Empathy-Based Innovation is a Must in Healthcare


The Job to be Done theory, as laid out in Clayton Christensen et al’s book Competing Against Luck, defines a “job” as the progress someone is trying to make in a particular circumstance. That progress happens along three dimensions: functional, emotional, and social. Take for example the evolution of the computer mouse. If you look closely at the history, many of the design changes to the computer mouse happened as a result of needing to meet a job to be done—an ergonomic mouse fulfills the job of reducing muscle strain and discomfort and a wireless mouse fulfills the job of increasing convenient, portable connectivity. Without fully understanding what progress someone is actually trying to make, new ideas will remain just that – new ideas. They will never become innovative new solutions.

This is where empathy plays a critical role in healthcare innovation. Empathy gives us the motivation to slow down and think about the experiences of others. Empathy encourages us to augment conference calls and conference rooms by getting into the context of a caregiver or patient’s life. This deeper understanding can lead to solutions reflecting the full human context in which we work; empathy helps us really identify the job to be done and develop solutions health systems can’t live without. Solutions improving safety, quality, experience, access, and stewardship. 

Our Method: Design for People

The Design for People initiative, which I lead at Intermountain Healthcare, uses empathy as a tool to put people and the progress they’re trying to make, not systems, at the center of design. For us, people always come first. We supplement the usual ways of developing insights—conference room brainstorming sessions and phone calls—with direct, empathetic observations in the context of where people live and work.

Our Design for People team works with caregivers and patients to learn what is meaningful to them. Currently, our team is engaged in direct observation activities with Endoscopy, Allergy-Immunology, Integrated Care Management, and Surgical Scheduling jobs to be done at Intermountain. During these collaborations we spend time listening, watching, and learning, as we look for insights into the nature of the progress they are trying to make. Through this personal interaction, empathetic observation, and collaboration in the work environment, we can better understand the functional, social, and emotional dimensions of their jobs to be done, helping us to realize solutions they want to use.

Healthcare is by its very nature empathetic. Let’s deeply embrace the binding power of healthcare and lead our innovative efforts with empathy. All caregivers and patients will benefit and be grateful.