A step-by-step guide to reinventing patient experience through human-centered innovation

Brian Solis

Digital Anthropologist, Futurist and 8x Bestselling Author

A step-by-step guide to reinventing patient experience through human-centered innovation

17 September 2020 | 9min

Quick Takes

  • To thrive, patient experience (PX) requires human-centered innovation

  • PX is defined as the sum of all experiences a patient has with your organization in every stage of their journey – emphasizing the importance of total experience design

  • PX requires the integration of leading experience design, customer experience, and user experience

Experience design is the next frontier for healthcare providers and those that master it will move beyond customer experience (CX) and patient experience (PX) to focus on the more important, yet complex, human side of experiences (HX).

Staff at the University Hospital Southampton in southern England walked in to work on May 7, 2020, to discover a surprise left by the elusive, world-renowned artist Banksy. The touching artwork pays tribute to Britain’s National Health Service’s heroic staff with a depiction of a young boy choosing a nurse as the superhero to play with over Batman and Spiderman. 

“When you’re walking around and everything is so clinical, and to see a beautiful picture like this, it warms the heart. It’s just beautiful,” one staffer told Reuters.

A place “where everything is so clinical” so accurately describes the visual experience of most healthcare facilities. Other descriptors might include sterile, dim, and institutional. These types of adjectives induce moods and emotional responses that in this case are likely to induce concern, anxiety, fear, and withdrawal. It’s no wonder why human beings, for the most part, dread visiting medical offices, clinics, labs, hospitals, and the like.

These distressing feelings can lead to patients delaying or forgoing visits. I don’t believe any healthcare professional wants to represent an experience that’s off-putting. Nor is it anyone’s desire to represent a brand that customers have a negative or reluctant relationship with. Yet, that’s exactly the case with so many healthcare system brands.

Defining Patient Experience

We all understand the importance of patient experience (PX). But what does it really mean?

How would you define it if you had to right now?

At one point in my quest to align stakeholders around experience design, I challenged myself to define it in a way that anyone could understand.

This question led me on an entirely different journey where going through the exercise of defining human experience, whether that was CX or PX, helped me get to the heart of the matter. In the end, the definition was so simple and refreshing. Yet, in our work, CX/PX gets so complicated because of factors we can and cannot control. It’s easy to lose our perspective. But we can never forget that experience is personal, deeply so. Thus, our work affects people personally. 

When I wrote my previous book, X: The Experience When Business Meets Design, I found it more difficult than it should have been to find working definitions of the most common terms, such as experience, customer experience, user experience, service design, etc. So, as we think about defining PX, it helps to start where I started, with X.

Let’s take a step back and define it for what it should be, simply, to move us forward in a unified direction. Then let’s collectively raise the bar and deliver against or ahead of evolving patient preferences and expectations.

As Albert Einstein once observed, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

The following definitions are highlights of what I arrived at in my work, just something to get us centered and guide us moving forward.

Experience: An emotion or series of emotions felt in a moment. Experience is something you feel, something you sense and interpret… It can be measured by how you react.

Customer experience (CX): Cx or patient experience (PX) is the sum of all engagements that a customer/patient has with your organization and the ecosystem at every touchpoint throughout their journey. Their experience is measured by how they feel in each moment, which collectively shapes their sentiment toward your services and brand. How they express their impressions and perceptions of you then shapes how others perceive your brand.

User Experience (UX): The design of all aspects that form the patient’s experience through each interaction with the company, its services, and its products, physically and digitally. These elements form the touchpoint that defines the journey. Think about this as user engagement and how that engagement translates into patient activity, digitally and physically, in each touchpoint and across the patient journey.

The common theme here is that customer or patient experience is personal and it’s informed by how someone interacts with you, in every step, online and in the real world. This is why, in experience design, we refer to each touchpoint as a critical “moment of truth.” The experiences that a patient has in each touchpoint define how they will feel, and ultimately, how they will remember the brand, how they recall and talk about it, and how they feel about it ahead of the next engagement.

I don’t believe anyone reading this wants a patient to have anything but the best experience possible. But when we talk about patient experience, we can’t really contextualize or empathize with someone if we’re looking at numbers on a spreadsheet.

Whether it’s costs, profitability/losses, satisfaction, growth, etc., we tend to lose sight of the people who matter most at the very moments when they need us. When we do so, PX becomes more aligned with cost centers versus investments in how people feel and how they feel about us.

Someone needs to be the champion for the voice of the patient. Who represents the patient in executive meetings and before important decisions are made?

Their voice, their perspective, and their experiences count for pretty much everything.

When we talk about PX, the only perspective that really counts is the patient’s. This is why when I talk about customer or patient experience, I add an apostrophe at the end to make it possessive. Something so simple adds a huge shift in perspective, not just in our eyes, but also in how we talk about it at the executive level. Doing so makes it the “customer’s experience” or the “patient’s experience.”

