Contextual Design for Health

A user-centered design project to improve student health


Design Problem

Carnegie Mellon University's Health Services (UHS), the primary organization that serves students' medical needs, wanted to receive a design proposal to tackle open problems associated with its service. Very few students seem to attend the health center and the majority believe that UHS's web and mobile tools are too complex to use. 


Working with a team of 4 fellow HCI students, we spent about 2 months executing a user-centered design method known as contextual inquiry to develop a design proposal for UHS. Our proposed solution is MentorMe: a service that connects incoming students with upperclassmen health mentors, who will act as go-to resources for all logistical health-related questions.


Tools & Methods: Contextual inquiry, storyboarding, personas, interviews

Deliverable: Affinity diagram, cultural, flow, and sequence models, service blueprint, design proposal

Team: 4 HCI and product design master students

Client: Carnegie Mellon University Health Services

Year: 2015

Role: work split up equally


Design Space

Researching the problem

Throughout our research, we uncovered a few of the main healthcare needs amongst the student population. New students specifically have a hard time learning about University Healthcare Services. They sometimes do not know how to pay for healthcare, whether health services can handle emergencies, or even how to book their first appointment. This is especially true for international students. Some told us through research that they had never had health insurance before and found this kind of service confusing. These became the areas where we felt there was an opportunity to make a difference: 

  1. Easing the transition to healthcare access in the U.S. for international students.
  2. Reducing the barriers to healthcare access.


Exploring design opportunities

Interviews: The very first step in the process involved a series of interviews with project stakeholders: both students and health professionals. Each team member spent some time contacting a stakeholder and performing a 1 hour interview, for a total of 5 interviews. As a group, we decided on the overall interview protocol beforehand. In the case of the health professionals, we wanted to understand what their main roles, responsibilities, and day-to-day experiences were. In the case of the students, we asked questions associated to their health routines and their previous experiences with CMU Health Services.

Interpretation Sessions: We sat down as a group and ran interpretations sessions for each interview. This led us to create a list of insights, design ideas, cultural models, flow models, and sequence models for each interview. 

Building the affinity: With more than 200 notes collected from all of the interviews, we needed a way to organize all of the information and expose relationships in the data. Some of the behavioral or lifestyle issues we surfaced included a set of unique challeneges faced by international students when faced with a new, complicated healthcare system in the U.S. Another set of issues revolved around the availability and accessibility of healthcare services. Both groups of stakeholders were unsatisfied with the appointment booking system, for example. 

One section of our affinity model.

One section of our affinity model.


Rethinking the service: After consolidating our models, we had some ideas about the main problems, needs, and opportunities that we should design for. From our research, it became evident that there was a gap in information flow regarding healthcare processes and services on campus. Much of this gap is due to “unknown unknowns”, meaning that students don’t even know there might be such a thing as health services for them to go and search for it. 

As an exercise to get some idea flowing, we spent some time rethinking what a better flow model might look like. We stayed away from job titles so that we could organize around roles and responsibilities. 

Consolidated flow model based on roles not job titles.

Consolidated flow model based on roles not job titles.

Example service blueprint of a new student checking in for medical treatment.

Example service blueprint of a new student checking in for medical treatment.


Visioning & Storyboarding: During visioning, we came up with 7 scenarios that captured how users might receive healthcare and experience a better service in a new system. Each vision corresponded to one or more specific user needs. 
In this step, the team collectively came up with a rough idea for health mentor system to address the issue of misinformation and cultural adaptation for incoming students.

Visioning exercises prepared by the team.

Visioning exercises prepared by the team.


Finally, we created a storyboard for each vision describing how a user would accomplish a certain task in the new system. We took a page from John Zimmerman'sSpeed Dating in Design paper and presented each storyboard to the user interviewed previously by asking a few leading questions like, "Could you see yourself in this story?"

Stakeholder Feedback & Solution: Our stakeholder speed dating sessions revealed the space within which we could explore without crossing cultural boundaries. For example, one mentorship idea involved a public forum where students could post health-related questions. However, reviewing storyboards with stakeholders revealed that students would be embarrassed to broadcast their health concerns to a large group, and prefer a more private relationship. Instead, The idea of a one-on-one, personalized mentor was well received.


Design Proposal

Mentorship matching service for new students

We proposed tackling the problem of misinformation by pairing incoming students with upperclassmen mentors who might help them navigate CMU’s healthcare system for their first year on campus. The mentor would be matched as best as possible with an incoming student based on nationality, gender and age and will receive basic health training coordinated by health services so that they are equipped to handle common questions and concerns. The role of the mentor is to a student’s go-to resource for logistical questions and very basic question about the healthcare service on campus. Having a less formal point of contact such as a mentor would also allow students to quickly and efficiently (probably through social media) ask and receive answers to their time-sensitive questions.