Apr 18, 2013

Is your mental health expert smarter than a second year college student?

If we took what we know about how mental illness plays out in the world and let some second-year college students work on fixing it, would we end up with something better than what people experience today?

Today’s experience of mental illness, such as it is, developed through accretion. It is a mishmash of good and bad intentions, a clump of attitudes and practices, a basket of  traditions, economic and political factors, plus choices made since time immemorial. We have “cures” that include home remedies, scripts for talking with people, and manufactured pills and potions. We have “lifestyles” that include disempowerment, isolation, poverty, broken families, unemployment, poor health, even death.

What if we told our students to start from scratch, rejigger the whole thing. Redesign it,  using standard design techniques, a reasonable budget and some consensus-based mental health practices. What might this design team come up with?

Here are some of the principles the design team would use.

Unification.  The team would pull elements of the proposed solution from everywhere, not just from one discipline, but many. Whatever the origin, the product would work cohesively, as a unit.

Diversity. Designers are known to be self-referential. Men design for men, women for women, everyone for their own home culture. A diverse team delivers results appropriate for more people.

Accessibility. Users would know how the product functioned. The technology would be evident to the user.

Safety. The designer would understand the human factors involved, making sure the technology is safe for the user.

Simplification. Reducing the number of paths, parts and processes.

Problem solving. Addressing the user’s concerns, delivering something that makes a person’s life better.

Waste reduction. Reduce the burden of the product on the environment and on society at large.

Responsiveness. Deliver what the user demands. Create what the consumer wants, respecting the consumer’s motivations, even when the designer does not agree.

Appropriateness. Don't confuse commercial products with consumer products. Commercial products are money and process-driven, whereas consumer products must address the human needs of product users.

Deep research. Designers must immerse themselves in the user’s world to ensure they are reflecting the user’s desires, not their own.

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Yesterday I watched as these principles played out at the school where I teach, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Six industrial design technology students presented their capstone design projects, products ranging from bike racks to assistive devices to squeeze bottles to trash can bags. A group of experienced designers from Procter and Gamble, GE Aircraft and other local companies coached and mentored the students. Over the course of the four-hour event, the advisors highlighted additional opportunities to learn from users. What does the client want? How do you know what the client wants? Was the client satisfied with what you delivered? When something wasn’t safe, how might you fix it?  Would the fix be satisfactory to the client?

Needless to say, this was eye-opening for me. Mental health services are consumer products, after all. Why does no one listen to service users, people the system calls consumers?

This classroom of second-year undergraduate-level design technology students were figuring out how to solve any problem by listening to people, applying some basic prototyping and fabrication, and checking to see if the user’s needs were met.

How many of today's mental health experts can honestly say they do that?

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