“I just want to dance again” – What happens when you listen instead of researching

This was original posted on Medium

Sometimes someone says something that really hits you in the gut and you realise that the problem you’re solving is not the problem you thought you were solving.

User research is a lovely euphemism thought up by someone who needed to sell the very human act of listening empathically to a budget holder. This can mean we forget the empathy bit and get sucked into the research, trying to find an end to the means we’re using.

When you talk about health system problems every day for months and months with the people that are impacted by it. It can be easy not to hear what that impact is, because you become obsessed with “system problems” and not “human problems”.

What is a system problem? This comes from a theory called System Thinking. When you’re trying to fix problems in complex systems like healthcare you start thinking about “people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organisation “healthy” or “unhealthy”.

In general it is far easier to concentrate on structures and processes because they’re inanimate objects that can be rewritten (although being enacted and used is the people bit).

So in the NHS you tend to start thinking about stuff like cost and procurement rather than patient impact. As there are budgets to balance and only so much time and energy available to explore different options outside of your current system.

But structures and processes are the embodiment of how people think and feel. When we think and talk of systems we miss the profound impacts on people that a system should be serving.

That is why early on we just talked to people. We tried hard to listen far more than we talked. We listened to the things that don’t turn up in reports and can’t be calculated on spreadsheets.

These are Human Problems.

“My brother would burst into tears every time we drove past a hospital, because of how painful his orthotics appointments were”

“I’d rather not walk than have to use my orthotic boots. I can’t wear them with anything nice”

“My son will only wear his orthotics to play football even though his bones dislocate opening a door”

“My mum was a dancer. But she can’t dance or wear nice shoes because of the orthotics she gets.

She just wants to dance again.”

That last one hit me harder. Why?

I think it was because up till then I’d only spoken to parents and young people that use orthotics because of long term conditions. The conversations with those people are different in the sense that their lives have been changed and they’ve adapted. Things aren’t great but they have developed various coping mechanisms over time.

Then there are those where something happens suddenly, for example a stroke. The things that you took for granted are taken away or changed dramatically.

You were a dancer.

Now you’re not allowed to be.

I choose my words carefully, because she could be a dancer again but the system doesn’t allow it. The system is designed to fix mechanical problems with the body not create services and products that fit in with your life.

The realisation was that choice, beauty, and self worth need to be a cornerstone of our work.

We’re currently talking to designers to make this a key part of our service, because we can use technology to enable people physically and mentally.

One of the reasons we use digital technology like 3D printing and scanning, is it allows us to design things that traditional techniques don’t allow.

For example this stunning 3D printed ball gown for Dita Von Teese could easily be a back brace without anyone ever noticing, beyond saying how beautiful it was.

Dita Von Teese 3D printed dress

Or making a simple cast cool (and washable in the shower).
Cortex 3D printed cast

This isn’t just about making things better and more quickly.

It is about making them beautiful, and allowing you to dictate what that beauty is for you.

It is about dancing again.

We’re also starting a crowd funding campaign soon. Interested in backing us?

Dita Von Teese image courtesy of Shapeways

Cortex cast image courtesy of Evill Design

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