Earlier this week the Medical Futures Lab parachuted into Matthew Wettergreen’s class in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen at Rice University to run a two-day transmedia hackathon inside a summer engineering design course. Our goal: explore how the visual and narrative representation of problems shapes our ability to find solutions to those problems. Students engaged in a series of experiments using different communication and representational tools to develop their understanding of how the form of representation for a problem shapes the way we analyze and solve that problem. By exploring with different tools, students saw different dimensions of their problems, which included doctor-patient communication about a variety of complex subjects, including risks & benefits of genome sequencing, end-of-life conversations, and talking about socially uncomfortable topics.
Peter Killoran started things off with a narrative medicine + EMR re-design warm-up exercise, routed through two classics: IOM’s To Err is Human (1999) and Edward Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1992). We spent a lot of time talking about the role of storytelling in design, and then these incredible students went about prototyping (in about 90 minutes) consumer-facing EHRs that could also be useful to clinicians. The beauty of the non-expert approach was definitely on display, as these young creatives weren’t hampered by all the restrictive protocol (HIPPA, can you hear me?) and instead could concentrate on the core message: get the patient’s story into the EMR.
Later in the day, Allison Hunter ran the group through some eye-opening visual arts exercises in flow-charts and mood-boards. The next morning, I launched the group into a session on doing things with words. We did exercises on metaphor, simile, and analogy, both textual and visual. We also worked on point-of-view as a critical dimension of design. After a final session on storyboarding with Allison, students were tasked with a problem to solve using a set of tools (written, visual, moving image, audio), and at the end of the hackathon they presented their experience of experimenting and identifying which tool best helped them develop a solution to the problem.
This was a laboratory designed to generate ideas and strategy for the Medical Media Arts Hub, and my big take-homes included affirmation (again) that collaboration across difference is truly critical to engineering design, to medical problem-solving, and to tackling the wicked problems of the world; that art+engineering+storytelling is the answer to many problems; and that listening to future users’ needs is everything. Mind-expanding experience, and fun to boot. Next time, we’re taking it public, so stay tuned – we’ll be seeking local “wicked problems” to tackle soon!