Hospitals, Websites, and Design for Public Spaces

Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy

The re-design of our regional hospital’s entrance recently began. This re-design was necessary because the previous design, ironically, made it difficult for sick or disabled people to actually get into the building

This “epic fail” underlines the importance of user-centered design in any public space. Here are a few takeaways for designing for the web:

Websites are public spaces. 

The Internet is becoming increasingly important in our society today (so much so that access to Internet has become a basic human right). Many websites, then, are “public spaces” that need to be optimized for access for everyone.  

Public spaces must be accessible.

Public spaces – whether hospitals or community websites – need to be accessible by the public, particularly the disabled or vulnerable in our communities. For hospitals this means thinking about people in wheelchairs. On the web (at least based on the many support phone calls I’ve taken) this means considering people with obstacles like Internet Explorer, dial up Internet, and varying degrees of eyesight and computer literacy. 

The best design happens in community. 

You can bet that if the architects had discussed with various people in our community before designing a steep, narrow wheelchair ramp, someone (probably the guy in the photo above) would have piped up and said, “So can I even ride up it in my wheelchair?” Ivory towers and egos exist in every field of design, and as designers we need to consistently seek out and consider voices of the broader community. Design shouldn’t be by committee or consensus, but if you only get your 25-year-old designer friends to weigh in on a mockup, you’ll miss something obvious. 

Empathy is essential to design. 

Design is essentially others-focused. To be a good designer, you must understand other people’s needs and context. Much like the architects behind the wheelchair ramp obviously weren’t wheelchair users themselves, web designers can’t relate directly to the unique needs and context of their users.

This is why “everyone on support” is an important philosophy for teams designing for the web. No matter your role, it’s important to maintain contact with the people using your product. 

I’m thankful to Don Norman for his work on user-centered design, and Scott Jehl’s book on Responsible Responsive Design. If we want our designs to be useful to real people, we need to begin with the user in mind and get frequent feedback from the people who will use what we’re making. 

Hospitals need to be accessible for everyone in the community. I hope designers of the web aspire to the same.