Human-centred innovation in aged care

Human-centred innovation in aged care

How can aged care providers better understand their consumers to drive innovation?

Nicki Doyle

Partner, Health, Ageing & Human Services

KPMG Australia


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With public trust in aged care decreasing, and the consumer experience not meeting expectations, how we support and care for older Australians is at a crossroads. To survive and thrive in this vital industry, service providers must look at new ways to innovate that are practical, collaborative, cost effective, and most importantly, consumer-centric.

We have previously looked at what is meant by innovation in aged care, and how providers can better understand their consumers through research to build tangible insights. Here, we look at the use of design thinking, and specifically, empathy, to truly understand consumers and deliver more human-centred innovation.

Understanding older Australians

People over the age of 65 don’t fit into one or two neat categories of ‘consumers’ with standard sets of needs and desires. The nature of ‘being older’ is changing as we live longer lives, but live with increasingly complex chronic health conditions.

Meeting consumer needs in aged care means recognising that the 65 years + age group is a reflection of the national demographic diversity. Within this cohort there are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, other cultural and linguistic diversity, and LGBTI community needs, for example. These patterns of needs, attitudes and behaviours can help to guide strategy and the design of services, packages and facilities.

Conducting research and building personas1 is a good starting point, but providers need to go even deeper to see the world from their consumers’ perspectives. For example, as we grow older we tend to feel younger than our biological age. A recent study in the US and Canada showed that, despite the presence of illness, more than half of the participants felt at least 20 years younger than their age.2

Providers need to understand these subtle nuances to truly walk in the consumers’ shoes and build services that meet their needs.

Empathy and innovation

Empathy is neither sympathy nor insight. It is the ability to deeply understand consumers, and to truly see and feel from their point of view. Empathy is the core of the human-centred design technique for understanding and sharing the feelings of another in order to innovate and design for them.

Another way to look at empathy is the ability to get beyond what consumers ‘say’ they feel rationally, and into the underlying emotional drivers of their decisions. This is what they think and feel – the ‘why’ of decision making. This information forms a basis from which we can truly start to think about meaningful innovation.

One of the key reasons many new technologies, innovations and start-ups fail is because there is no market for them. For aged care this is doubly important because there is a human being at the centre of all these solutions.

Building empathy for consumers is a major competitive advantage, as it means spending less time on innovating products and services where there is no demand. The key is to find and understand problems being faced in great detail before jumping to a solution.

Solving problems

A recurring problem in aged care is issues in communication between a provider and consumers and/or their family.

Rather than jumping to a solution or a new technology as the silver bullet, a provider could start innovating a better approach by getting to the bottom of the problem. This might start with tracing the experience of specific consumers through the current process to identify key consumer needs and pain points.

The provider could then craft specific and meaningful problem or opportunity statements. Off the back of these, the providers can start to design new and creative solutions, and apply new technologies as appropriate.

Beyond innovation

How empathy can help the entire organisation

Deeper understanding of the consumer: How can providers innovate or design for someone they don’t have empathy for?

Uncovering real world insights: To design for someone, providers need real needs and insights, not the sort made up in an ‘ivory tower’.

Motivates teams: Getting teams out of the office and into the real world to experience what the consumer is experiencing, observing them, meeting with them and becoming deeply involved in their lives generates higher motivation.

Giving meaning: Empathising with consumers enables providers to identify problems worthy of solving. It gives meaning to people’s jobs, and a reason to come to work every day.

Make an impact: Too many organisations waste their time inventing products and services for non-existent needs. Empathising first helps uncover needs that consumers want to see solved.

Three steps to better empathy

Here are some techniques and tips to understand consumers that providers can apply to designing new products, services and experiences that create value and satisfy needs.

1. Be the consumer

To help build empathy with the consumer, providers and individuals can spend time being them, or ‘living in their shoes’. This is about experiencing the situation the user experiences – for example a home care visit, or navigating the range of services from an organisation.

2. Be with the consumer

Providers can build further empathy by observing the consumer in situ and interviewing them about their experiences afterwards. In the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) sector, companies have gone supermarket shopping with consumers, watched them cook with the ingredients they purchased, and even had a meal with them and asked them about their experience afterwards. In aged care, providers could spend a day with a consumer in residential aged care, or time with a home care package consumer who is having their initial assessment, or is receiving and trying to understand their home care statement.

3. Learn about the consumer

The third technique is about learning more about the consumer by getting a 360 degree picture of them from the people around them such as their families or regular care providers or other experts in the field. For example, in aged care this could be the daughter of an elderly consumer, or an expert could be a nutritionist specialising in the elderly. Both will have specialised and/or deeper knowledge of the consumer and share needs and insights the consumer may not be able to share.


Aged care is about people. Providers in the sector are facing rising community expectations, greater requirements around quality and safety, and only marginal increases in funding. Given the various pressures that providers face, jumping to a new technology solution can be very tempting.

However, a deeper focus on innovation is critical and this must address the core issues at hand. Technology may be part of the solution but it must be evaluated through human-centred design.

Empathy is not only a critical element to a more human-centred way to innovate, it is the foundation of a more meaningful and practical approach to doing business that creates value and satisfies human needs.


  1. Shaping the Future of South Australia – Ageing Well Report, KPMG, CEDA, 2016
  2. The mask we wear: Chronological age versus subjective ‘age inside’ (PDF 512KB), L. F. Carver M.A., PhD., International Journal of Aging Research, 2019

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