Educated in musicology, literature, art and cultural sciences, Valentijn Visch may have the most unusual background of anyone at TU Delft. To him, however, the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering is the place where he can combine all his interests. As associate professor in the department of Human-Centered Design, he is specialised in Design for Health Motivation.
‘As life expectancy and the incidence of chronic diseases keep rising, it becomes even more important for our broad health offering to be well matched to each individual’s wants and needs,’ Visch says. ‘Design for Health Motivation is about making people aware of how they value their health, about assisting them in making well-considered decisions, and helping them in achieving long-term behavioural change.’ His many research projects are typically a collaboration between a health professional offering a certain treatment, an end-user ranging from a patient (group) to a community centre, and a professional design studio. ‘The industrial designer serves as the glue unifying these domains to bring health and healthcare to a next level.’
Gaming elements, including sports, are a big source of motivational inspirationValentijn Visch
In his first health-related projects Visch applied gamification techniques to mental health therapies, to help ensure that people would complete their (relatively short-term) treatment. But he quickly expanded his research into other areas, such as physical health, patient journeys, and long-term behavioural change. Think of wanting to quit drinking or to live more healthily after a cancer diagnosis. ‘Gaming elements, including sports, are a big source of inspiration,’ he says. ‘They hold many motivation-boosters such as collecting points, competition, and the excitement of trying to find something hidden. The design challenge is to determine which game-element is ideally suited to motivate a certain individual in a specific medical context.’
Not only technology
Gamification isn’t always about adding fun. ‘Fun can be a good motivator, but so can curiosity or even frustration,’ Visch says. ‘In a project aimed at reducing dropout in vocational education, we first asked the students questions such as “do you want to live long or go to many parties?”. Only after answering twenty of such choices did we give them the real choices to make regarding their future.’ The solutions he proposes aren’t always highly technological either. Sure, Visch has ongoing projects about digital twins or on how virtual reality to help reduce shame after facial surgery, for example after removing an atypical mole or birthmark. But he also employs research on the potential of storytelling as a design element in health for which plush toys were used to increase health literacy of kids and parents in vulnerable neighbourhoods.
Achieving long-term behavioural change, six months or longer, is a challengeValentijn Visch
As part of the convergence between TU Delft, Erasmus MC, and Erasmus University Rotterdam, Visch is also involved in the research programme on technology-supported transitions in healthcare. ‘We want to, for example, help close the care gap between those who are already motivated to stay healthy and thus make use of all available means, and vulnerable groups who are in a downward spiral of not being reached by healthcare and caring less and less about their own health. Proper design of healthcare can help.’ The programme also investigates how to translate big-health-data into data that is meaningful to individuals. ‘Some people may want to increase their lifespan as much as possible, others may just want to know if they are as healthy as they were five years ago. We certainly should not push health information to all people in the same way and expect everyone to care for their health in the same way.’
Achieving long-term behavioural change is also part of the convergence programme, and one that would make Visch especially proud if successful. ‘We know that proper design can achieve six weeks of therapy adherence,’ he says. ‘But six months, a few years, their whole remaining lives? That is a big challenge as people easily lapse into old habits. And the effect of gaming elements, such as rewards, does wear off. We need to come up with new design strategies that continually evolve, just like people themselves do.’
There is creativity, and then there is creativity
Mountain biking, bicycle racing, ice skating and sailing are all part of how Visch ensures his own long-term care. And believe it or not, so is creativity. ‘In science, even the creative sciences, you always have to substantiate any choice you make. But when writing music and playing the piano, I can really drift off into unexpected territory where things just are as they are.’