At first glance, surgery and airline travel don’t appear to be very similar. But if you dig deeper, you’ll find overlapping themes in the work experiences of surgeons and airline employees—stress, a high-pressure environment, a lot of team coordination. Actually, these industries have a lot to learn from each other. We at IDEO call this analogous research.
Analogous research is a form of exploration that takes a team outside of its industry to find inspiration in the ways others have tackled similar challenges. These immersive experiences allow us to move beyond our expertise to see challenges with fresh eyes. In these moments, we build new levels of understanding and empathy that help us unlock aha! moments and generate ideas that we can ultimately bring to our own design challenges.
A few weeks into a project focused on redesigning the patient surgical experience with Newton-Wellesley Hospital (NWH), we saw an opportunity for analogous inspiration. Our client aimed to disrupt its industry by creating a service that focused not just on clinical outcomes but on the entire patient experience–from check-in to check-out. We assembled a team of surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, and hospital executives to help us design a better experience for patients. About halfway through the project, it became clear that they needed inspiration from outside the healthcare industry.
So we headed to the airport. Why? Because, like performing surgery, taking to the skies isn’t a simple process. It involves lots of regulation, moving parts, and coordination. While an airline’s mission is to deliver a passenger from A to B, its purpose is to deliver a seamless, customer-centric travel experience. Airlines have invested in products and services to create that kind of experience, but many surgical departments haven’t considered the entire patient journey–beyond what happens clinically under the bright lights of the OR.
We brought the hospital staff to Boston Logan Airport for a morning with JetBlue—an airline known for great customer service. When the docs on our team first caught wind of the trip, they were a bit skeptical. It’s not easy to convince a bunch of highly-trained surgeons to scrub out of the OR and go on a field trip. But they piled into cars and headed to Logan.
We started at check-in. The hospital team was issued mock boarding passes and asked to check-in for their upcoming flights. They had the option of using a kiosk, their phone, or speaking to a real, live person.
Almost immediately the team began to discover parallels between the patient experience and the traveler experience. The surgeons on the team quickly noted how many different pathways there were for customers—options for families, those with disabilities, and frequent fliers. “We only have one option for our patients, but patients aren’t all the same,” one surgeon said.
The lessons continued as we cleared security. The group stopped by the Just Ask counter, JetBlue’s customer service desk. Staffed with friendly crew members, Just Ask is exactly that—a place where customers can ask JetBlue anything. That includes getting directions to the bathroom, finding out the score of the Red Sox game, or asking to rebook a flight. JetBlue crew members are empowered to help passengers—even beyond their standard job descriptions. A pre-op nurse on our team suggested having something similar in the hospital–a place where patients and their loved ones could get the support they need. “I bet it’d be easy to prototype this type of service, and it would help us learn what patients really want,” she said.
The group ended its day at JetBlue’s operations center and crew lounge. Here, the two teams met to discuss the day’s takeaways. “It starts by building a united team,” said the manager of onboard service and hospitality standards at JetBlue. “Sure, we can launch programs like the Blue Cafe to provide complimentary snacks to delayed customers or hand out pilot wings to young travelers. Of course, we do these little things–but what really matters is working together to create a consistent experience across a customer’s travel journey.”
When the NWH team circled up later that week, it was clear something had changed. The team was buzzing. Catalyzed by the analogous field trip, the doctors and nurses were ready to get to work. They mapped out a handful of prototypes to test at the hospital, including a redesigned lobby experience, and a way to engage with patients with different levels of confidence and familiarity with the hospital system.
At IDEO, we treasure these moments of cross-industry learning. Sometimes all it takes is for leaders and frontline workers to get out from beyond their desks and see things from a new perspective.
So, next time you’re feeling stuck, seek inspiration outside of your comfort zone. Consider how others have solved unique but similar problems. It might just be the change in perspective your team needs to recharge and think differently.
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