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Dean’s Distinguished Lecture: Design Public Health Initiatives with Users in Mind

Article / Review by on January 26, 2012 – 10:37 pmNo Comments

Dean’s Distinguished Lecture: Design Public Health Initiatives with Users in Mind

Whether drafting a plan to help patients make healthier food choices or designing an electronic medical records system, the more public health professionals know about the personal preferences of those who will use the end product, the more likely the initiative will be successful, Patrick Whitney (pictured at right), told an overflow HSPH audience January 17, 2012 in Kresge G2.

Dean's Distinguished Lecture: Design Public Health Initiatives with Users in Mind

Called a “design visionary” by Business Week, Whitney is Dean of the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology. He has published and lectured throughout the world on making technological innovations more humane, linking design and business strategy, and designing interactive communications and products. “People have varied aspirations and activities. Your offering has to fit their lives,” Whitney said in his talk, “Designing Healthy Lives and Other Wicked Problems.”

View a webcast of the lecture.

In his introduction, Dean Julio Frenk said he invited Whitney to deliver the first talk in the 2012 Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series to encourage listeners to “think outside the conventional boundaries of public health.” While at HSPH Whitney also addressed students in a new course on innovations in public health taught by Gerald Chan, SM’75, ScD’79.

When designing a product, tool, policy, or program today, public health professionals are likely to face many “wicked problems,” Whitney said. “Wicked problems are characterized by having to make decisions when you don’t have enough information, and the information you do have is changing faster than you can make a decision,” he said. This often means “it is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.”

In addition, he noted, consumers are no longer satisfied with “ordinary” designs; they want extraordinary products and services. They also want more choices, which can add complexity and decrease profits.

Whitney gave the example of how his team designed a tool to help patients recovering from heart disease make healthier food choices. “If you go home with patients, look in their refrigerator, and watch them cook and shop, there’s a complete conflict between what doctors ask them to do and how the family lives; how the family lives probably caused the heart disease problem,” Whitney said. So his team developed a fun, interactive, web-based cookbook that tracks how well the patient is doing with their food selections, links to a food delivery service, and conveys what the patient eats directly to the doctor. “This is so good that people without heart problems want to use it,” Whitney said.

“The task of design is to take things that are mundane, bad, or unpleasant and couch them into the activity that people care about. As they achieve what they care about, they happen to achieve the regimen that you want,” Whitney said.

Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Frederick John Stare professor of nutrition and epidemiology at HSPH, spoke about the important role design plays in lifestyle and health. As an example, he said incorporating bicycle tracks in urban environments can help promote physical activity, but tracks in Boston and many other U.S. cities tend not to be as attractive or safe as those in Europe where much more consideration has been given to using bicycles for main transportation.

Willett said more thought needs to be given to the role of design in nutrition. “The food industry has been putting a large amount of effort into designing and marketing products and features that appeal to consumers. Our environment is very carefully designed so that there is something [food] within reach almost everywhere we go, in drive-throughs and vending machines, at the right level and color,” he said.

To counter those efforts and promote better nutrition, Willett suggested that the HSPH cafeteria might offer packages of washed, cut up vegetables and other fresh ingredients for, say, a stew, that faculty, staff, and students could purchase for their evening meal. “There are lots of opportunities for making our physical and food environments much better,” Willett said.

By Marge Dwyer
Harvard School of Public Health  


About Harvard Medical School (HMS)

Driving Change. Building Momentum. Making History. 

“Since 1872, Harvard Medical School has been the incubator of bold ideas—a place where extraordinary people advance education, science and health care with unrelenting passion.

Whether training tomorrow’s doctors and scientists, decoding the fundamental nature of life, advancing patient care or improving health delivery systems around the world, we are never at rest. Allied with some of the world’s best hospitals, research institutes and a University synonymous with excellence, the School’s mission remains as ambitious as it is honorable: to alleviate human suffering caused by disease.”

More at Harvard Medical School & Harvard Medical School. Generations of Leaders.

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About Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH)

Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public’s health through learning, discovery and communication. More than 400 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 1,000-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children’s health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights.

More at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) & Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). History. Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) Logo 540 ok



About Harvard University.

Established in 1636, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. The University, which is based in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, has an enrollment of over 20,000 degree candidates, including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Harvard has more than 360,000 alumni around the world.

Harvard University is devoted to excellence in teaching, learning, and research, and to developing leaders in many disciplines who make a difference globally. Harvard faculty are engaged with teaching and research to push the boundaries of human knowledge. For students who are excited to investigate the biggest issues of the 21st century, Harvard offers an unparalleled student experience and a generous financial aid program, with over $160 million awarded to more than 60% of our undergraduate students. The University has twelve degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, offering a truly global education.

‘Universities nurture the hopes of the world: in solving challenges that cross borders; in unlocking and harnessing new knowledge; in building cultural and political understanding; and in modeling environments that promote dialogue and debate… The ideal and breadth of liberal education that embraces the humanities and arts as well as the social and natural sciences is at the core of Harvard’s philosophy. ’/ Drew Gilpin Faust

More About Harvard University & About Harvard University. Information.


*  The above story is adapted from materials provided by Harvard University

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