Using Design Sprints to Support People Diagnosed With Type 1 Diabetes

Find out how Alex Durussel-Baker, Product Strategist and Founder at Korero Studio, turned her type 1 diabetes diagnosis into an opportunity to raise awareness about the disease.

The Design Sprint – a 5-day iterative process for fostering innovation and rapid change, was developed at Google Ventures with a sole purpose of helping startups survive and get ahead of the game by saving time and money. 

It’s the secret sauce that both big corporations and start-ups use to stay ahead of the game and outpace their competition.  

But can Sprints be used for something other than hitting the business targets? Can their transformative power be implemented for resolving social issues or even making people's lives better? 

We dare say...yes!

We reached out to the Design Sprint Masterclass alumni and asked them about how they are using Sprints to solve impact-driven challenges, and their stories blew us away!

Read on to find out how Alex Durussel-Baker, Product Strategist and Founder at Korero Studio, turned her type 1 diabetes diagnosis into an opportunity to raise awareness about the disease and support people with condition … and how the Design Sprint process helped her along the way.  

Alex Durussel-Baker facilitating a design sprint in a room full of postit notes

Haven’t heard about Design Sprint before? We got you! Read this article to find out what a Design Sprint is (and what the whole buzz is about!)

How It All Started

Alex Durussel-Baker got diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in August 2018. One step away from a diabetic coma, she was lucky to have been diagnosed when she did, which is actually not that uncommon. In fact, by the time people with diabetes notice their symptoms and seek medical advice,  a number of people find themselves in a  critical condition. 

One of the reasons for that might be the cloud of misinformation and confusion surrounding the disease. Many people are unaware of the telltale signs of type 1, don’t know the difference between type 1 and type 2, or think that they can’t develop diabetes as adults.

So what is type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that occurs when the body’s own immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. As a result, the person is

left with little or no ability to produce insulin, the hormone responsible for regulating blood glucose. High blood sugar over time can affect major organs in your body, including heart, blood vessels, nerves, eyes and kidneys.

While type 2 can be prevented, the scientific community is not yet entirely sure what exactly triggers the body's auto-immune response that causes type 1 diabetes, meaning you can’t simply prevent it by eating healthy or staying active. This makes dealing with the diagnosis that much harder for the affected. On top of that, type 1 diabetes has no cure, making it a condition that requires 24/7 management and attention. 

After getting diagnosed in 2018, and going through the whirlwind of having to get accustomed to the new reality, Alex felt first-hand just how isolating the condition was. 

“The diagnosis was a really big mental struggle for me, and while I was coming to terms with it, I was realizing how society didn't really understand the disease. And I didn't, either! “

By the time Alex got diagnosed, she hadn’t heard or learned much about type 1, and had only heard about  type 2 diabetes. Since around 90% of people diagnosed with diabetes in the UK have type 2, the condition and its risk factors are far more well-known to the wider audience. 

Alex wanted to help raise awareness for type 1, both to help educate more people about it, and to help herself make sense of this newfound way of life...but in a way that wasn’t boring. Alex’s goal was to  make the topic approachable by injecting humour into the reality of living with type 1 diabetes,  make the conversations about the disease less clinical, and allow people to start a conversation about it, instead of isolating the diagnosed further. 

So she took on a project of making a poster a day about the realities of living with type 1 diabetes. The designs started to gain traction, culminating in an exhibition held in Custom Lane, a trendy design centre in Edinburgh. 

Diabetes by Design posters displayed in their Instagram account
“That exhibition was really fun, but also really cathartic for me. I met lots of people through it and I overcame the feelings of depression that came with the initial diagnosis.”

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Audience loved the designs: the launch night had sold out, and the feedback section of the exhibition had run out of feedback cards! 

Alex’s initial goal– to support other people with the condition, and give their friends and family a better chance at understanding what they are going through and what the condition is–had been achieved. But that was just the start of the Diabetes by Design journey. 

Diabetes by Design exhibition at the Custom Lane
Photo by Ellie Morag

The exhibition caught the eye of the medical community, which found this to be an interesting way to raise awareness and talk about the disease. The success of the exhibition and the feedback Alex received also showed that the problem resonated with the wider audience, and Alex herself started thinking about going one step further and turning the posters into a toolkit that could support people who recently got diagnosed, to help them come to terms with the disease, and navigate the highs and lows that come with it.  

But what exactly needed to be included in the toolkit? Did people really need it? And would healthcare professionals take it onboard?  

After Alex went on to win a Creative Informatics Grant, she decided to use it to get headway on her project and reached to a tried and tested tool that she knew worked for her Korero Studio clients–the Design Sprint.

Addressing the mental health effects of type 1 diabetes

No chronic disease is a walk in the park, but what makes type 1 diabetes in particular so isolating?

While the answer is surely unique to each diagnosed person, many people note that it’s hard to let their inner circle help them. The diagnosed need to manage their diabetes 24/7, but their friends and family don't know when's the best time to reach out. 

40 people a day in the Uk are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, half of them are adults. 

The initial time of getting diagnosed is very information loaded and busy: from learning all about the disease and how to manage it, to dealing with the initial shock. However, it’s often after the things have calmed down, that the diagnosed don’t get enough support and start to struggle. 

