Design for Healthy Behaviors:
Morning Glory's Headache Tracker
Leveraging design thinking principles to help a patient volunteer achieve their health goals
During the spring 2018 graduate-level course Design for Healthy Behaviors, a partner and I worked with a patient volunteer over 10 weeks, leveraging design thinking principles to help her achieve personal health goals.
Our patient, who opted to go by the pseudonym Morning Glory, suffered from Chiari Malformation, a congenital defect in which some brain tissue extends into one’s spinal canal. After successful surgical intervention, the defect was corrected; however, Morning Glory still reported irregular headaches. With brain scans presenting normal, both Morning Glory and her physicians suspected the headaches might be aggravated by lifestyle factors, though they weren’t sure which ones.
During our first meeting, Morning Glory expressed that identifying the cause of her headaches was her primary health goal. After some group brainstorming, we converged on a simple initial prototype she felt confident she could integrate into her daily routine: taking notes about her daily sleep, diet, exercise, and menstrual cycle, along with whether or not she suffered a headache.
After two weeks of tracking her lifestyle factors on notebook paper, Morning Glory already noticed a trend beginning to emerge: headache days seemed loosely correlated with days she ate irregularly or poorly. Even more salient, though, was Morning Glory’s observation that the act of writing down her daily habits was causing her to be more cognizant of her health writ large.
The project reached a breakthrough when—while we were coaching her through a “5 Whys” exercise during our third meeting—Morning Glory arrived at the realization that her core health concern stemmed from her failure to prioritize herself. As an innate caretaker who provided support to her aging parents, adult children, and young grandchildren, Morning Glory said that she had put regard for her own health needs on “autopilot.” As a group, we decided that while we’d continue prototyping a sustainable headache tracker tool, we’d also reframe the project to focus more broadly on Morning Glory’s desire to put herself first.
After this “aha!” moment, Morning Glory made rapid progress toward her goals. She started with small, discrete steps toward better health: cutting out candy at the office, picking up running for the first time since her most recent surgery. Morning Glory also spoke with us at length about her efforts to establish firm emotional boundaries in a newly-blossoming romantic relationship.
We also continued to prototype Morning Glory’s hybrid headache tracker / wellness journal. Though we experimented with digital tools, Morning Glory found it most fulfilling to take notes using pen and paper. With each week, we continued to add and modify the categories in the journal. Caffeine and water intake were new additions to the journal. We split the food category into breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks after Morning Glory noted the timing of her eating was affecting how she felt. We also added a notes section for her to make record of any particularly stressful or driving-intensive days, since both seemed to contribute to headaches.
Anecdotally, Morning Glory’s increased focus on her health seemed to improve the incidence of the headaches we’d originally set out to address. At the beginning of our project, she reported one every few days. A month in, Morning Glory regularly had headache-free weeks.
As the project drew to a close, I designed and bound a spiral book for Morning Glory to keep journaling in, since the act of writing seemed to be the primary factor keeping her on track. Since Morning Glory also enjoyed having a regular outlet to converse with others outside the context of a caretaker role, we worked with her to think through how she might leverage her support system to continue building such connections.