As designers, we can benefit from using our own user-experience in everyday life to add insight in spaces we design for others. One of the biggest tools we have is ‘empathy’ and this tool like any other gets sharpened and grows the more experiences we are immersed in.
This blog describes my personal experience as a hospital patient, unable to turn my spatial observations of good design and user comfort off. In April 2015, I was 6 ½ months pregnant when diagnosed with pre-eclampsia and admitted into hospital until our daughter would be born. I will share my experience on the hospital environment and how it affected one of the most important times in my life.
The ward I stayed in had 6 beds, three either side facing each other; they were separated by paper blue concertina curtains. I was given the worst bed that first night; the one next to the sink, the bins, the spare hospital equipment squeezed in the corner, the one furthest from the windows and right next to the door into the main corridor… It felt claustrophobic, extremely uncomfortable, unsettling, impacting my emotional comfort and general feelings of ill health. As an expected result, I didn’t sleep well that first night.
The thought of spending between 1-8 weeks in that situation was extremely concerning, so in the morning I used my ‘user controls’; luck was on my side, ‘the best bed’ in the ward became available and, as if in an auction, I jumped at the chance to ‘claim’ it for myself from the midwife. This bed was next to an east-facing window; when lying in it, I could see the sky, a bus stop with three trees in full blossom and woods in the distance. That colourful spring view, the natural daylight and the fresh air from the manually operated window, made all the difference and turned my stay in hospital from intolerable to rather pleasant! That corner of the ward became my bed, my space, my ‘home’ for the next 11 days.
The ability to take some level of control in the immediate environment, increase daylight, have a clear view out with a fairly attractive view of nature, were immediate solutions to reducing my emotional stress levels. The ability to apply all this and bring in some of my items allowed me to create my own ‘territory’ and thus allow perceived levels of safety. The location of the bed at the end of the ward with views both outside and of the ward entrance also assisted as they were meeting my ‘refuge and prospect’ instinctive response.
Considering users of these spaces already have heightened stress levels due to the unknown or frightening issues of their situation, ensuring the details that affect them are supporting their emotional state rather than aggravating it, is critical to their recovery. My own situation was rather poignant considering the effects of my condition were dangerously high blood pressure levels and the smallest stressful issue would shoot my levels up. I was in there to ‘heal’ but the first night’s situation did not support this and instead compounded the problem. Is it enough for us to accept that ‘luck’ will support 2 out of 6 users of that ward every day?
It might sound strange considering I was staying in a hospital and not a hotel, but I looked forward to my evening ‘beauty’ sessions! They helped alleviate the effects of ‘illness’ that seem to hang around upon entering a hospital! The bathroom was of a decent size, with a bath and attached shower – and no toilet. It had a large frosted window that I could also open. It was clean, warm and comfortable. I relished and thoroughly enjoyed having some quiet time by myself. The best bit however, was the birdsong. The window overlooked a closed courtyard that had one fairly large leafy tree, in season so had blue blossom, which was clearly a haven for birds. Every evening, the birds gathered on the branches and started to sing. It was utterly beautiful, calming and serene. I rank those showers as special and memorable as the ones I had many years ago in a well-known safari lodge in Africa, where I could see monkeys climbing rocks and elephants bathing. But this time I was in hospital, in Chertsey.
There are clear touches of biophilia and beautification effecting the senses through natural sounds. Warmth and cleanliness are linked to issues humans see as reflections of our culture and our own value; clean environments may be critical in hospitals from a health standpoint but they are also directly linked to our sense of self. Small details such as openable windows provided the access to nature and the sense of controllability that allows relaxation.
The environment that surrounds us has an enormous influence on our sense of wellbeing and even our healing. We most often give our attention to the things that are not right, that bother us. While it is good to be aware of those issues – with the aim of finding a solution or providing feedback for improvement, rather than merely complain – it serves us well to acknowledge and take pleasure out of the things that do work well, that do make us feel good – however small these might be. As designers, we must ensure to introduce more of them.
I consider myself lucky, not only because of the amazing care both my premature daughter and I received, but also because there were enough elements in my surrounding environment that contributed to an overall positive experience and sense of wellbeing under the circumstances.
In a following post, I will continue sharing my spatial experience of NHS’s St Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey: my ‘forbidden’ walks in the nearby parkland, my active social life in the ward’s lounge area and finally, my stay in a private room – is it the VIP experience that we are led to believe?