Christopher Reflects on Design Thinking Empathy Experience with Hospice

How a group of K-12 educators were able to innovate in a new space because of a personal empathy experience.

HFLI’s Christopher Patten reflects:


“In my opinion, finding a meaningful learning experience that introduces you to Design Thinking can be like finding a restaurant during your first trip to New York City. You might get lucky and find a neighborhood place with reasonable prices, a friendly staff, and remarkable food. Or, you might find yourself lured by someone with a fake Italian accent into a restaurant near Times Square that offers $30 tiramisu. With design thinking beginning to bourgeon in corporate America, the opportunities to learn about it are endless. In the non-profit and public sectors, our budgets don’t allow for us to pay for, as author of Creative Confidence Bruce Nussbaum writes, expensive consultants “who encourage participants to wear funny hats and write wild ideas on a whiteboard.”

Good design thinking experiences start with good empathy experiences. Good empathy is emotional, captures our attention, and makes us want to investigate further. Good empathy is personal, helping us confront our own intuitions and ask meaningful questions. Good empathy makes us want to listen, because we know what we are learning about is urgent, relevant, and affects real human beings. Investigating hospice, which encapsulates so many of these qualities, is an ideal place from which to create a design thinking experience.

In July, Henry Ford Learning Institute hosted an Introduction to Design Thinking Workshop for K-12 educators and administrators in Detroit. We partnered with Hospice of the Bluegrass in Lexington, Kentucky to design an empathy experience for the workshop’s participants. Marilynn Morrow, a senior hospice nurse, Turner West, Director of Education and Community Programs, and Catherine Smith, a Hospice of the Bluegrass volunteer, joined the workshop via Google Hangout.

As I observed our participants interacting with Marilynn and Turner, I watched an audience that was fully engaged, confronting their assumptions about hospice, and asking endless questions. I planned for 20 minutes; we talked for an hour. The educators discovered issues around a patient’s legacy, clinging family members, or the ways in which nurses share tacit knowledge to troubleshoot in the moment.

The insights were countless because the empathy experience was rich.


Less than 12 hours later, that audience had designed an array of prototypes that improved the hospice experience for a variety of users: patients, their families, and of course – nurses. From an iPad app that helps patients digitally record their legacy for future generations, to a gift box that can be filled with artifacts to calm and support different users in the hospice system, and a journal, coined “Journaling the Journey,” that family members write in and later give to their hospice nurse to express their appreciation after the patient has passed away. One might think these prototypes had been produced by a design firm after performing countless hours of research — or by an especially creative and invested family member of a hospice patient. A group of K-12 educators, most of whom knew nothing about hospice, had been able to innovate in a new space because of the personal, human, and real-world empathy experience Hospice of the Bluegrass provided.

A month later, I met a couple of the workshop participants at another meeting. I listened to her describe in great detail an experience that had made an impact on her. “That was a real design thinking workshop!” she said. It was clear her enthusiasm hadn’t diminished. Good empathy sticks around. Crazy hats just don’t.”

Christopher Patten is Associate Director of Design Thinking for Henry Ford Learning Institute, which is located in the Detroit-area.

Source: Hospice of the Bluegrass

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