Interview with Stacy La— Director of Design at Clover Health
In this episode of Healthcare + Design, I interview Stacy La, Director of Design at Clover Health. Clover Health is a data-driven health insurance startup driving to improve the overall state of healthcare in America.
When was the first moment you realized you wanted to be a designer? What first got you interested in design?
I’ve always been interested in art and design since I was young. I was interested in design and technology in high school because that’s when the internet was becoming more mainstream and having internet access (albeit on dial-up), was a thing. My best friend and I started making websites on Geocities for fun. In school, I was on the school paper and yearbook, and took a graphic design class. I loved organizing information and incorporating my own creativity to communicate it through words, photography, or graphics. That is my earliest memory of starting my winding path in design.
Can you explain your career thus far and how you ended up designing in the healthcare space at Clover Health?
I’ve jumped around trying many different things before ending up at Clover. I majored in journalism and was interested in economic development so I studied abroad in Prague, Vietnam, and the Netherlands. After college, I got a contract job as a front-end developer (those Geocities and MySpace skills came in handy!) and did that for a few years while I pursued a graduate degree in HCI because I wanted to do more creative work.
My first real design job was at an agency in SF where I got to work with big companies like Logitech for GoogleTV, Intuit, and VMWare. The thing that’s connected everything I’ve done is my desire to solve big problems, to tell important stories, and to help others. I found that design was a perfect vehicle to do all of those things.
I later went in-house to Yammer, where I worked with Clover’s co-founder, Kris Gale. When he left to start Clover, he recruited me to lead design. I was drawn to the mission and the challenge Clover presented, so I joined at the end of 2014.
You were a design lead at Microsoft. Now you lead the design team at Clover. What are the differences being a design leader for a large established company like Microsoft vs leading a design team at a smaller startup like Clover Health?
The biggest difference is structure. Microsoft is 40 years old with 124,000 employees. Clover is four years old with 500 employees, which is extremely fast growth for a startup. At Microsoft, things like performance reviews, leveling, and role descriptions are established. Microsoft had a design system and style guide.
At Clover, we had to figure everything out as we went along. The company at 5 to 50 to 100 to 500 people are very different at each stage. We had to develop everything from scratch, which was the exciting part about joining. I not only get to build a design team, but I get to shape the future of Clover and how we work.
Can you explain what Clover Health is and what benefits it offers its users?
Clover Health is an insurance company in the Medicare Advantage space, which means our members are 65 and older or on disability. It’s a population more prone to health problems. We are attempting to improve health outcomes using data and technology to surface possible interventions.
For example, if a member hasn’t refilled their prescription to manage their diabetes, we can call them to understand why. Sometimes it’s because they forgot, it makes them feel worse, or it’s difficult to get the medication. From there, we can coordinate care with their doctor to get them on a better medication or help figure out ways to help them get their medication.
Not taking medication regularly or visiting a primary care doctor are factors that lead to hospital readmissions. Reducing hospital readmissions reduces medical costs for us and our members.
Why do you work at Clover Health? More specifically why did you choose to design in the healthcare industry?
There are few companies tackling a problem as complex as Clover. The U.S. spends more on healthcare than other high-income countries, but has worse health outcomes. The U.S. spends over a trillion dollars a year on Medicare and Medicaid alone — that’s a third of our federal spending. It’s insane. It’s an incredibly broken system.
I chose to work at Clover for a few reasons. Growing a design team and defining what design could be in an underdesigned industry was a big opportunity for me. Few companies develop technology to improve the lives of our member base — they’re elderly, often low-income and struggling with multiple chronic diseases. I felt like our model could change some of the systemic issues that we see in the healthcare industry like misaligned incentives between doctors, insurers, and patients.
How big is your design team? How do you split up work amongst everyone on the team? Do you all work together? Do you work closely with developers and other members outside of the design team?
The product design team has eight designers, and I’m currently building a user research team. Everyone on the team works on project teams consisting of a product manager, engineer, data scientist, and operations specialist. Outside of project teams, designers work with the design team on developing our Design System and team processes. Clover has a very collaborative work environment. Because of the complexity of our operations and product, we have to work closely with almost every function outside of the design team.
What are the biggest/most interesting design challenges you are currently facing at Clover Health?
An interesting design challenge we have is defining emerging patterns, interactions, and visual systems from the ground up to solve for problems that haven’t been solved yet like simultaneous collaboration on content and applying those patterns to multiple pieces of software. Another challenge is designing for dense health information and visualizing data so it is easy to find the information you need.
I believe designers are an important part of a company’s DNA since they contribute to its culture, principles, and values. How has Clover Health built a culture that fosters design?
We don’t isolate the “design thinking” process to designers. It’s cross-functional every step of the way. We work with PMs, Engineering, Data Science, Operations, and our Customer Experience teams when we research the problem, ideate through sketching, prototype at different fidelities and test those outputs constantly. It’s an iterative process that requires us to work in a tight, collaborative fashion.
Designers use brainstorming activities to include everyone when we collaborate so the sessions are engaging and inclusive. It’s a skill that we can teach the rest of the company, so we can build the muscle and common language to productively work together.
How does data play a role in making design decisions? How do you design with the data you have on the Clover Health users?
