A Better User Group Experience?

Dr Jane Repin Carthey

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.

What is the focus of this blog?

Dr Jane Repin Carthey

The Australian Health Design Council promotes the use of evidence-based healthcare design. We also believe that we need to support the development of, and then to share widely the research that provides this evidence especially when it comes from academic and similar expert sources. We want to share rigorous, practical and useful research findings that can be applied to improve the design of our healthcare facilities.

Let us know if you can help us discover this and alert us to interesting research projects being conducted especially in Australia and New Zealand. Also, if you are working on a research project that may interest our members please drop us a line so that we can work with you to promote your work by inviting you to post on this blog. We look forward to hearing from you.

Why has AHDC started this blog?

Dr Jane Repin Carthey

Sharing research about health facility design with industry colleagues was one of the main reasons that the Australian Health Design Council (AHDC) was set up in 2012 by Jane Carthey and others. AHDC now has a well-established program of regular events for our members sharing health design innovations, evidence and experience. So it’s now time for us to go further in delivering value to our members. We invite you to view this blog regularly, and to contribute your experience and expertise wherever and whenever you can from time to time. This is a new and exciting journey for the AHDC and we invite you to join us on it.

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