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Worries about the future, the possibilities of serious complications, and feelings of guilt and anxiety when diabetes management goes off track are just some of the worries that diagnosed people can experience. 

These feelings get magnified by the fact that following the instructions to the T does not guarantee stable blood sugar levels–doing exactly the same things today as the day before can result in very different outcomes! Those are just some of the reasons that one in four people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes will experience diabetic distress, and will disengage from diabetes care in the first 3 to 18 months following the diagnosis. 

Disengaging from diabetes care means not taking your insulin, which can ultimately lead to high blood sugar causing heart failure, blindness, and amputation. 

“The physical sides of diabetes are always in the news: the pumps, the sensors, the insulin. And you need that, of course! But if someone can't get out of bed, they're not going to even take the insulin, they're not going to wear the pump or take care of themselves.”

Not only does dealing with diabetic distress take a toll on the people dealing with the condition and their support network, it puts a strain on the healthcare system as well. Around 187 thousand pounds a minute is spent on treating diabetes in the UK, with over 80% of that cost spent on treating preventable diabetic complications. 

Finding a way to support the people with type 1 diagnosis has the potential to not only help them take better care of themselves, but take off at least some of the pressure from the healthcare system. 

The Sprint Team 

Because the solution needed to be medically accurate, Alex knew she needed to leverage the help and knowledge of healthcare professionals. 

The Sprint Team consisted of two doctors, a clinical psychiatrist, a data scientist, a user researcher, and another designer. Alex herself took on the roles of the Decider and prototyper. 

A team taking part in a remote design sprint workshop on Zoom

The Sprint Questions

The question Alex and the Sprint Team wanted to answer was: Would acknowledging the psychological effects as much as the physical ones lead to faster acceptance and better diabetes management?

And what would happen if we tried to put as much emphasis on the mental side of the disease, as we did on the physical side? 

The challenges team needed to tackle and overcome were:

  • Can we convince Healthcare professionals of the value of the kit and for them to want to actively distribute it?
  • Can we understand what needs to be in the kit and for what situations?
  • Can we get the tone right - fun, engaging but something a healthcare professional can endorse? 
  • Should the toolkit be in a digital or a physical format?
  • Would the people actually benefit from the toolkit? Is there a gap in help services that the toolkit could fill?

Testing The Prototype

To this date, Alex and the team have run two Sprints. The first one was aimed at testing the emotional support toolkit on diabetes specialist nurses to see if it was convincing enough for them to recommend it to the patients.

A couple of months after the first Sprint, the team ran an iteration Sprint (we at AJ&Smart think every Sprint needs an iteration!) and  tested the iterated prototype on adults recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

The team opted for a digital prototype and tested the marketing formulations and the landing page. 

The prototype pictured a set of companion cards: a toolkit that would serve as a medically accurate, friendly introduction for someone recently diagnosed, a novel refresher for the more seasoned, and an engaging invitation to anyone with an interest in learning about this chronic condition.

Learnings from The Sprint

One of the main questions the Sprint team wanted to figure out when testing with medical personnel was whether the problem they were trying to tackle was real and actually needed solving. 

The interviews with Diabetic Specialist Nurses revealed a clear pattern: nearly all of them relayed that there wasn't enough mental health support for the patients and it impacted the healthcare system as much as the person with type 1. This issue was only going to get worse as resources were dwindling in the face of the Covid pandemic.

Quotes collected during a design sprint from Diabetes Specialized Nurses when asked how they addressed the mental health needs of their patients
Quotes from Diabetes Specialized Nurses when asked how they addressed the mental health needs of their patients.

As for the biggest finding for the patients, the Sprint Team discovered that their initial assumption of the toolkit being something the patients would discover and use on their own, didn’t hold up. The participants signalled they wanted to go through the cards with their friends and family and include them into the process.

Quotes collected during a design sprint from recently diagnosed adults
Quotes from recently diagnosed adults

The companion cards turned out to be a conversation starter that helped normalize talking about type 1, while providing medically accurate guidance.

The Outcomes of the Sprint

Based on the two Sprints and the insights they provided, the team created the Companion Cards–the toolkit consisting of 62 cards grouped into 6 sets that explore the multiple facets of living with type 1 diabetes. 

Alex and the Diabetes by Design team are now right amids the nitty gritty of everything that comes after the whiteboards are wiped clean: writing the cards, getting all the references to scientific papers, having them verified by the doctors, and managing the production.

Companion Cards

They also have just launched the Diabetes by Design website, where you can check out the original (and new!) posters, as well as keep up-to-date on the companion cards. 

Companion Cards: Hypo treat cheat sheet

The cards are grouped into 6 non-linear sets, so that people can choose their learning path by what matters to them most. 

Companion Cards Sets

While the cards are still being developed, you can join Diabetes by Design mailing list to get notified when the cards will be launched. 

Want to follow Alex and her work at Diabetes by Design and Korero Studio?

Make sure to follow Diabetes by Design Instagram, website, and her LinkedIn!

Anastasia Ushakova

Brand Strategist, Digital Marketer, and a Workshopper.