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Designing for Health Innovation: the Seattle Design Summit

Recently, frogs Teaque Lenahan and Jake Zukowski facilitated the Seattle Design Summit with the help of designers Jenni Light and Kat Davis. The summit was part of AIGA's larger Design for Good initiative, which aims to put design at the forefront of positive social change. Sponsored by PepsiCo's Nutrition Ventures, the two-day event focused on guerrilla design research and divergent thinking as a catalyst for health innovation, particularly in the prevention of lifestyle diseases.

The summit explored both the micro and the macro factors that lead to inactivity, poor nutrition, and ultimately preventable illness. A reoccurring theme throughout the conference was that real, lasting change could only be brought about by collaborative disruption. Summit attendees included experts in health familiar with quantitative research, designers versed in qualitative research methods, and public health leaders experienced in the practical implementation of health programs.

Day one of the summit focused on a broad introduction to design research. Participants quickly moved from learning about research to doing research. After dividing up, four groups each received a description of a persona archetype, which would inform and inspire their designs throughout the event. Personas included:

  • 78 year-old recently widowed woman
  • 25 year-old recent transplant to Seattle
  • 31 year-old new mother
  • 36 year-old career-driven technologist

Before going out into the field, the groups discussed assumptions about their persona and his or her health challenges. As they headed out to explore the neighborhoods their personas might inhabit, frog encouraged groups to question these assumptions, rely on their innate curiosity, and trust in the power of observation.

Knowing that documentation allows an observation to be shared and remembered, participants snapped photos of the environment and of the subtle messages that daily influenced their personas. As they walked through the streets, group members shared their observations out loud so that insights could be shared and built upon. Environmental immersion led one group to hop on a bus they thought their persona would take across town. Another group hung out in a family-owned Asian grocery store, sampling ginger and the local food culture.

A large part of the guerrilla design research included incepts, stopping people on the street for quick interviews. Groups sub-divided into pairs and approached individuals they spotted in the community. While awkward at first, participants quickly embraced the opportunity to engage with the real "experts" and dispel conjectures they had made about their personas.

One group interviewed a mother who was resting with her children in a women's restroom. As they spoke with her, she confessed to feeling so rushed throughout the day and focused her children's needs that she often forgot her own. In fact, she admitted she had not yet gotten to eat that day. A group member glanced down at their watch. It was 3pm.

Armed with their own stories from the field, groups returned to the Tether studio to revisit their initial assumptions about their personas with concrete reference points from the afternoon's explorations. Creating a day-in-the-life journey map, participants wrapped up the session with a more informed picture of the target audience for their design solutions.

Day two of the summit focused on moving from research into ideation. Groups began by sorting and categorizing pictures from the previous day, looking for patterns, opportunity areas, and pain points. Once themes emerged, groups narrowed their focus to explore a few areas of interest including increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, increasing nutritional education, increasing the activity of sedentary workers, building community around food, and providing health solutions for on-the-go moms.

With focus areas chosen, groups went broad by generating as many ideas as possible to help mitigate problems or to expand upon existing, healthy behavior. Fearlessly, health professionals and designers alike began sketching out their ideas as a way to communicate their concepts to the larger group of participants. After receiving group feedback, participants further refined their ideas through storyboarding. 

At the end of the day, each group presented their final concepts with evident enthusiasm for the ideas and for their potential to affect real change. Final concepts included a non-numerical rating system for foods, cooking and music meetups, a "fitbit" stroller, and a rethinking of grocery store layouts.

Part of a three-city initiative, including New York and Birmingham, the Seattle Design Summit brought together a diverse group of participants around a common goal, health and nutrition innovation. Design professionals took away a deeper knowledge about applying a holistic design process to health and wellness problems, while community leaders and health professionals developed an understanding of how the design toolset can apply to healthcare innovation. Most importantly, however, was the summit's ability to put passionate people who deeply care about improving Seattle's health into the same room. Connections were made, and networks were strengthened. The real value of the summit will be as designers, practitioners, and partners continue to collaborate and apply design principles to tough social problems in Seattle and beyond. frog is proud to be a part of furthering this effort.

Kat Davis is an Interaction Designer in frog's Seattle studio.