Events and public defences
Mira Alhonsuo, photographed in a snowy forest. Photo: Marko Junttila.
Mira Alhonsuo. Photo: Marko Junttila.

Dissertation: A comprehensive understanding of service design facilitates healthcare professionals' commitment to development


Mira Alhonsuo, MA, investigates in her dissertation the development of healthcare services through service design and co-design. She also studies the benefits of the design methods especially in the beginning of the process. According to the study, understanding design methods and design processes makes it easier to discern the scope of the service under development and to plan a more realistic development process particularly by observing the needs of healthcare professionals.

Healthcare services are subject to constantly changing reformation pressures. For example, there are internal pressures imposed by hierarchy and patient satisfaction, and external pressures imposed by technological progress and the multitude of illnesses. Healthcare services are produced in complex organisations where services are siloed, or divided, into separate units that often function quite independently. Healthcare professionals are experts of their own silos, and patients move from one silo to another during the care process, experiencing the service comprehensively.

According to Mira Alhonsuo, service design offers one approach to support the development of healthcare services.

"Service design can be used to reveal especially the siloed and multilevel service structure, allowing us to better understand the services as a whole. In addition, the service design and co-design approaches help us understand the experiences of service users, whether the user is a patient, relative, healthcare professional, or some other stakeholder relevant to the functioning of the service," notes Alhonsuo.

The initial phase of design process is fuzzy

Design processes often have a similar structure: things to be reformed or developed are found by first gaining an understanding of service user experiences. Thereafter, these developmental challenges are addressed by either improving existing services or innovating entirely new services.

"The beginning of the design process is referred to as the 'fuzzy front end'. This phase involves a great deal of information, decisions, and scheduling. It is therefore understandable if the development of healthcare services in this tumult feels fuzzy, even impossible. Even the very act of defining the service often takes time, which was also noted in one of the sets of material in my research," Alhonsuo says.

Alhonsuo worked in healthcare service development and projects already before she started writing her dissertation. At that time, she had noticed a need to visualise service design before the beginning of development projects and thereby to clarify the fuzzy front end process.

"I noticed that healthcare professionals were suspicious about service design, but there was also curiosity and a desire to take part in design-based development. Committing oneself to design-based development may be difficult if one is completely unfamiliar with its phases or working methods. This is emphasised when you're already busy and hard-pressed to accomplish your duties," Alhonsuo notes.

The author points out that it is also important to understand the significance of healthcare professionals' own work and the fact that service development enables for instance a hospital unit to work together for a common goal.

"When we have a better understanding of the methods and approaches of service design, we can plan together how to continue the development and how other important actors, such as patients, can be included in it. Design methods can also be used to find ways to support and develop management practices," Alhonsuo states.

Besides the unfamiliarity of service design, Alhonsuo mentions another big challenge, namely the scope of the development of healthcare services.

"We often find it difficult to define the scope of the service to be developed, the way in which the service should be examined, and the parties who should be involved in the development. It is particularly challenging when we are dealing with complex healthcare services, where the development may range from simple signposts meant for patients to a service reform that covers various providers of both healthcare services and social services," Alhonsuo says.

A short design example to healthcare professionals

In her dissertation Mira Alhonsuo sums up a three-phase process through which a service designer can both visualise the value of service design and acquaint healthcare professionals with design-based development.

In the first phase, existing services are benchmarked. This also supports the development of the hospital's management practices and the selection of usable design-based methods during the development process. Benchmarking has been widely used in the development of healthcare services, which makes it a convenient link to design-based activity.

In the second phase, the service designer prepares the introductory material, where the benchmarking material is converted into a visual and more comprehensible form. At its best, this material works as evidence for co-design activity and helps us understand the benefits of service design and its visual methods. In the third phase, an intensive design sprint is performed.

"The design sprint is a few days' development process, where the design process is 'run through' on a small scale. The design sprint rarely yields a ready-made service concept, but it is an effective and educative way to approach design-based activity," Alhonsuo emphasises.

The three-phase process can be used to clarify the fuzzy beginning of development for instance by examining the scope of the service, the resources needed during the development process, and the design methods useful in daily work.

Information on the public examination

The academic dissertation Early Phase of Healthcare-Related Service Design by Mira Alhonsuo, MA, is publically examined on Friday 10 December 2021 at 12 noon in the Esko and Asko Hall of the Faculty of Art and Design. The defence takes place in building F on the main campus of the University of Lapland at Yliopistonkatu 8, Rovaniemi. The opponent is Kirsikka Vaajakallio, D.A., Lead Service Designer at Hellon customer experience design agency, and the custos is Professor Satu Miettinen from the University of Lapland. The defence is carried out in Finnish and it can be followed online at Coffee will be served after the session in Restaurant Petronella. Welcome!

Information on the doctoral candidate

Mira Alhonsuo started studying industrial design in the Faculty of Art and Design at the University of Lapland in 2007. Having completed her bachelor's degree, she started studying service design and was soon employed as a research assistant in service design R&D projects at the university. In 2014 Alhonsuo completed her master's by studying the development of communication processes at an emergency polyclinic through design methods. She started working as a junior researcher in spring 2018, when she began writing her dissertation. Alhonsuo has given instruction and training on service design and gone on international researcher exchange to Canada, South Africa, and Sweden. She has also advanced her expertise in the visualisation, empathy , and narratives of service design and in applying art-based methods as part of service design workshops.

Further information

Mira Alhonsuo
mira.alhonsuo (at)
Phone: +358 40 4844378

Information on the publication

Mira Alhonsuo: Early Phase of Healthcare-Related Service Design. Acta electronica Universitatis Lapponiensis 328. ISBN 978-952-337-296-2. ISSN 1796-6310. University of Lapland, Rovaniemi 2021.

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