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The Art of Service Design in Science

To whom are you accountable? This deceptively simple question is one worth asking if you’re a researcher. This week we share the power of community involvement in academic research, as demonstrated through the work of Professor Helen Sanematsu. A designer by training, Professor Sanematsu uses her background in arts to help bridge the gap between researchers and the community, getting us closer to shared accountability for discovery.  —Trupti Shetty, PhD Student, Indiana University School of Medicine & Krista Hoffmann-Longtin, PhD, SciCommPLOS Co-editor


Professor Helen Sanematsu. Photo courtesy of the Herron School of Art and Design at IUPUI.

For scientists, the question, “Who are you working for?” doesn’t always get asked, and when it does, most would say a university, corporation, or research institute. Professor Helen Sanematsu wants scientists to answer differently, with “real people in communities.” She wants to deliver a gut check to scientists by encouraging community members to call them to task. Plain and simple, Sanematsu thinks scientists should serve the public, first.

Sanematsu is an associate professor at Herron School of Art and Design, and acts as the associate director of communication for Community Health Partnerships (CHeP), which is a community-centered initiative by the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CTSI). She is also a founding member of the Indiana CTSI’s Patient Engagement Core (PEC), a group which works with researchers and members of their patient/target communities to co-design research studies. Her work integrates art and design into health and science to improve both academic research, itself, and the ways in which research results are communicated back to the public.

Sanematsu’s background uniquely prepared her to strike a balance between art and science. As a child, she cultivated a lifelong love of visual art, originally aspiring to be the next Maurice Sendak. However, growing up, Sanematsu needed quite a bit of medical care and quickly noticed inequities in how people paid for and received healthcare. She knew from then on that she wanted to blend her love of the visual with her quest to make healthcare more accessible to everyone.

Sanematsu pursued her passion for art, first, completing a degree in art history from Occidental College. Eventually, her path took her to the Yale School of Art to earn a master of fine arts degree in graphic design, while studying under Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. While there, she was impressed both by her mentor’s involvement with ACT UP, and knew she wanted to get involved. Through this activism, Sanematsu could see the tangible benefits of using design to improve the experience of end users, a field sometimes called “service design.”

More specifically, the Nielsen Norman Group, defines service design as a process which improves the experiences of both the user and employee by designing, aligning, and optimizing an organization’s operations to better support customer journeys.

To put that another way, service designers use an iterative process to produce solutions that are the best fit to a consumer’s problem.

Iterative thinking is one of the most significant assets to design. Designers get very good at being told they are wrong, needing to tweak their ideas as they go. In practice, real-world solutions are found in a process more akin to artistic design than standard scientific inquiry. Sanematsu believes researchers should think of themselves as problem-solvers in academic venues by being more willing to iterate, tweak, and take criticism. Too often, she argues, scientists are afraid to try something completely novel and adjust as they learn.

Indianapolis’ Monon Trail.

For example, a recent population health project at Indiana CTSI has benefited from Sanematsu’s service design approach. The health services research group wanted to use big data to evaluate the inequities of health care across the city of Indianapolis, Indiana and their impact on lifespan. However, the concept didn’t seem very concrete to community members. Enter Professor Sanematsu and service design. Sanematsu and the team were able to loosely map these inequities to the Monon Trail, a popular walking and bike trail that traverses the city. The further north you live on the trail, the longer your lifespan. By connecting the research project to a familiar landmark, the research team is able to demonstrate the benefits of the research in more concrete terms to the community.

Through her work at the CTSI and the IUPUI Herron School of Art and Design, Sanematsu has been able to take advantage of the many connection points between the university and the local community. She takes great joy in working with a broad range of people and communities, and loves to help create new beneficial relationships. By truly getting to know the communities around her, Sanematsu sees communities themselves as the experts in what is essential and what they need. With this knowledge, she wants the the public to know that they are the “bosses” of public university researchers. She wants the public to know that those scientists researching in their communities are working for them, and so they get to make demands.

Sanematsu states, “The researchers are not just there to do their work and get out, the community has a right to be involved and informed regarding the research.”

The more a researcher can separate her or his self from the stigma of the researcher as a visitor and better adapt to the community, the better their research’s overall impact will be.

Although working in academia provides its fair share of challenges for community-based work. it also has its gifts. Sanematsu recognizes that she likely couldn’t be doing this type of research anywhere but within the academy, as academia can at least be somewhat removed from having to show a direct financial benefit. However, she would love to see more projects that can provide an immediate impact to regular people.

As Sanematsu explained, “The students and researchers that are doing the research are getting massive benefits just by being there, and there should be more reciprocity in that for the community in which the research is happening.”

Taking a page from the design handbook, she encourages researchers to be less afraid to try a potential solution and iterate from there.

Edited by Krista Hoffmann-Longtin, PhD, Indiana University- Purdue University Indianapolis.

About the Author
  • Matt Grieser

    Matt Grieser is a Clinical Analyst at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis, Indiana. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Dietetics from Purdue University. He completed a dietetic internship at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and is a Registered Dietitian. He is currently studying to receive a Master of Science degree in Healthcare Informatics and a graduate minor in Communicating Science at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. Matt’s post is the fourth in a series exploring community engagement in scientific research, written by graduate students in the Communicating Science Minor Program at the IU School of Medicine and IUPUI.

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