Case Study: Bridging Health and Social Determinants through UX Design

Published on Monday, May 22, 2017
Last updated Wednesday, October 25, 2023
5 min read


Healthcare is a complex ecosystem influenced by a myriad of factors beyond just medical treatment. Studies indicate that as much as 80% to 90% of a person's health is influenced by social determinants, like their living conditions and social environment. Yet, the healthcare industry has struggled with integrating this crucial knowledge into its practices and systems. I was part of a team that aimed to change that.

Screenshot of high-fidelity prototype for key topics page on Health + Social.
High-fidelity prototype of key topics page on Health + Social

The Challenge

The core problem we faced was a lack of practical applications or frameworks that could integrate the concept of Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) into healthcare practices, training, and systems. Our client had published a document that shed light on this issue, but it needed a digital avatar to reach a broader audience and stimulate dialogue.

Sticky notes on insights about the education on Social Determinants of Health.
Insights about the education on Social Determinants of Health

My Role

I served as the User Research and Information Architecture lead on this project, conducted between January and March 2017 at DePaul University. The team comprised seven members, and I was involved in every phase—from initial research to final prototyping. My primary responsibilities included conducting user interviews, usability tests, and designing the information architecture of the platform.

Planning & Discovery

Understanding the Context

Our first challenge was our own unfamiliarity with the concept of Social Determinants of Health. To design a solution, we first had to understand the problem deeply. We started by educating ourselves with resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, among others.

Screenshot of quotes and insights from interviewees on the impact of Social Determinants of Health.
Quotes and insights on the impact of Social Determinants of Health

Kickoff & Defining Goals

Our initial discussions with the client helped us understand that the publication's primary audience had shifted from social workers to medical educators, due to changes in the political and healthcare landscape. The platform we were to design needed to be flexible enough to cater to this new audience.

Team in the room researching and brainstorming.
Early research and brainstorming on the problem space

Research Phase

Identifying the Target Users

Our user research led us to identify three primary user groups: Medical Educators, Healthcare Practitioners, and Medical Students.

Screenshot of "The Educator" persona's profile.
Primary Persona: Medical Education
Screenshot of "The Practitioner" persona's profile.
Primary Persona: Medical Education
Screenshot of "The Student" persona's profile.
Primary Persona: Medical Education

User Interviews & Affinity Mapping

We conducted interviews with eight participants who fit into at least one of these categories. These interviews were conducted both over the phone and in-person in various hospital cafeterias around Chicago. We transcribed these interviews and used affinity mapping to identify key insights and clusters.

Team member next to wall of sticky notes containing user interview insights.
Affinity wall of insights from user interviews

Design & Iteration

Design Considerations

  • Communicate Relevance: We needed to translate the abstract concept of SDOH into relatable, actionable insights.
  • Education: Provide foundational knowledge about SDOH before diving into more complex materials.
  • Convey Credibility: Our platform had to stand up to scrutiny from medical professionals.
  • Design for Busy Practitioners: The content had to be easily digestible.
  • Cross-Platform Accessibility: Both desktop and mobile experiences had to be seamless.

Information Architecture & Prototyping

We broke down the publication into logical groups, considering the interrelatedness of different healthcare and social factors. Our aim was to let users navigate through themes that interested them the most, while also offering traditional search functionality. We then developed paper prototypes for the homepage and iteratively refined them based on client feedback and our design considerations.

Diagram of proposed site map.
Proposed site map for Health + Social

Key Takeaways

  • We successfully translated a complex healthcare and social concept into a digital platform designed to educate and engage a professional audience.
  • This project emphasized the value of deeply understanding the problem space before diving into solutioning - a principle that is easily forgotten in the rush to deliver.
  • The importance of iterative design and continuous client engagement was reinforced, ensuring that the platform remained aligned with its shifting target audience.

Areas for Improvement

While the project was a success, a more extensive validation phase with the target user groups could have added more depth to the final design. It would have been beneficial to have more time for A/B testing different design components.


By focusing on human-centered design principles and iterative development, we were able to deliver a platform that not only serves as an educational tool but also as a catalyst for change in integrating social determinants into healthcare practice.

Screenshot of high-fidelity prototype of home page.
High-fidelity prototype of Health + Social home page