It’s a reminder of why our work is so important. It’s theirs. It’s a reminder to consider how they feel as the people who inspire our work, how we engage someone throughout their journey, and how we measure success. The “s” also reminds us that we can do so much more. 

This is a good time to take a step back to appreciate what patient experience really means, especially in these times so that we can explore the future through a new and inspired lens. There are many ways to work toward experience design. But the only way that really matters is when it’s considerate, empathetic, intentional, holistic, relevant, and in alignment with the preferences, expectations, and aspirations of the customer/patient.

Designing the Patient Experience

From healthcare plans to healthcare systems to onboarding to policy to interactions with doctors, nurses, physicians, pharmacists, and general staff to scheduling appointments to parking to waiting rooms to examination rooms to furniture to music to paperwork and processes, almost every aspect of the patient journey is dated, inefficient, drab, uninviting, and disconnected. 

Design has a direct effect on how patients, and also caregivers, feel. When done right through intentionality – colors, art, furniture, process, technology, and staff training – patients can feel more at ease, calm, and secure.

More importantly, patients will feel better convinced that more inviting experiences are awaiting them and are worth the recurring visits. Taken together, all these aspects of design impact wellness. There’s even joy to be found in their patient journey, which can foster loyalty and advocacy, and become the ultimate competitive advantage. 

That’s the foundation of good patient experience and health and patient/caregiver loyalty. But it goes so much further than physical or space design, what healthcare companies must prioritize is total “experience design.”

Experience design considers the entire patient journey, physical and digital, before, during, and after visits. In each touchpoint, the patient experience is carefully considered. Engagement is empathetic and caring, connecting with people emotionally, at every stage. Experiences are evocatively woven together through space, services, technology, resources, and user experience. Together, they intuitively connect the dots to deliver a desired, mutually beneficial, memorable experience.

That’s powerful stuff.

As we covered earlier, it’s an emotional reaction in a moment. It’s personal. It’s theirs. Its impact can be measured by what someone takes away from that moment, what they do, what they remember, and how they retell that experience. 

Healthcare is inherently tied to emotional reactions and outcomes. That’s why patient experience is so important. Without design, experiences are left to chance, for someone to internalize our processes, policies, services, physical and digital touchpoints, on their own. 

Those experiences and the feelings they evoke become memories and those memories become associated with your brand. This is why experience design is so critical. You’re designing for the experiences you want people to have and remember, throughout the patient journey. 

To shape the brand and brand relationship you wish to create, start by understanding what the experience is today, at every step, through specific patient experiences. Then piece those experiences together to bring to life the existing state of the total patient journey, unvarnished and honest.

These insights will reveal what’s broken, what’s missing, what’s unacceptable, and what shines. More so, this is an opportunity to connect the dots between patient experiences, service, and business impact. 

A step-by-step guide towards enhancing your patient’s experience

1. Identify all the key players responsible for touchpoint design in the patient’s journey and form a cross-functional working group.
2. Identify the important personas who represent the existing patient-base and also the actors who represent growth opportunities.
3. Outline common scenarios for patients to audit specific journeys, touchpoint by touchpoint, persona by persona. Examples:
    1. Onboarding
    2. Appointment setting
    3. First-time visit
    4. Phone appointment
    5. Customer service/support
4. Listen to the voice of the patient and examine the behaviors, thoughts, and feelings patients experience as they go through the journey:
    1. Actions: Their real-world behaviors and steps.
    2. Mindsets: Their perspective, intent, thoughts, questions, motivations, desired outcomes, and information needs at different stages in the journey. 
    3. Emotions: Their sentiment as they experience emotional “ups” and “downs” in the journey.
5. Insights: Document opportunities discovered for improvement, optimization, and innovation in the journey.
    1. Where are the biggest opportunities?
    2. Evaluate the impact of optimization or innovation:
      1. High value vs. Low value
      2. High effort vs. Low effort
    3. What needs to be done? 
    4. Who owns what change? 
    5. How are we going to measure improvements?
6. Extra Credit: Research best-in-class customer experiences within your industry as well as other parallel industries and document key touchpoints and experiences.

Brian Solis is a world-renowned digital anthropologist and futurist who serves as Global Innovation Evangelist at Salesforce. He's also an 8x best-selling author and international keynote speaker. Forbes has called him “one of the more creative and brilliant business minds of our time.” Over the past 20 years, Brian has studied Digital Darwinism to understand the impact of disruption on businesses, markets and society. In his work, he humanizes emerging and disruptive trends to help leaders see new and more meaningful possibilities for digital transformation and innovation. Brian’s research explores experience design (CX, UX), artificial intelligence and the cognitive enterprise, and human behavior.