Forms attached to a whiteboard, surrounded by information about how they are used

Seeing Through the Michigan School of Dentistry: X-Rays, Information Flows, and Service Design


The University of Michigan School of Dentistry couldn’t wait much longer to transition to digital X-rays. Their inability to train students on this technology was beginning to harm graduates’ job prospects and this would soon imperil the prestige of the school and reduce the overall quality of its program applicants.


  • Assess the information flow and usage of the Michigan School of Dentistry’s current practice with film X-rays.
  • Provide guidance for the transition to digital X-rays.

Dates: September 2011 – December 2011 (4 months)

Target Audience: Administration of the School of Dentistry, which employs ~450 academic staff, enrolls ~650 students, and treats thousands of patients in the Ann Arbor area on any given year

My Role: User Researcher as a University of Michigan School of Information graduate student


  • Learned the ins-and-outs of contextual interviewing, ethnography, information modeling, and project management
  • Delivered a report to the University of Michigan summarizing our recommendations
  • Impressed the client with our understanding of their processes and the thoughtfulness of our approach


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

Then we conducted a series of interviews as well as ethnographic observations of the waiting room, student clinics, and the x-ray room. 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.

A spreadsheet with each row pertaining to an individual interview, showing interviewer, interviewee, and date

We complied over 300 affinity notes from these interviews, coding them by User ID as well as tags indicating different sorts of notes. These, along with a collection of photographs that have been lost to time and the dark corners of the Internet, gave us the data we needed to model this information in a number of ways.

A list of notes from interviews, details uinimportant
Click through if you love pages and pages of raw data

We modeled the data in 4-5 different ways. included here the physical model, showing the physical flow of people and information through the clinics, an artifact model that tied the interview data to the physical artifacts and forms people used everyday, and an affinity diagram that helped us understand needs and patterns.

A model of the flow of information regarding x-rays in the dental school
Physical model. Apologies that it’s a bit cut off.
Forms attached to a whiteboard, surrounded by information about how they are used
Artifact model
A white board with multicolored sticky notes, forming a hierarchy of information
Partway through the affinity diagram
A series of post it notes on a wall
One close up shot of the final diagram…
Multicolored sticky notes on a wall, displaying clusters and hierarchies of information
… and another.

The ultimate outcome was a report for the School of Dentistry that helped them understand the information flow of physical X-Rays, identified the parts of their operation that would be affected by the transition, and outlined a few strategies for dealing with these effects (especially as it related to personnel). Read an executive summary of the report, if you like.