The Design of Well-Being in Practice

In this final series on designing for well-being, we look at the application of a design framework to achieving the core aspects of health and care for people.

We’ve outlined the role of well-being in supporting a healthy organization and the core aspects of well-being itself in the workplace. Now, we turn to asking: what does the work of designing for well-being in an organization — creating that culture — look like?

Following the Design Helix model (below) as a guide, a culture of well-being is created through a series of steps along a journey of discovery and creation.

We begin with figuring out where we are and what’s going on.

Situational Assessment

Well-being is different for every setting and context so an assessment of that situation is critical. What is the situation at hand? This question allows us to start asking key questions about well-being.

This situational assessment is reflected in the first three stages of Design Helix. This is our research and sense-making stage where we situate ourselves, test our assumptions, ask questions, and ground ourselves in the task to be done. This is where we take inventory of what we have available, what we want or need, and our task at hand. Situational assessments also help us clarify our constraints such as time, resources, energy, and goals that will shape the project. Design is all about working with constraints to achieve something so this is an important step.

Problem Frames and Perception

We cannot act on a problem we can not see. Perception is about paying mindful attention to what people say, how they behave, and what they no longer do. A useful approach is to consider things like attractors – those things that bring about coherence in a context. Attractors might be a policy, an activity, or an event. These are things that create a pattern of activity that people organize their attention around. An attractor can be positive or negative. For well-being design, we want to pay attention to both of these — what’s promoting health and well-being and what is detracting from it. Tools like Attractor Mapping can help advance this.

Discovering, Uncovering and Sensemaking

We do this by asking questions and observing — doing research. Matching what we perceive, uncover, and discover is a social process that allows us to ask questions, interrogate our own narratives (and the assumptions that underpin them) and allow us to make sense of the true needs, threats, and opportunities. Sensemaking allows us to see what kind of dynamics affect our situation, too. We can start to asses connections between possible causes and consequences and what kind of influence we have over any of them.

This part of the design process is where we wrestle with complexity and frame our situation in terms of what we can intentionally affect and where influence comes from within or outside of our control.

This also allows us to have honest conversations about what we are seeing, feeling, and desire. With well-being, this allows us to better assess potential gaps between what people say (“I’m fine”) and what they actually feel. Or policies like “return to work” and their fit with people’s preferences, perceptions of safety and performance capacity, which might not fully match up.

Making Well-Being

The middle part of the helix is devoted to making things – in this case, policies, programming, and organizational structures to support well-being. Making begins with prototyping; the creation of practice models. These practice models are dry runs made with the intent of being final products but the expectation is that we’ll need to tinker with them and fine-tune the fit.

The lessons learned and revealed through the sensemaking process come forward into a space of creation. This is where we animate those suggestions by making them coherent and connected to the resources we have and the constraints that present themselves which we identified in the first phase of the project (and may be further clarified as the project unfolds).

Most organizations are designed with well-being as an after-thought or not at all. That’s not out of lack of care, but out of an assumption that well-being will just take care of itself or that it’s not the role of an organization to focus on such things. Thus, when we seek to create models of policies, practices, and structures they are likely to be ill-fitting at first.

Connecting the form of the product to the function and the system in which its being implemented is where prototyping becomes so valuable. For example, an organization that is hierarchical in its leadership structure and not experienced with consultative, co-designed programming will find it takes some time to build and integrate a strategy of staff involvement into its plans. This will mean not only designing plans for well-being but potentially re-designing some of its decision-making processes and organizational structures.

An organization will likely not have to completely transform in order to promote well-being, but it must be willing to change itself. Creation and animation of the designs will help reveal what needs changing while the fit and tinkering process takes place.

Set and Scale For Impact

The final stage of the design process is where we put things into action. Once we’ve animated our ideas and put them into practice, the aim is to fit and tinker until they are purpose-ready for implementation. Tying all of these activities together is evaluation: self-reflection, measurement, monitoring, and observation of the form, fit, function, and effects that come from our creation.

Evaluation is all about paying attention to see what we’ve done and what it does when implemented into the world. Undoubtedly, there will be a need for further tinkering and re-imagining certain parts of our production process because things will continue to change. The role of fit and purpose need to continue to be in our minds.

However, as we find the gap between what we need and want and what we do shrinks, the emphasis is on implementing our ideas into full practice and sharing what we do with those that are affected.

Another feature of the Design Helix is that it is part of a cyclical process (below) so that once the design is created and implemented it is monitored and evaluated to the point where we may eventually re-engage the entire helix process once again. We re-design the process as times and people change and as needs and circumstances evolve.

The Look of Well-being

What well-being looks like within your organization will vary. In places like Sweden, they use a regular communal practice of Fika (twice-daily, regular breaks for coffee and cake built into every workplace) to connect to one another, socialize, rest and check in. Others have created healthy rituals of practice, ceremonies, or events that bring people in view of one another and instil a shared sense of purpose.

Programs like fitness club memberships, health benefits, and flexible work hours can all help, too. However, it is the culture of safety, conviviality, and connection that, if nurtured, can bring about so many of the well-being benefits that organizations seek from themselves. Whether remote, in-person, or hybrid the form matters less than the fit and function. Get this right and you’ll have an environment people want to stay in, join, and support.

What this looks like is bespoke and shared. It’s also fully achievable if we design for it.

Well-being is all about the humans in your organization — after all, what is the point of coming together if we’re not going to look after one another? If you’re leading an organization that’s lost some of this human touch and want to build it back in and could use help — reach out and let’s have a coffee.

Image Credits: Masaaki Komori on Unsplash, Josh Wilburne on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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