A Better User Group Experience?

By Jane Repin Carthey

Jane Repin Carthey

Jane Repin Carthey is an architect, researcher and most recently a blogger. Her most recent experience on healthcare projects includes the Sunshine Coast University Hospital, Christchurch Hospital New ASB in New Zealand and the Westmead Project in NSW. Jane is the founder of the Australian Health Design Council which she established to share knowledge with all those interested in healthcare design. She has recently completed a Doctorate program in Creative Industries at QUT. Her research looked at how to improve the user group process for Australian and New Zealand healthcare projects.

ORCID 0000-0002-6749-6026

Why have design user groups at all?

Ever wondered why we consult with user groups on healthcare design projects? We all know that user groups can be really helpful but they can also be incredibly frustrating. As every healthcare designer knows, managing the user group process efficiently and effectively is key to getting the best out of it for our projects.

My recent research for a Doctorate in Creative Industries asked why the user group process came about. It also explored how those who have experienced it on recent projects in Australia and New Zealand rate its success. It also looked at how different types of users (e.g., clinicians, managers and designers) think about key issues such as design quality and the importance of this in creating a successful project. Users were defined as those who will “use” a new or refurbished healthcare facility. They will work together in a design user group usually led by a designer or project client representative such as a project manager/director, drawn from an inhouse role or an external consultant.

Research findings

So what were the main findings?

  • Designers are far more experienced with the design of healthcare design projects than almost all other user group members – no surprises there as this is usually their bread and butter work, and most have made it a focus of their practice and careers.
Designers are more likely to have greater experience with health design projects than other user group participants
  • Designers are more realistic about the faults and issues that arise in user group design settings – and in most cases think that it is probably the best way to design a healthcare facility compared to other possible alternatives.
  • Clinicians are often very cynical about the process. They are usually much less experienced in hospital design as design is not their focus or pre-occupation given their day to day jobs are to treat or look after patients!
Clinicians are more likely to believe that the user group process achieves ‘poor outcomes’ for projects than designers believe.
  • Managers, including project managers leading the design process on behalf of the project client, are keen to please as many people as possible – it makes their jobs easier and there is less chance of political interference if the clinicians are happy! Hence they sometimes make impossible demands of the design team in terms of program, time and scope of works for the design team.
  • When these impossible demands are met, everyone is unhappy and the project suffers.
In terms of achieving the requirements of project clients or funding bodies, clinicians were more likely to feel that the process achieves poor outcomes.

No surprises there either for anyone who has been through a user group process!

So what does this mean for designing our healthcare projects?

I am going to touch on a few key suggestions now, and expand on them in future posts.

To start with I suggest that we need to do the following things better:

  • Understand how other user group participants understand the world and how they make decisions. This includes how professional training and work practices shape interactions with colleagues within a profession or discipline, and also interprofessionally.
  • Appreciate how evidence from research is valued – as this should inform our design decisions.
  • We also need to appreciate the attitudes towards leaders and views about collaborating with others in a sometimes messy, extended process. This process often requires compromises and acknowledgement of the viewpoints of other team members.
  • Project governance – this is a whole topic all on its own – and many useful suggestions came from the research.
  • Decide and communicate exactly what a user group is supposed to do including the power it has to make or influence project-related decisions.
  • Evaluate the success of user groups in terms of achieving project aims and objectives – and learn from these evaluations to improve the future outcomes of the user group process.

This is just a very short introduction to the findings from my research. I will share more in future posts. I look forward to your comments and discussions on this topic.

A workshop run at the ACHSM Conference in 2019 worked with users to create greater understanding around how to improve the user group design process – more on this in future posts!

What’s next?

My next post will look at how our professional training shapes the way we see the world, analyse problems, and collaborate with other professionals.

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Published by Jane Repin Carthey

First-time blogger, founder of the Australian Health Design Council, health architect, academic, evidence-based design practitioner and advocate.

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