Boundary Objects as Dialogical Learning Accelerators for Social Change in Design for Health: Systematic Review

Gijs Terlouw*, Derek Kuipers, Lars Veldmeijer, Job van 'T Veer, Jelle Prins, Jean Pierre Pierie

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
56 Downloads (Pure)


Background: Boundary objects can add value for innovative design and implementation research in health care through their organizational focus and the dynamic structure between ill-structured and tailored use. However, when innovation is approached as a boundary object, more attention will need to be paid to the preimplementation phase. Research and design thinking pay attention to the preimplementation stage but do not have a social or organizational focus per se. The integration of boundary objects in design methodologies can provide a more social and organizational focus in innovative design projects by mapping out the mechanisms that occur at boundaries during design. Four dialogical learning mechanisms that can be triggered at boundaries have been described in the literature: identification, coordination, reflection, and transformation. These mechanisms seem suitable for integration in innovative design research on health.

Objective: Focusing on innovation in health, this study aims to find out whether the different learning mechanisms can be linked to studies on health innovation that mention boundary objects as a concept and assess whether the related mechanisms provide insight into the stage of the design and implementation or change process.

Methods: The following 6 databases were searched for relevant abstracts: PubMed, Scopus, Education Resources Information Center, PsycINFO, Information Science and Technology Abstracts, and Embase. These databases cover a wide range of published studies in the field of health.

Results: Our initial search yielded 3102 records; after removing the duplicates, 2186 (70.47%) records were screened on the title and abstract, and 25 (0.81%) papers were included; of the 13 papers where we identified 1 mechanism, 5 (38%) described an innovation or innovative project, and of the 12 papers where we identified more mechanisms, 9 (75%) described the development or implementation of an innovation. The reflective mechanism was not identified solely but was present in papers describing a more successful development or implementation project of innovation. In these papers, the predetermined goals were achieved, and the process of integration was relatively smoother.

Conclusions: The concept of boundary objects has found its way into health care. Although the idea of a boundary object was introduced to describe how specific artifacts can fulfill a bridging function between different sociocultural sites and thus have a social focus, the focus in the included papers was often on the boundary object itself rather than the social effect. The reflection and transformation mechanisms were underrepresented in the included studies but based on the findings in this review, pursuing to trigger the reflective mechanism in design, development, and implementation projects can lead to a more fluid and smooth integration of innovation into practice.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere31167
Number of pages16
JournalJMIR Human Factors
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan-2022


  • Boundary objects
  • Design
  • Health
  • Innovation
  • Systematic review

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