Mayo clinic's SPARC lab
Last summer, the world famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, opened SPARC, a clinical innovation lab that operates like a design shop and that specializes in the “patient experience.” Doctors, nurses, and other staffers do what designers do: They interview, shadow, and observe customers (in this case, patients) to uncover their needs, brainstorm with abandon, and engage in rapid prototyping

SPARC is not simply a research lab or a medical clinic. It’s both. Real patients see real doctors and, in doing so, participate in experiments (they’re briefed and asked for permission). Instead of being shunted off-site, the program is based in the Mayo Building like any other clinic; it occupies a corridor that used to house urology. The acronym, which stands for “see, plan, act, refine, and communicate,” is meant to remind participants of the design-oriented methodology so they’ll continue to employ it when they return to their departments.

The idea grew out of the realization that outpatient care is overdue for fresh ideas. “Medicine has changed, people have changed, technology has changed, but the exam room isn’t so different than it was in the 1800s,” says Dr. Michael Brennan, an associate chair in the department of medicine, where the program originated. Mayo wants its doctors to apply the same experimental approach to clinical innovation that they apply to scientific innovation.

The inclusion of actual patients is critical. Understanding user needs, after all, is a tenet of smart design, says Armbruster. There are three types of needs: those that are explicit and tacit and can be identified by surveying and interviewing people; those that can’t be articulated but become apparent through observation; and latent needs, the hardest to root out. “The only way to identify them is to make something and have people experience it,” says Ryan Armbruster, SPARC’s director of operations and design.

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