Data drives a lot of our design decisions, but not in the traditional A/B testing sense. Clover’s product displays a rich amount of data in the form of health records, interactions, and financial information, and design’s job is to visualize that data in a way that people can do something with it. Data without context is useless. Data that doesn’t lead to some sort of insight or decision making is also useless. Design plays a key role in helping people make sense of lots and lots of data.
For example, we created a tool for our nurses to access a customer’s health record when they’re visiting a member’s home. This gives them an idea of what the member’s health is like with a list of a diagnoses, prescriptions, and interactions they’ve had with us. It also surfaces a health assessment that guides them through a wellness check for the member.
Healthcare is a confusing mess to someone like me who is new to the industry and sees how poorly designed everything is. How did you learn more about the industry better and get caught up to speed before you started designing and leading the team at Clover Health?
I did a ton of reading, observing, and asking questions. I had to deeply understand the people and the healthcare ecosystem to understand why it’s so broken. It’s incredibly complex and difficult to untangle. Our member base and customer service team are out in New Jersey so I spent a lot of time there getting to know our members and how our operations in New Jersey worked. I spent a lot of time reading about Medicare, Medicare Advantage, and chronic disease management.
There was a lot of independent learning, but what I really missed was having other designers to learn from and bounce ideas off of. That’s why I started the Design for Healthcare Meetup. There are tons of resources and groups for designers in the Bay Area, but nothing specifically for designers in healthcare. Over 1,600 people joined the Meetup group and ~100 people show up to our events. It’s been a great way to connect and learn from other designers tackling similar problems.
How do you watch/test real Clover Health users? How do you ensure you are including them in the design process?
We’re developing operational software to start, so our users are our coworkers on customer service and clinical teams, which makes it easy to watch and test what we’re building. We also get to bring them into our process from the beginning in the discovery phase when we’re uncovering a problem we’re trying to solve. Our operational teams are very involved in helping us break down the problem and sketch solutions. We have user research sessions where we prototype with them — sometimes on paper, sometimes on Invision.
They’re also very involved in testing the software once it’s built. Our users are key for us in giving us real-time feedback once the software is live. Most of our coworkers have never been a part of developing software so it’s great to have them a part of designing the tool they’re using to do their jobs everyday. They get a real say in how it’s designed.
What are your personal and company goals in the next 5 years? Where do you see healthcare in general going in regards to technology?
One of our company goals is to be able to prove our model and expand to more states. One of my personal goals is to push the design bar for healthcare software. When people refer to well-designed healthcare software, I want Clover to be one of the companies that automatically comes to mind. A part of that is building a place that has a strong design culture that attracts designers, but also helps grow the designers that are here.
Not to be pessimistic, but I think healthcare in regards to technology will experience a lot of fragmentation with experimentation from different health tech companies before we make significant strides. Legacy technology, bureaucracy and regulations, and siloed practices are big obstacles. But I see it getting better in the future because of the massive investments going into it, and savvier consumers who have higher expectations of technology and service experiences in general.
How do you personally achieve healthy lifestyle? Do you own/any wearables? What are some other healthcare startups who really value design that inspire you?
It’s pretty basic for me — eating healthy and exercise. I love cooking too because you have control over what you put into your body, it’s creative, and food brings people together. When we talk about healthy lifestyles, it’s also important to include mental health. Having a community and close relationships are foundations for health and wellbeing and are things I constantly maintain.
Some healthcare startups that inspire me are places like Collective Health and Oscar, both companies in the health insurance space that changed what health insurance could look and feel like. I like the friendly, clear, and modern approach they have. I love what Honor is doing for home care for seniors, and what a beautiful brand and service they’ve built. And as a member of One Medical, I think their service design is awesome compared to traditional doctor visits.
Where do you seek inspiration and find motivation to do what you do? What are some websites you use to help you stay up to date in the industry?
I get inspiration from getting outside of my comfort zone — which is what led me to Clover actually. I used to spend long stints traveling abroad, and I was so inspired by how things work in other places and motivated by how I can be a part of making people’s lives better.
I get design inspiration from everything around me, even if it seems like the most mundane, unrelated things. For example, public transportation systems, getting your laundry done, and architecture vary depending on where you are in the world. I try and understand why things are a certain way, what works well, and how I can apply those principles and patterns to how we design software and services.
I’m in Design Facebook and Slack groups that are active in sharing different articles and trends. It’s also a good way to have conversations with other designers around these new trends. For healthcare, I follow Modern Healthcare.
What advice can you give to young designers looking to make connections and break into the industry at larger startups? What advice can you give to other designers and entrepreneurs working in smaller healthcare startups?
I think the biggest thing you can do is network. The design community is so open and willing to help each other that you can always find someone to talk to. What you’ve done with your interviews is really creative and proactive too! Keep writing on Medium and be an engaged member of the design community. Start conversations, contribute, and share knowledge. It sounds simple, but it takes a lot of time and effort, but it will help you professionally and personally.
For designers working in smaller healthcare startups, I’d recommend finding other designers that you can connect with and bounce ideas off of. It’s hard being a solo designer or on a small team trying to tackle such big, complex problems. It was a big reason why we started the Design for Healthcare Meetup because there wasn’t a centralized place for designers in this industry to connect.