Humanizing text-based care with Salvo Health’s Head of Design Sarah Lidgus

Check out this can’t-miss dialogue with one of the health tech industry’s design leaders.

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November 20, 2023

Today, I sat down with Sarah Lidgus, our Head of Design, here at Salvo Health to discuss her background in design, education, and also her work at Salvo Health. Our conversation introduced me to the world of human-centered design, and really revealed just how much opportunity there is for UX/UI designers to have input on the development of our signature product: The nation’s first virtual clinic for chronic gut conditions.

Check out this can’t-miss dialogue with one of the health tech industry’s design leaders.

“Alright, let’s jump in the WayBack machine: Can you tell me how and where you began your career in design?”

I started my career writing about art and design as in writing art or occasional design criticism. I’d go to art shows and events. And I think I just sort of had the realization that I didn't want to be writing about art and design, I wanted to be actually, on a team of people making stuff.

What I love about design, that I find less so in art, are all of the constraints–external, internal, what people who we hope use the product want and need, and what we can build as a team to deliver that. I love working creatively with these types of constraints, and having all those things come together to shape a specific product.

And if we go way WAY back, mom was a social worker and my dad was an engineer, and I feel like I sit right in the middle of that–building empathetic systems. So user experience design, which is really about building systems that can flex and adapt to the messy, emotional, wonderful experience of being human– it’s always felt like a natural fit for me.

“How does your experience influence your definition of design?”

When I started looking for design work, I remember talking to one of the big headhunters in the design space about what my background was, as a writer, and as a strategist, how I think about a narrative and  the strategy of the narrative. Then I told her what I wanted to do: Which was to sit on a design team and she responded, “Oh writers don’t sit on design teams, they just write about design.

That was disheartening but also, not true. At the time a design agency called IDEO was hitting its stride in Silicon Valley. They saw writers as designers, and that verbal craft could translate to visual craft, so IDEO became my first official design job, and my first exposure to human-centered design–a lot of which I still practice today.

“Very similar to the work you’re now doing at Salvo Health, but I know that other parts of your experience are just as important to how you’ve developed our design philosophy. Where did you head after IDEO?”

I’ve worked all over New York City. I was the first designer in residence at the Mayor's Office, I taught at Parsons and SVA, and continued teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, where I taught design to social workers. That’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. I also worked at a ton with smaller nonprofits, like the Center for Urban Pedagogy and the Design Trust for Public Space, and started a nonprofit, called Everyone, Everywhere with two friends of mine with the goal of bringing more design education to community college.

What I care most about wherever I work is representation on design teams and the role of lived experience in design.

“Your last position prior to Salvo Health was at a health tech company called Tempest. Can you tell me a little about that?

Actually, I got sober through Tempest, before I joined their staff as Chief Experience Officer. Tempest is a digital sobriety school. so it was awesome to walk the walk of representation in design. I had a lived experience of getting sober,  and was able to bring that perspective to my role. It really informed my decision-making as far as making their product inclusive but also realistic to our users.

“Wow. So how has your professional identity changed through those years, through those title changes? Is there anything one thing, or skill, that you feel taught you more than something else? Or any reason you felt your career went in the way it did?”

The most consistent skill that’s evolved in my career is honing the skill of deep listening. I've become a better interviewer, a better editor, and a better leader through listening. Something that helped me hone my active listening skills is the research portion of my job. Qualitative research isn't just about averaging stuff out, or focusing on numbers. You need to be in the moment actively listening and synthesizing in order to push the interview forward.  That’s how you  get the best responses, which become the inputs that help shape the future of a product. And so I think that I've gotten better at figuring out how to have conversations with people, how to pivot and  to go deeper and connect with what's going on with them and to listen for answers.

"Why do you think the work being done at Salvo Health is important?"

The incentives are misaligned in American healthcare, which should be focused on getting better outcomes for people.

Right now providers are incentivized by insurance companies to go after more expensive procedures and really only support people in a more ongoing way they are involved in surgeries and the similar treatments. But that leaves out the vast majority of people experiencing chronic health issues. So many are just left to their own devices to coordinate their own care and do their own research to try and figure out which treatments might work. It’s all so broken and fragmented and piecemeal.

What Salvo Health is doing is trying to create a single solution for folks. –something that’s continuous, centralized, comprehensive and collaborative.

Our care teams really see patients as experts around their own bodies, and collaborate with them as such. That shouldn’t seem radical, but in the context of today’s American healthcare system, it really is.

“For potential design candidates: What are the challenges that we face in creating a single source platform like this? What kind of work do our designers have on their plate and what problems can they look forward to solving?”

