User-Centric Innovation

Jul 10, 2013, 8:00 AM, Posted by

Christine Nieves / RWJF Program Associate Christine Nieves

Determined to increase my productivity and keep my desk free from clutter, I recently read an excellent book that several friends recommended to me called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. We at Pioneer talk quite a bit about what it takes to change behavior – what kinds of innovations can we support that will help more people embrace healthy habits? Implementing this book’s recommendations reminded me just how stressful change can be – even change that’s designed to reduce stress! And it got me thinking about how important it is to base any innovation on a real understanding of the people it effects.

I recently spent the day at the MedStar Institute for Innovation -– at Pioneer, we’re always interested in learning more about other units within large organizations that are focused on innovation (and we love to play host, too). Anyway, the folks at MedStar spoke quite a bit about human factors engineering. If you aren’t familiar (I wasn’t), human factors engineering is about accepting the fact that humans will inevitably make mistakes, and designing environments and tools that take that inevitability into account, so that the impact of mistakes is significantly decreased. Human factors engineering often goes hand-in-hand with extensive usability testing.

Here’s an example of applying human factors engineering to health care: A defibrillator has a green power button, and a red button that you press to activate treatment. A nurse, associating “green” with “go,” repeatedly hits the green button when trying to administer a shock to a patient; the device turns off and on, off and on, instead of delivering treatment, and the patient’s condition escalates. In this case, a simple change – changing the colors of the buttons – could result in a profound, life-saving result.

I was left wishing we could unleash an army of human factors engineers on our health care system. (What would be the first thing you'd ask them to look at?) Innovation is often associated with “big ideas” – but sometimes, small changes are the biggest ideas of all, especially when they’re based on paying close attention to the end user.

Going back to Getting Things Done – the individual steps Allen recommends aren’t revolutionary in and of themselves, but taken together, they can dramatically increase your productivity (or so I hear – and hope!). And I have that much more faith in his recommendations because they’re based on his over 30 years of experience as a coach and management consultant – in other words, he has deep, personal knowledge of the kinds of people his ideas are meant to help.

I’m curious: What are some examples you’ve seen of small changes having profound, transformative results? They don’t have to be specific to health or health care (though those examples are welcome) – after all, sometimes we find the best innovations for our own field by applying ideas from another discipline.

Thanks in advance! And by the way, if the subject of how we create and change habits interests you, I highly recommend The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. It’s a great read.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.