Neethu Mathew is the designer of screw-less, superelastic glasses and a Ones to Watch winner. Here she talks about whether a more customer-led approach could improve NHS services.

There is no doubt that technology has become integral to our daily lives. As consumers, we are better informed and more demanding than ever before. We expect our voices to be heard by companies.

This has forced companies, particularly those in the retail sector, to become smarter in how they interact with their customers. Companies who have embraced these changes and re-focussed their brand message have not only seen their profits rise, but have also seen an increase in customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.

For example, Vodafone has recently redesigned its stores, shifting its focus from sales to the user. New sales and service attention models have been developed, as well as new in-store kiosk interfaces. The aim of this was to improve customer satisfaction, reducing waiting times and walkout rates.

In fact, the prioritisation of the “empowered” consumer is now so common in the retail industry that we don’t even notice it. Designers have worked in this private sector for many years, using tools such as customer mapping, observation and persona building to analyse how users really view the customer journey and how it impacts on them. Such tools have helped companies create a holistic and personalised consumer experience.

The rise of the “empowered” consumer is not only evident in the retail industry but is also slowly making itself known in our healthcare system. A study conducted by Wolters Kluwer Health in 2012 has shown that patients not only want their voices heard and valued, but that they also want to be treated as individuals. Patients crave a deeper, more personalised experience and want to play an active role in their treatment.

Introducing designers who have thrived in the private sector into public sector services such as the NHS can help solve patients’ complex problems. We know our healthcare system is in crisis. An ageing population with more chronic diseases and increased healthcare costs means that the NHS is being forever pushed to its limit.

Because of this, a number of experts in the healthcare community are keen to encourage the rise of the “empowered” patient who is able to self-manage their diagnosis. Research has shown that as patients become more involved in their own health management, they can experience greater confidence, decreased anxiety and a reduction in unplanned hospital admissions, which results in a better patient experience and, at the same time, saves the NHS money.

HELIX Centre is a company applying this process of self-diagnosis to the healthcare system. Their main aim is to team designers with clinical practitioners and researchers to develop products and services that can help solve healthcare problems.

A perfect example of this in action is the project they are currently running for cancer patients. Due to high patient numbers, high staff turnover and geographically dispersed sites, large London trusts perform badly in the National Cancer Patient Experience Survey. To bridge the gap between clinicians and patients, HELIX Centre has designed a system to help patients feel more in control and valued.

We are developing a simple visual system to help patients understand their individual care pathway.

Chris Natt, designer, HELIX Centre

Chris Natt, a designer at HELIX Centre and another one of Design Council’s Ones to Watch, explains: “cancer treatment is a stressful time for any patient. We are developing a simple visual system to help patients understand their individual care pathway, their clinical team and other third party support systems they can rely on.” This project has only just started but it is already highlighting how designers can build on opportunities in our healthcare system.


The simple visual system developed by HELIX Centre to help cancer patients visualise their care pathway.

HELIX Centre has also produced design materials communicating end of life care guidelines for clinicians, based on guidance written by an alliance of 21 organisations.

HELIX was asked to use design to help communicate this guidance in a useful and practical way, but in a manner that was not a protocol or pathway. They produced a portfolio of communication products, including a strong, clean and simple visual identity, using posters, leaflets and apps. The resulting guidelines were nationally distributed and are available through the NHS IQ website.

Equally, Design Council has recognised the importance of using design to improve patients’ wellbeing and healthcare surrounds through recent projects such as Design for Care and the A&E Design Challenge, which aimed to reduce violence and aggression in A&E departments.

In particular, the evaluation of the A&E Design Challenge proved that design solutions can be effective in this setting, with 75% of patients experiencing less frustration during waiting times by the end of the project and £3 generated in benefits for every £1 invested. 

Of course we are not going to find a single solution that solves all our problems. But, as the NHS starts to change, designers need to be ready to help establish, develop and maintain a NHS which stays relevant for today’s society.

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