Designing healthcare solutions: How trying to get better made me sick

Stephan Takken
5 min readSep 4


In this article I will share the lessons I’ve learned the hard way, mostly for your entertainment 🤪, but hopefully the personal touch of this story will make some of the lessons stick.

In 2017, I found myself deeply immersed in the healthcare industry, passionately crafting digital solutions for individuals battling chronic pain and asthma. (More about that here) Simultaneously, my personal life was undergoing significant changes — I became a father for the first time, got married, and started an ambitious renovation project that left only the outer walls of our house standing. Renovating with a three -month baby in the house? Let’s just say it wasn’t the best combination.

Professionally, the intensity mirrored my personal life. The design department had crumbled, and the task of rebuilding it fell upon my shoulders. I crisscrossed the globe, grappling with demanding projects that tested my mettle.

💡 Tip 1: Shocker! Maintain work-life balance

Balancing personal and professional life is crucial. Personal stressors can impact your performance as a design professional. Make sure you have time for self-care and family, those should always be #1 and #2 on your priority list, work may come in on #3 🧑‍💻

Towards the end of 2017, I was hit by a series of intense stomach flues that would bring even the toughest of soldiers to their knees. Little did I know that these illnesses would uncover long-buried emotional trauma from my childhood, leading to a challenging psychological journey. Struggling at work, I sought help from our company doctor, who prescribed some much-needed rest. The relief, however, was short.

Day after day, I experienced a sensation that feels like an impending stomach flu, leading me to eat less and less. Eating had become synonymous with feeling sick. Desperate for answers, I consulted a specialist who, after an endoscopy, diagnosed me with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

Now, the beast had a name, but I had to find a way to tame it.

Drawing from my healthcare industry experience, a lightbulb moment struck:

“Why not apply my designer knowledge to my own situation?”

I embarked on a meticulous analysis of my daily life — tracking everything from diet and water intake to sleep patterns and work hours. Even the intricate details of my digestive habits 💩 found their place on my personal dashboard. The goal? To discern patterns and pinpoint potential triggers.

Every day for three weeks, I documented my life meticulously. It was a detailed task, but I was determined. However, my dedication took a toll. My eating habits deteriorated, and I found myself surviving on a mere few spoonfuls of plain rice, a fact reflected in my plummeting weight.

Seeking professional help again, my hospital specialist referred my to a food therapist and an IBS therapist. Eager to present my meticulous analysis and discuss next steps, I was met with an unexpected response — they were far from pleased. They insisted I cease my analysis and visualization immediately, asserting that I was inadvertently reinforcing a confirmation bias, make my condition worse.

💡 Tip 2: Data visualization can help, but be cautious

Visualizing data can reveal insights, but it’s not always suitable for personal health conditions with psychosomatic elements. Avoid excessive focus on data, especially if it worsens your condition.

💡 Tip 3: Embrace feedback

Don’t be afraid to pivot when feedback suggest your design isn’t effective. Accepting criticism is a vital part of design.

IBS, especially in my case, had a psychosomatic dimension — my mental state was inextricably linked to my gastrointestinal distress. In essence, I had become both the experimenter and the guinea pig, testing my own healthcare concepts. In these concepts, we collected comprehensive data, visualized it, and used computer to analyze patterns. The goal was to uncover potential triggers for health issues, a concept beneficial to both patients and doctors. Mostly because doctors, burdened with short, time-constrained patient interactions, often had to rely on patients’ subjective recollections. Visualizing data over time could provide a more precise and unbiased picture.

However, in my personal case, this approach backfired. It did not help; it made me sicker due to my intense focus. For conditions with a psychosomatic element, data visualization may not be the solution. What did help, though, was a combination of regular meditation, immense patience, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. This is a psychotherapy technique that helps in healing symptoms and emotional distress stemming from traumatic life experiences.

💡 Tip 4: Collaborate with experts

In healthcare design, consulting experts is invaluable. Collaborate with multiple healthcare professionals from multiple health angles to ensure your solutions align with medical best practices.

💡 Tip 5: Prioritize user well-being

When designing for health, always prioritize the user’s well-being. Ensure your solutions enhance users’ lives rather than causing undue stress.

Fast forward to today, nearly 7 years later, and I‘m still dealing with the aftereffect of that tumultuous period of illness. While my core issue ran deep, my attempt to design a solution for myself significantly worsened the situation. If you ever find yourself in a similar health predicament, avoid using yourself as a guinea pig. Think twice about your design choices and ensure they align with your intended outcomes.

Having said that, user testing in healthcare is a challenging endeavor, as my experiences have illuminated. Always seek the counsel of healthcare experts and conduct a comprehensive review of your concepts before applying them to real individuals with genuine health concerns.



Stephan Takken

Design Specialist, focus on cognitive psychology, design thinking & product design processes.