When creativity is empathy – designing for health & wellness in the digital age

Haiyan Zhang, Innovation Director at Microsoft Research and Jury President for Health & Wellness in the D&AD Impact Awards, discusses the need for empathy driven design in the health & wellness sector 

Creativity and design are essential forces for innovation in digital health. At its heart, care is a ‘people’ practice. It is about caring for patients either as individuals or communities. Medical students undertake training in bedside manners to understand how to be better communicators because it’s crucial they can relate to patients and are sympathetic to their needs. Student doctors train in real hospitals in real situations with real patients, so that the needs they learn about are tangible and real.

The wristwatch by Microsoft that suppresses Parkinson’s tremors

If it’s important for patient care to be compassionate and empathetic at its core, it follows that these qualities should also be at the core of emerging health & wellness practices. It is design that allows innovation, technology and engineering to be empathy driven. Practices and processes of design are human centered and based on insights into people’s experiences. Design allows innovation to become more powerful, creating touchpoints between technology and people rather than merely creating ‘tech for its own sake’.

If it’s important for patient care to be compassionate and empathetic at its core, it follows that these qualities should also be at the core of emerging health & wellness practices. It is design that allows innovation, technology and engineering to be empathy driven.

I’ve seen first-hand what a dramatic impact technology can have on people’s lives through my work with a young woman who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease. I’ve come to understand how important it is to design solutions that empathise with a patient’s situation. Emma Lawton is a designer and creative director who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at the age of 29. Five years since her diagnosis, she has struggled to write and sketch due to tremors that affect her hands. This has had an impact on with her career as a graphic artist. Together, we looked at the available support aids for Parkinson’s and found some great innovations but most were aimed at older people.

Consequently, I set about exploring new technologies that could alleviate Emma’s symptoms. Working with my colleague at Microsoft Research, Nicolas Villar, a senior researcher, we created a vibrating device fashioned as a wristwatch that suppressed Emma tremors. New technology innovations such as virtual and augmented reality, connected mobile devices and artificial intelligence, open up possibilities for entirely new forms of therapy and treatment.

For people suffering from pain, depression or isolation, virtual reality offers an alternative world to explore and escape to. What these virtual worlds might become is the domain of designers and creatives who are able to develop compelling, therapeutic landscapes, sounds and activities. For example, the tech startup Immersive Rehab is using VR to support patients through neuro- and physical rehabilitation by allowing them to perform exercises using virtual objects. By enabling an immersive exercise experience, the brain’s neuroplasticity can kick in and re-wire itself to improve motor function.

Never before have we been able to have our health constantly monitored, with truly personalised 24/7 health and wellness services beginning to emerge. Mobile apps such as Moodnotes and Clue allow users to track their most intimate personal details, offering insights into healthier thinking habits or ovulation windows, for example. While these make use of enriched mobile technology and constant connectivity, their delivery is based on designing digital interfaces that feel trusted and personal, like a best friend or a long-term doctor.

We are at a new juncture with potential to transform the way we think about health and wellness, to transcend the traditional approach to healthcare and reframe our experiences with a focus on wellness. For example, the Gensis Beijing is an architectural development emphasising environmental elements that contribute to the wellbeing of its visitors.

Artificial intelligence will challenge designers to create experience that evolve as they grow in usage and data or partner with clinicians to save lives. Some colleagues of mine are doing amazing work in this area to create assistive AI to help doctors treat cancer patients in a more targeted and effective way. The work comprises new computer science research into machine learning and thoughtful, deliberate user interface design that really helps doctors do their job. It is this merging of great technology and human, empathy-driven design that will deliver on the promise of a holistically healthy society in the fourth industrial revolution.


Haiyan Zhang is Innovation Director at Microsoft Research, Cambridge UK and Jury President for Health & Wellness in the D&AD Impact Awards. D&AD Impact seeks to identify and celebrate great, transformative, creative ideas that have had real impact and, ultimately, contribute towards a better, fairer and more sustainable future for all.

Entries are now open 

More from CR

Opera for all: how ENO is hoping to reach new audiences

It’s been a tough few years for English National Opera. In 2014, Arts Council England announced plans to cut the company’s funding by £5 million – a reduction of almost a third. In a statement explaining its decision, ACE praised ENO’s “ambitious work” and “important role in developing talent” but said it had struggled to reach box office targets and […]

COP_logo

Graphic Designers

College of Policing

Design Team Leader

De La Rue