This is a story about empathy, a man named Doug Dietz, and countless sick children.

My telling you this story has come about by accident. I didn’t discover it myself, it was actually our M-Powered director Marzena who initially expressed a willingness to share it. However, Marzena is taking a much-deserved holiday right now and asked me to prepare a blog on this topic. I thought I would use it as a starting point but find my own related topic that sparked my interest. That was until I watched some videos about it, specifically this TEDx talk and this video from Healthymagination featuring Doug himself. I connected with it immediately and was so inspired I couldn’t wait to write this blog and share it with you all!

It’s no secret that I love the Design Thinking Method. I have written about it many, many, many times on the M-Powered blog! I love the structure and the way people easily engage with it, start to think outside the box, go wild with their imagination, and create impactful results. At M-Powered, it is a cornerstone of our business. Perhaps this is why Doug’s story affected me so much, but I think if you read it, you will be affected too. It comes to you in three parts.


Part 1: When success can be failure

In the design industry, but also in social and education projects, you can sometimes come to realise that the results of you project are not what you thought they would be. This is what happened to Doug Dietz, a renowned industrial designer at General Electric.  His design for a multimillion-dollar magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner changed the diagnostic medical world dramatically. Doug spent two and a half years working on it, and was glad to receive an invitation from one of the first hospitals installing a scanner he designed to see it in action. He went there with the intention of talking to the technicians operating it, and expected nothing but enthusiastic feedback.

But what happened was quite the opposite. He left the hospital with a feeling of sadness, failure, and disappointment. And not because of his conversation with the medical staff. He didn’t even speak to them. His sadness came from a little girl who was to be the first patient to be scanned in the machine he designed.

Doug was standing in the hall waiting to talk to technician when this small, frail girl walked towards him, holding her parents’ hands. Tears were rolling down her cheeks. She was distraught at the idea of leaving the safety of her parents and being put into this huge, terrifying, and noisy machine. Doug was shocked. He hadn’t thought about how his design – sophisticated as it may be – might be perceived by a small child. This inspired him to ask more questions, which compounded his sadness further. He learned that hospitals routinely sedate 80% of paediatric patients undergoing an MRI scan because the experience is too terrifying for them to lie still long enough for a good quality scan. And if there is no anaesthesiologist available, the test has to be postponed.

Part 2: Empathy in design

When Doug tells this story, he cries. He is evidently a sensitive and compassionate man. But while it upset him, this incident also gave him valuable insights. Those of us who are like Doug and are trying to make a positive impact in the world through our work must not shy away from this kind of feedback from our target groups. We must use this empathy to get the courage and motivation to admit that maybe we were wrong, and we need to go back to the drawing board once again. In Design Thinking, empathy is vital. For Doug, that meant understanding that too many younger patients, the design he had toiled over for two and half years looked like a terrifying monster! And so he went back and started again.

He started with research. Doug knew that he would never get the level of funding he had for the initial design but nonetheless, he started to think about how he would redesign the machine. He spent a week at at the University of Stanford learning about Design Thinking. He spent hours chatting to groups of kids and gathering their ideas and worked with childcare centres and children’s museums that were already built to engage children. After an extensive empathy phase, he created his first prototype of what would become the “Adventure Series” of scanners. It was piloted at the children’s hospital at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre.

The MRI scanner was transformed into a pirate ship and the whole room was redecorated to look like it was under the sea. Patients entered the scanner by first walking along a “wooden bridge” (painted on the floor) and being careful not to fall into the “water” (also painted). They then lay down in a “canoe” (scanner bed) and were challenged to stay perfectly still so that they didn’t frighten away the fish. The kids loved it and couldn’t wait for their next scan! The idea took off and soon there were all kind of “Adventure Series” scanners, including space ships, submarines and other adventure worlds.

It was a simple, cheap, and clever solution that made life just a little bit easier for sick children and their worried parents. At the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, the number of paediatric patients who needed to be sedated was reduced considerably. Less need for anaesthesiologists meant more patients could be scanned each day. Moreover, patient satisfaction increased to 90 percent.

Part 3: A happy ending

For Doug though, the proof of success was not in the numbers, it was in a new story. One day after implementing his idea, he visited the hospital. This time he wanted to talk to the parents of paediatric patients, not technicians. And while speaking to the mother of one girl, who had just left the MRI pirate experience, he noticed that the girl wanted to ask a question. They both turned to her and she said: “Mommy, can we come back here tomorrow”?

Now Doug Dietz knows he succeeded. And he became one of the biggest proponents and ambassador of the Design Thinking Method, as well as empathy and a human centred approached in design. He believes, as we do in M-Powered, that it can change the world through empathy and imagination.

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