When I tell people about what Salvo Health is doing, they’re always like “Oh that makes total sense. I’d use that. Why hasn’t this been done yet?” And I think any time you have a problem/solution that should have already existed but didn’t, you can bet there is a ton of complexity to contend with under the surface. And that’s definitely the case here.

There is just inherent complexity in the kind of coordination that we're bringing to patient-centered care. We're not outside of legacy systems, whether that's insurance, diagnostics, or testing. So we have to take all that infrastructure and combine it with the next evolution of digital health.

We’re not conventional telehealth either, and our text-based care via chat is entirely new. So humanizing care when you’re never face to face with someone is also a challenge. You’re always speaking to real people, but does it feel caring? Designing for the therapeutic alliance in an all chat space is hard and fascinating to iterate on.  

“Considering that, how do you evaluate the effectiveness of our UX or UI design? What does it have to do for our members?”

The whole point of the product is to create better outcomes for our members–by getting to the root cause and reducing symptoms. That’s not a single silver bullet–it’s a journey. So on the frontend that means we need to be creating a user experience that’s meaningful and supportive on an ongoing basis, and on the backend it means giving our care teams the tools and support they need to deliver their best care.

We’re constantly doing research with our members to understand what’s working and what can be improved. We’re always trying to improve. We’re asking: Are we meeting people where they’re at? Do members feel empowered in their care? Are they getting high value from their care team interactions? Are we responding well to their needs? Are we opening up new possibilities for how they see their health? We are constantly asking, measuring, and improving our designs as a result.

And from a pure visual design perspective, I think creating a beautiful product is critical. Beauty for me is not a “nice to have''; it’s something that all people deserve. I think this is especially true when creating a resource and healing space for people with chronic conditions. We want people to feel relief when they’re in the experience. We want it to be wonderful to come back into the app. Designers like to talk a lot about the word “delight,” making something delightful, but it feels too whimsical for what I’m talking about.  I'm interested in beauty. It's our job as designers to make the experience beautiful, because we want people to want to be there. We've all been to hospitals, schools or spaces that are just not beautiful, not welcoming. And that especially sucks if you have to be there, like a hospital. But for Salvo Health members who are choosing to be a part of our product, we are prioritizing a highly designed, beautiful experience that is as  welcoming and wonderful as possible. It’s part of the efficacy of our healthcare.

“With that in mind, can you tell me about something in particular that you're working on? And who are you working on it with?”

Can I say the entire product?

“I mean, for a start-up, that's an answer.”

I mean, I am. I'm working with Frank and Joseph, both UX/UI designers, and Jonathan, Head of product, on the user experience. I'm working on content strategy with Louise, our Head of Coaching and Dr. Max Pitman, our Chief of Medicine. And I'm working with Alyssa, our Head of Research, on better understanding what our members need and want and how we might create that.

“So we’re hiring right now and we're looking for UX/UI designers, what qualities are you looking for when you're hiring?”

I was not looking for a job when Salvo Health came knocking, but I was really floored by Jonathan, our Head of Product, and the mentality of our CEO, Jeff Glueck. They are equal parts empathetic and technical. They’re humble, and don't take themselves too seriously. And they’re grown ups! And I mean that like they’re experienced, mature people running  a seed stage startup with a clear sense of vision and purpose. Startups can sometimes feel like a bunch of kids are playing with VC money. That couldn’t be further from the case here, and I love that.  

I think people who are rigorous in their thinking, inherently curious, and willing to just try and see will do well here. We're very driven by research, qualitative and quantitative, and data in general, and so figuring out how to integrate that into your design work is an absolute must. And we  are a start-up, so we do move fast, but we build with a learning mindset. Frank, our stellar UX/UI designer, is always prototyping and revving. His design work not only helps push the product forward in smarter and faster ways, but it also helps everyone in the company stay on the same page.

“So you mentioned that you feel like listening has really helped shape your career? What do you feel is necessary in a leadership team to scale and support a team of designers?”

The job of any leader of any team, and as Head of Design, it's understanding who is at the table, and who needs to be at the table. We want a diverse group of people with different perspectives and different lived experiences working on the problem and on the team. I think it’s my job  to understand the unique talents and interests of the people who are on the team at any given moment, and to help them move towards more of the work that lights them up and that helps them grow as designers and thinkers.

“Thank you so much for your time and authenticity, Sarah. Can you remind me what roles we are hiring for?”

Right now, for the design team, we’re looking for a UI-designer for a three-month contract, but we also have a bunch of other roles available across the company on Lever. Apply! It’s really a great team and mission to be a part of.

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