Dementia and design thinking

Submitted by marty on Tue, 08/14/2018 - 11:48

Ask anyone who has worked in dementia care and they'll tell you that one size doesn't fit all. This isn’t surprising when you consider that the word "dementia" is actually an umbrella term. This means that it's used to describe a wide range of progressive neurological disorders. In other words, any condition that affects the brain. That's a long list of conditions! For this reason, dementia affects every person in a different way, even if the underlying cause is the same, e.g. Alzheimer’s Disease.

This is why we're using design thinking to develop our solution to the Challenge Dementia Prize. Building Creative Communities will help people with dementia lead more fulfilling lives. We're planning an arts-based programme that will empower participants to express themselves, and keep them connected to the people and places around them.

Design thinking is, at its very heart, an attempt to understand the people that you're designing for. It’s process driven and relies on the desire to empathise with other people. It encourages you to take a scientific approach to the design process and challenge all assumptions. I've always found this way of thinking appealing. The only thing we should assume is that most of our assumptions are incorrect! Especially the long-held ones, or the ones we feel most certain about.

Design thinking is an iterative process that helps you re-frame a problem in a human-centred way. Many ideas are generated in brainstorming sessions. This is followed by a period of ongoing experimentation: a practical approach to prototyping and testing.

Design thinking is both a way of thinking and a collection of useful, hands-on methods. These include problem-finding, decision making, brainstorming, creative exercises, sketching, prototyping, testing and evaluating. The process encourages you to reach a true understanding of a problem space before trying to define the design challenge. This allows a team to more easily identify innovative strategies and solutions. Another, much shorter way to describe it would be, "a solution-based approach to solving problems."

Dementia is a wicked problem

Design thinking is most useful when tackling so-called "wicked problems". These are problems that are complex, ill-defined and sometimes even unknown. Single source solutions to these problems do not exist. The answer is always a compound of many ideas, strategies or approaches.

The challenge statement provided to us is one of these wicked problems:

"We are looking for ambitious and innovative products, technologies and services that enable people living with dementia to remain connected to the people and places around them, and to maintain their identity."

This is yet another reason why we've decided to use design thinking to tackle this important challenge.

Understand, explore and materialise

There are many different versions of the design thinking process. Some have three phases, others have up to seven. However, all of these variations are very similar and embody the same set of core principles. These were first described by Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon in The Sciences of the Artificial way back in 1969.

The version that we’ve decided to use has 6 steps split into three overarching phases. This particular brand of design think was made popular by the Nielson Norman Group (see Design Thinking 101 for more information):

  • Understand - During this phase, you attempt to (a) empathise with your target audience. Following this you attempt to (b) define the design challenge.
  • Explore - During this phase, you (c) ideate (generate ideas) and (d) prototype the most promising ones. Prototyping involves building a range of real, tactile representations of your ideas.
  • Materialise - In this phase, you (e) test and then (f) implement your chosen solution. Testing involves returning to your users for feedback. This valuable information is then used to improve your ideas.

Our three prototypes

Over the past few weeks, a lot of our development time has been spent researching existing arts-based interventions in dementia care. As a result of this in-depth research, we have decided to take forward three projects to the prototyping stage. These are:

  • Authors Uncovered - Creative writing classes for people living with dementia. To support the production of short stories, poetry and interactive fiction.
  • Memory Lane - A service offering bespoke photo walks in Essex. A group activity for people with dementia, their friends and family. Participants will plan a photo walk in their local area. The route will visit locations that hold positive sights, sounds and memories. With help from a professional photographer, participants will record the journey using documentary-style photography (also known as street photography).
  • Project Personhood - A video/animation co-production service. Helping people with dementia tell the story of their life. Taking advantage of the very latest digital storytelling techniques.

To further develop these prototypes, we decided to run two interactive workshops. The first took place at our Colchester campus and the second at our campus located in Southend. Both workshops were well attended by a mixture of health and social care workers, academics and nursing students.

The two events generated lots of insight into the problem space we're exploring. We’re now busy iterating our prototypes, so that we can design the best possible programme of arts-based interventions.