the team made sure to capture voices from every walk of life. We talked with teens who just turned 18, to senior citizens, to people who were paralyzed, to non-English speakers, and to folks who had never used a computer before.

Ernie is a postmaster who stopped voting after he became blind.

Something magical happened as we designed for inclusivity. Instead of growing weaker from accommodating more types of users, the design became stronger and stronger. For example, our blind users like Ernie gave great feedback on our audio UI. Improving this didn’t just help the blind, but sighted users as well.

Stories for Design

Illustrations, photographs, and video are great for stories. These sketches explain the biggest pain points of One Medical for our patients and care team.

We can think of design as the thing that resides on a screen. But this is a dangerous trap. The value in design isn’t in the way it looks, but how people use it and how it shapes their lives. Use stories to impart meaningful context and effectively communicate content.

As you design with stories, ask yourself…

  • Is this story true? Resist the urge to make up fake user personas and scenarios. Instead, pull references from research. Even a fictional story can feel real in its details and how it makes people feel.
  • How do I get people to care? Think back to your favorite movies, radio shows, books, etc. These storytellers are masters of affecting human emotion. Use these same techniques to galvanize your team around your design.
  • Am I thinking beyond pixels? It’s limiting to think of yourself as a designer of screens. Empower yourself to be a designer of feelings and behaviors.
The One Medical lab process. Ganga, my provider, orders a test. That’s me getting my blood drawn. Then the specimen gets sent off to Labcorp. Finally, it’s reviewed by a member of the virtual medical team.

At One Medical, I led design on a project to improve the way we do labs. It was tempting to start creating beautiful infographics with patient data. But from research, we knew that our members care most about speed. If you were waiting on a test for HIV, you would want those results back as quickly and accurately as possible.

The best solution is not always digital. We ended up making better tools for our internal team to triage and review labs. By thinking beyond pixels, we were able to arrive at a more effective design.

Stories for Collaboration

Our most popular design event at One Medical was “Future Friday”, where we brainstormed around the future of the company and ate Dipping Dots.

I’m going to tell an embarrassing story. One of my first jobs as a designer was working for a mobile website that collected surveys. I worked for weeks on a redesign, alone in my design cave. When I finally revealed my grand vision to my team, no one understood it or even cared about. I forgot to take my team with me.

No matter how good your design is, it won’t be built without the help of others. Use stories as a tool to collaborate and build a shared vision of the future that everyone believes in.

One of our favorite storytelling methods at One Medical is improv. We go out into the field with some rough prototypes and ask users to act out a skit. Besides being incredibly fun to do, we get great research finding and have an easy way to share back to the rest of the team.

Experience prototyping One Medical’s check-in experience.

Faster Alone, Farther Together

If you want to move fast, by all means go at it alone. But if you want to go far, you’ll need a team. I hope with the things you’ve just learned, you can go farther with your team and design an amazing future together.

If you’re looking for your next team, One Medical is hiring! We work on serious healthcare challenges but don’t take ourselves too seriously. Message me at xxin at

Our team of engineers, doctors, product managers, product leaders, and designers collaborating on the future.

Storytelling Resources

Thanks David Hoang, Stacy La, Amy Zhang, and Shelagh McLellan for your generous support!