Bringing the Human-Factor into Organizations and Digital Health

Bettina Michl is Founder of "tiefenschärfe", leads the user research department of "Data4Life" and has been a coach at HPI since 2011, after her own graduation from HPI D-School. She talks to us about the idea behind "tiefenschärfe", the motivation to keep working with students and the use of Design Thinking approaches in the field of digital health.


Bettina Michl


You are a graduate of the first year of the HPI D-School. What motivated you to participate in the Design Thinking program back then? Did you have certain expectations and have they been fulfilled?

I was at the end of my second degree, already working in regional innovation policy as a consultant in an EU project. I asked myself, how exactly does something new get into the world? We looked at patent applications; there was talk of cooperation between universities and companies. The approach that regions could also score points through intellectual openness and subculture was relatively new (Richard Florida's technology, talents, tolerance (The rise of the creative class)). And yet, how exactly was this to happen?

My thesis advisor, Prof. Guido Reger, mentioned IDEO as a best practice in his Innovation Management course. As I read more about them, I was fascinated by what this company was doing. Everything I had heard theoretically in the many business lectures - interdisciplinary teamwork, starting from the user, serving the original needs instead of superficially marketing incremental improvements, fostering creativity, cultivating a positive error culture, promoting diversity in teams, etc. - which was lived very differently in my practice; these people were doing right.

Even more interesting was that Hasso Plattner financially supported the at Standford, an education institution teaching this thinking. As a student assistant at the O&P chair, I had often worked at the HPI and regretted that he did not do so in Germany. But crazily, I noticed the announcement on the bulletin board at one of the last meetings for my thesis! There were two days left to apply, and I didn't hesitate for long. My expectations were exceeded, I thought I would learn methods, but I changed my view of the world.


Together with Robin Mehra, who is also a graduate of the first year of the HPI D-School, you founded the company “tiefenschärfe”. You advise clients on how to apply Design Thinking and innovation methods in their teams and organizations. How did the idea for “tiefenschärfe” come about and what is your goal? What positive effects can you observe in your work through the application of Design Thinking in organizations?

The foundation of "tiefenschärfe" has been a bit more complicated. The original team changed twice. As in many founding teams, there had been personal differences about how to work together and individual priorities. At that time, everyone else seemed to have a plan B; only I was back in Berlin after my first freelance Design Thinking projects, and my team had more or less dissolved.

I started applying to innovation and management consultancies. However, it was the time after the financial crisis. Robin and I met again at HPI while preparing a big workshop for SAP and realized that we could work together quite well. And that's what we did from then on.

From the beginning, we were not only motivated to help organizations but also to open up new paths for the people in them and their personal development. We soon realized that Design Thinking was a milestone for people's attitude toward their work (and teamwork). Many seemed as if they had been waiting for it.

We accompanied short and very long projects with a wide variety of teams and industries, sometimes diving very deeply into the subject matter and sometimes giving large groups a small taste. Our goal was to adapt the respective approach to the organization, task, and industry and avoid interpreting Design Thinking principles/methods in an ideological direction as immutable laws.

In concrete terms, this meant appearing with humility towards the organization, the employees, and their previous achievements, and yet courageously questioning conventions or actually breaking them. Of course, that's easier to do as an outsider.

We see a more vibrant work culture, rediscovering meaning by meeting end customers or real users, clever improvements, and concepts that go beyond the obvious. Of course, we also see the frustration when individuals and teams with innovative ideas reach the limits of their organization, friction due to interdisciplinarity taken seriously and intense teamwork, conflict due to the stress of new methods, narrow time frames, and high expectations.

Considering the whole thing as a temporary experiment, for the time being, helps the participants a lot here. At the same time, management support, the creation of new, analog work and creative spaces, and the changing of processes and structures are, from my observation, essential criteria for long-term positive effects.


Bettina Michl


You have been a coach at the HPI D-School since 2011. What motivates you to work with students?

Teaching Design Thinking to young people has grace on its own. Students usually have little work experience but a lot of enthusiasm and are very open about possibilities and idea directions. They typically bring new trends or technologies, and we have more time! So we can try a wide variety of methods.

Also, when working at HPI D-School, the collaboration and the exchange with the other coaches and the D-School team is indispensable and highly inspiring for me. Overall, the team and the students are so diverse and international, and the atmosphere is full of energy that I usually leave the long coaching days in Potsdam in a kind of 'fulfilled happy exhaustion.' And I hope we will dive into this mode again soon - despite the many advantages of remote working.


You are also working for "data4life", which aims to use health data to improve disease diagnoses, treatment, and prevention. In your role as head of the "User Research" department, what are your tasks to get closer to this goal? What potential does the Design Thinking approach offer for developing innovations in the field of digital health?

As a user research team, we aim to understand what users need and don't need from us as "Data4Life". In healthcare, we currently focus on facilitating medical research; there are many different user groups! Now, they are researchers in medical, psychological, or epidemiological studies, physicians, healthcare professionals, patients, and their families, last year, for example, people who got vaccinated, but also those who decided not to.

We try to find out the users' expectations, behaviors, needs, and motivations, map them, and translate them into concrete requirements in collaboration with the respective teams.

Design Thinking has great potential in healthcare because it is primarily concerned with people's health. In addition, many people work in this personnel-intensive sector (in Germany, according to estimates, 10-12% of the workforce / 5.6 million).

Human-Centered Design should be a matter of course. However, in my personal experience, this is often somewhat lost sight of because of monetary constraints and misaligned incentives, 'apparatus medicine,' outdated hospital and care structures, influential interest groups, intransparency, federal responsibilities, regional sensitivities, and local path dependencies, and last but not least a low level of digitization hinder many things.

Concrete potential for Design Thinking indeed lies in the development of digital services, e.g., in the development of apps to support chronic diseases or health restrictions, the so-called digital health applications (DiGA), but also in a redesign of processes and spaces in both inpatient and outpatient care, in areas even in the co-design of medical or psychological interventions towards genuinely patient-centered care 'beyond pills and surgeries,' to put it bluntly. 

I am convinced (and studies have shown) that people can improve their health with the help of digital technologies, by documenting their symptoms and possible triggers.

However, this can also be too much, especially in technology-intensive areas. The human factor is often underestimated or simply forgotten.

And here, in conclusion, I think Design Thinking methods (interdisciplinary teamwork, empathy, courage, and creativity in particular) can help use existing resources efficiently while considering the needs of patients, staff, and providers and balancing interests.