If you wanted to turn the duo of forbidden conversation topics -- religion and politics -- into a trio, organ donation would be a strong candidate for the third slot.
The topic is messy, it's sad, it's downright morbid and it's not something you talk about with strangers. But that's exactly what students in the d.school's Design Thinking Bootcamp class are asked to do. Bootcamp explores the nuts and bolts of design thinking as applied to real-world problems, bringing students through all five stages of the human-centered process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. It's one of the most popular classes at the d.school.
The first team design challenge has called on the class of 44 students to "redesign the organ donation experience for city dwellers." So, we (yes, I'm in the class too), have been scouring the Bay area for people to observe and interview on the topic.
It sounds simple in the abstract. Stop someone on the street and ask them a few questions. But the reality is much more complicated. You're not asking someone to opine on the weather -- this subject matter is deeply personal. Then (assuming you go through with it), there's no guarantee you'll be able to give your interviewee anything other than catharsis in return for their stories. And even that's not a guaranteed outcome.
We go through with it because, beyond a grade, a potential life-saving solution could lie somewhere within those conversations.
If it does, there's still a lot of digging to do. Organ donation is a question of life and death. Race, religion, economics, education -- all come into play. Beneath these topics are issues of trust, equity and fear. Reports that, for example, pregnant black women receive inferior treatment to their white counterparts, erode trust among black people in the medical community. That doesn't even begin to dive into the deep and painful history of medical experimentation on members of minority groups.
And what about doctors? What do they tell their patients about organ donation? How are they trained to communicate across cultural lines or to respect religious rituals? And is the DMV really the best place to have people sign up to become donors? What about in cities where many people don't drive?
There's also the black market in human organs. The Guardian, in a 2012 report, located an organ broker in China who advertised, "Donate a kidney, buy the new iPad!"
So where do you begin? If you follow the human-centered design process, you start by asking people open questions:
- "How do you feel about organ donation?"
- "Can you tell me why you decided to become/refrained from becoming an organ donor?"
- "How would you describe the organ donation process to someone else?"
Then you synthesize your findings and try to define the problem, to drill down and identify the needs of your unique users. That's where we are now. We're digging through research, interviews, and even our own biases.
So please feel free to grab a shovel. Share your own experiences. You can answer the questions above or pose your own in the comments. This is an issue of breadth, depth and emotional complexity. It is an intimate story for many people -- for donors, recipients, their families and friends, and for those who abstain from donating.
It's an issue of life and death, and we could use all the help we can get.
Illustration by Flickr user Squire Morley.