By Justin Lawler Developer. Biohacker. Organiser of @qs_dublin . Contributor at @Irish_TechNews see more by Justin here.

Public health campaigns have a bad history. Many of them fail.

Anti-smoking campaigns, drink driving, unhealthy lifestyles.

In the Science Gallery as part of the HRB Red Alert series of talks, we had three speakers discussing new approaches to solving these big problems.

Catherine Darker, Trinity College Dublin Health Psychologist, Dr Pete Lunn, economist and Senior Research Officer at The Economic and Social Research Institute and Frank Long, Director of design consultancy

What is design?

Design thinking is a new buzzword, but it’s been around for a long while. Design thinking is a process to achieve better solutions.

Achieving better solutions means taking into account how humans operate, how they work with objects, how they can easily learn how to use new objects.

Design thinking is not about minimising time-to-market, maximising profits, or fitting in with existing company’s product lines.

Apple products are a great design example. Apple is what we mostly think about when we hear the word design. They’re easy to use and they’re beautiful.

Bad design is all around us. If something is not well designed, it won’t work. It creates friction.

Design isn’t only about objects. It’s unreadable legal text or software agreements. It’s public campaigns that don’t work.

Bad Design: We’re confused. We don’t know to push or to pull

Design in Healthcare

Public health campaigns have been running for years in Ireland. Some of them are successful – think the recent campaigns on men’s mental health, of drink driving.

Good design gets us thinking

Some of them not so much. We’ve had so many public policy campaigns over the years that have failed.

Dr Catherine Darker from Trinity College Dublin was talking about her extensive experience designing policies that create change.

Designing for eHealth

With home medical devices, design is critical. Bad design means’s a patient isn’t being looked after properly.

“There’s so much poor design in healthcare. Most of it in fact.”

Frank Long

Frank’s design company has worked with health companies. Frank talked about how the company AccuChek who make devices to manage diabetes had a device that was losing market share.

When investigated, they found it was unusable for most people.

A few changes and the device became very easy to use.

How do we get to good design?

What all three speakers talked about was design needs to be deliberate.

So often devices, campaigns, policy is designed based on ‘common sense’.

But common sense so often leads to failed outcomes.

Designing something that works is so complicated. When designing, we need to do the research. We need to talk with everyone involved. We need to run experiments.


A public health campaign like reducing alcohol usage doesn’t stand a chance unless it’s well designed.

In public health campaigns, good design brings about lasting behaviour changes; it reframes the problem so it can be solved.

Nudging Better Behaviours

Speaker and behavioural economist Dr Pete Lunn talked about how nudge theory to get better outcomes.

Nudge theory is based on a book by Richard Thalar, and works indirectly and subtly ‘nudging’ people to new behaviors. It’s been found to be so effective it’s being used by British and US governments since 2010 in public policy.

People are not rational. Giving people information (smoking is bad for you) doesn’t change behaviour. There are too many other factors involved. Nudge theory accepts this.

One approach to change behavior is to change the environment the problem is in. To ‘nudge’ people in new directions.

Take the latest men’s mental health campaigns. Celebrities came on board and talked openly about how mental health has impacted their lives, directly or indirectly.

The campaign made it acceptable for everyone to talk about mental health problems. This environment change removes the stigma around mental health.

Another example. Catherine Darker talked about her time working with drug users and designing campaigns to reduce re-offense.

One of the environment problems was the attitudes of clinical staff. The clinicians did not believe their patients would be able to change. Addressing this issue among others lead to a much better outcome.


Again and again during the night, for good design of healthcare, we cannot rely on common sense.

We must understand the full problem. By talking with everyone involved. By experimenting. And by taking the time and resources to do this.

Good design may not be easy, but it’s the only way to successful outcomes.


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