5 Key Lessons I Learned As A Pharmacist Studying Design

Chandni Umradia
November 25, 2020

Hi I’m Chandni. I’ve worked at Phlo Digital Pharmacy for 2 years and I currently work in our design team as a Healthcare Design Strategist.

I am a qualified Pharmacist and I studied a part-time master’s course in Healthcare & Design at Imperial College London & the Royal College of Art. I had the privilege of joining Phlo while I was still studying for my master’s and have been able to apply both my pharmacy and design knowledge at Phlo. My role has been wide ranging from helping to set up the initial pharmacy operations and working as a Pharmacist, to being involved in designing the service and our digital product experiences.

A year on from completing my master’s, I’ve been doing some reflecting on my journey from healthcare to design and some of the key lessons I learnt about design from the course.

My journey into design

I completed my master’s in Pharmacy in 2015 and qualified as a Pharmacist, I became a full-time locum, working in community pharmacies across the UK. I worked in a variety of stores and met plenty of pharmacy staff along the way, but I felt that I kept seeing the same problems. Although it was obvious that my peers and I loved caring for patients, I realised that the NHS system didn’t always support us in doing our jobs most effectively. Rather than just complaining, I wanted to make a difference, but I just didn’t know how I could. I’d always had a love for art and design — growing up I was always colouring, painting and sketching. However, since taking up the sciences, my hobby drifted away and instead, I became fascinated by scientific experiments, the human body and how medicines cured disease.

In early 2017, my brother recommended that I read the book Creative Confidence by David M. Kelley and Tom Kelley from IDEO. The book opened my mind up to so many possibilities — it made me realise that I could reclaim my creativity, approach problems in an innovative way and potentially apply design thinking to the healthcare industry. A few months later I came across the MSc Healthcare & Design course and just knew that I had to apply. Although I had no clue about how the design world really functioned at this point, I portrayed my passion and was lucky enough to get a place!

The course was 2-years part-time and consisted of eight modules, plus a dissertation. It’s very unique in that it’s a marriage between two distinguished universities within their respective industries. They encouraged the collaboration between design and clinical professionals and had the foresight to recognise the benefit of two disciplines combining. I felt that both designers and clinicians on the course were pushed out of their comfort zones. We were exposed to each other’s perspectives, experiences and approaches to problem-solving, which allowed us to give birth to some incredibly interesting and innovative designs!

Here are some of the key lessons I learned about design from the course:

1. Everyone has the ability to be creative

As mentioned, I loved creative activities when I was younger and have always appreciated art, but I stopped practising and felt for a while that I’d lost my creativity. However, upon starting the Healthcare & Design course, our tutors made sure we knew that EVERYONE can be creative.

Creativity isn’t just about being ‘naturally gifted’ and sketching like a pro, you can learn to approach problems in a creative way. As Tom Kelley says in Creative Confidence: “Like a muscle, your creative abilities will grow and strengthen with practice.” The more I began practising design and creative activities again, the more I could think laterally to come up with innovative ideas.

2. Empathy and collaboration are key

Design is a collaborative exercise. It’s rarely the case that a designer comes up with a concept and brings it to life all by themselves. Part of the fun of being a designer is working with others! Communicating and collaborating with others can broaden your perspective and spark innovative ideas that you’d never think of otherwise. Also, it’s extremely important as a designer to empathise with key stakeholders to understand their needs and receive regular feedback on your ideas.

In one of our modules, we were challenged with designing a solution that helped to reduce nurse interruptions on hospital wards. We spent time shadowing nurses while they were constituting medicines, we conducted interviews and observed the wards. This gave us a good understanding of why the problem occurs, who is affected and how it impacted the nurses work. We were also able to get a holistic view of the environmental, social and practical challenges present in a hospital ward. The positive feedback we received when we presented our solutions to the nurses at the end of the project taught me a lesson. Only by spending time empathising with your end-user and understanding their needs, will you be able to design a truly valuable and effective solution.

3. Don’t be attached to your ideas

I distinctly remember very early on in the course, our tutors instructed us to get into groups and design an accessible solution for patients with physical disabilities. At the end of the week, we had to deliver a group presentation about our solution, which would be assessed.

In our teams, we conducted user interviews, created user journey maps, ideated, and felt accomplished to have selected a solution by the end of Tuesday. On Wednesday morning we were hit with a surprise. They told us we had to change groups and stay in these new groups for the remainder of the week, including the presentation. Looking around the room, you could see faces of confusion, disappointment, and frustration — why were they making us do this? They wanted to teach us that, as a designer, you can’t be attached to your ideas. You may have to hop on and off projects without seeing your ideas through till the end, and you will see your idea evolve over time outside your control.

Design is an iterative process informed through feedback. The more cycles of feedback you go through, the better your solution will be. This means that you can’t have an ego as a designer and it’s crucial to develop a mindset to embrace critique. You’ll always be putting your ideas out for feedback, so if you’re attached to them, you’ll get your ego bruised and battered when your ideas inevitably face criticism or rejection.

4. When you’re at the beginning of the design process and don’t see the end in sight - just keep going!

It can feel overwhelming when you’ve discovered a whole bunch of amazing research insights and you have to make sense of it all. The more I’ve been through the design process at university and otherwise, the more I realise that there’s a tipping point past the maximum point of overwhelm and confusion. By taking a step back to look at the bigger picture, instead of immediately getting stuck in the details, you’ll be able to spot patterns in your data more easily. Map it all out on an affinity diagram and you’ll probably gain a sense of clarity, which will enable you to determine your next steps.

In the first few months of our course, we all noticed that most of the clinicians among us struggled to stop worrying and thinking about the end solution when going through the design process. Our course tutors were urging us all to stop thinking so far ahead and immerse ourselves in the process itself. It was probably our scientifically trained brains that expected there to be an optimum way or an objectively correct solution, which simply wasn’t there. The designers among us helped us to stay present, and practice being freer and more open-minded with our thinking. This was a huge lesson in taking a step back, letting go of the outcome, trusting the process and allowing yourself the space to be creative.

5. There is no ‘perfect’ design process

This follows on nicely from the last point — as a clinician I was used to having evidence-based guidelines to follow. I assumed the same with the design process, I initially thought there was a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’. I fretted at each step, asking myself whether I was doing things correctly, which ultimately just slowed me down.

It is worth remembering that the double diamond is just a framework; it’s iterative and you can re-visit any stage whenever you like. The tools you decide to use at each stage should be selected specifically based on the aims of your project. You can use them as you see fit and you can even modify the traditional tools you read about. It’s also worth mentioning that although there are some core principles of design that you can learn and apply, everything else should be fluid — there’s no perfect approach!

Source: Design Council

Taking this master’s has really opened my eyes to the importance of design, and has given me the tools to work towards solving the problems that I’ve seen first-hand, working within the healthcare industry. It’s paved the way to a new career that I’m super excited and passionate about!

The lessons I spoke about in this blog were just a few overarching insights I gained from being introduced to the world of design. However, the course covered so many more interesting topics in detail such as business design, innovation in healthcare and behaviour change.  

I'm really proud of the pharmacy service that myself and the team have built at Phlo. Why not try it out for yourself?

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