Seeing Through the Michigan Dental School

A series of post it notes on a wall

The Problem

My first in-depth research project. At the time, the University of Michigan’s Dental School was still exclusively using film x-rays. They knew they had to upgrade, lest they risk falling behind other dental schools and having their reputation besmirched by matriculating Millennials and rivals alike, but they had no idea how the new equipment would affect their process – or how it should. That’s where we came in.

The Process

This was grad school, so we got put into teams. And, of course, the first order of business was to name ourselves.


A logo that says "4 out of 5 dentists" feature tooth-shaped characters, one of which is blacked out
“Uh, guys…?”

(Why don’t more product teams do this in the industry? It’s fun!)

Now that we had done the hard work, it was time to see what the heck was up with the Dental School.

An interesting aspect of this project was the number of separate audiences and the way they connected. Ostensibly, the school was mostly concerned about teaching. However, they also saw patients. In fact, seeing patients was a major part of the education experience for dental students. Our research focused on understanding the dynamics of these relationships, noting pain points and delighters. Ideally, the Dental School’s upgrade from film to digital x-rays would remove pain points and preserve (or maybe enhance) interactions that added value.

We took a triangulated approach. Our first step was contextual interviews with various members of the Dental School faculty in order to get a feel for how they taught using film x-rays and what their concerns were for adjusting the process for digital. A few of us did some “job shadowing” in the x-ray and dental records office to learn the structure of a record, how they were filed, and the record check out system. Lastly we did some old-fashioned fly-on-the-wall ethnography in the patient waiting area and the x-ray development rooms.

After gathering the information we synthesized it by drawing various information models…

A model of the flow of information regarding x-rays in the dental school
Modeling the physical flow of information in the clinics
Forms attached to a whiteboard, surrounded by information about how they are used
An artifact model, tying data from observations and interviews to the physical artifacts used in the clinic
A flow chart, showing many lines and boxes, the specifics of which are unimportant.
This flow chart can be thought of as a combination of the above two models

We also broke our observations into affinity notes and created an affinity wall with them (as seen in the featured image above).

The Product

After wallpapering rooms with marker lines and post it notes, we noticed enough patterns to give the Dental School some recommendations. They seemed delighted by them, in particular with how much we focused on how the nature of some jobs would change after digital x-rays were in place. (Read an executive summary of the report, if you like.)