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The Next Big Frontier In Industrial Design: Medical Devices

Misfit Wearables, the firm behind the activity monitor Shine, announced last week that it has successfully raised $15.2 million to create “new, yet to be launched” products for next year. Misfit Wearables’ CEO Sonny Vu hinted that these new products might be medical, making Misfit one of the growing number of examples of companies blurring the boundaries between consumer electronics and medical devices.  As an industrial designer who has worked on a range of medical devices–from diagnostic to therapeutic, disposable to reusable, as well as instruments and controllers I see this as a challenge and an opportunity for medical device companies to learn from personal devices and for designers to help bridge the gap between the personal and medical.

Unlike technology such as Smartphones, where new versions offer incremental improvements over the previous iterations by being smaller, faster, lighter, etc., medical devices always have a clear set of priorities. Most procedures, for example, involve multiple participants so tools have to be optimized for proper use. In addition, patient safety is always a top priority.

But while medical devices have clear and non-negotiable design needs, I have always believed that the role of the designer is about more than just solving the functional requirements. As devices get smarter, users more discerning and boundaries between personal and medical devices less defined, innovative device manufacturers should rethink the role design can play in the success of their products.

Get smarter about user interfaces

In the past, many procedures relied mostly on the skill of the practitioner, but today the communication and collaboration between the practitioner and the device is coming to the fore. Medical devices are becoming more intelligent and capable, and therefore inherently more complex. Devices perform complicated computations and analyses using multiple inputs and this introduces a design problem: How do you communicate the data to practitioners in a manner that they can easily understand and act on?

This means the designer is increasingly responsible for effective user interfaces. The challenge, then is to design devices, interfaces, and interactions in a way that enhance the practitioner’s skills while performing most of the heavy lifting of computing and analysis.

While the digital interfaces are becoming more robust, the physical interfaces are becoming simpler–yesterday’s “screen with many buttons” today is a touch screen.

Take for example Sonosite’s x-porte ultrasound console, which reinterprets the traditional hard button approach onto a completely touchscreen experience. This reinforces what has become one of my firm beliefs–the need for much closer collaboration between ID and UI designers.

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Don’t forget: The patient is watching

Consumers are savvy and the multitude of easy to use, appealing consumer electronics products definitely influences people’s expectations for medical devices. There are new precedents for interaction, capability, speed, performance and level of fit and finish that both medical professionals and patients demand from medical devices (not to mention the increase in medical devices now targeted directly to the patient).

Customers also take very important cues about the quality and reliability of the device from the way the it looks, feels, and behaves: a large, responsive touch-screen comes across as more advanced than a small, lo-res screen with large bezel and a multitude of buttons. Similarly size, weight, materials and fit and finish hugely impact perception. Performance, functionality and efficacy are clearly the most important priorities, and deserve the designer’s attention. However failing to consider the appearance, behavior and design execution of the product can stand in the way of adoption, acceptance and ultimate success.

AliveCor, seems to be taking the right approach with its heart rate monitoring system that includes a device, an intuitive and appropriate UI to turn a smartphone into an ECG device as well as a clinician facing interface that gives your doctor easy access to your ECG data. By contrast, other medical devices still look like science projects.

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At the same time, we need to balance this “consumerization” with the reality that medical devices have a much longer life cycle than a CE device. While your phone may appear outdated after a year, a medical practice will expect to use its imaging, monitoring, diagnostic, therapeutic equipment for many years. It is the role of the designer to separate the fashion trends from those with longer “timeless” impact on utility and usefulness.

Finding the right form for the function

In an area where safety, performance, and efficacy are key drivers, it’s often difficult to talk about aesthetics. Aesthetics should never come at the expense of safety and performance, but I would argue that accounting for the look and feel of the device can improve the patient experience.

Medical devices are used in emotionally charged situations and the appearance and behavior of devices can set people at ease or make them tense. In recent research we reviewed a device that offers voice commands to guide paramedics during resuscitation. While well intentioned, we learned that users often disabled that feature because voice commands instructing a paramedic to speed up compressions, left bystanders (like a patient’s family member) with the impression that the paramedic was “doing it wrong.”

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The appearance of the device impacts users’ perceptions: outdated or state-of-the-art, reliable or flimsy, approachable or restrictive, valuable or disposable. This perception determines how users will interact with it, and how much they trust the device or practitioner. Finding the right message, and presenting the device and its manufacturer in the best possible light are important parts of the designer’s job. The animation that your Nike+ app plays when you reach your goal is fun, but likely will be very different if your life depended on measuring the outcome.

The design imperatives

The design of medical devices places severe requirements on the designer in an inherently highly complex and high-stakes subject matter. At a time when technology and context are imposing additional complexity on products, user expectations (informed by CE) as to the quality of the physical object as well as the quality of its behavior are also steadily increasing.

While most medical device manufacturers already invest in design at some level, I will argue the bar is steadily moving higher:

  1. We must focus on all aspects of device functionality in all of its use cases. As devices become more capable and intelligent, the job of managing that complexity to provide clarity of information and operation will raise the bar for design quality.
  2. CE devices continue to push expectations and continue to raise the bar for the level of build quality, visual refinement and attention to detail users demand.
  3. This high level of refinement and quality increasingly has to pervade throughout all touch points of the product experience (hardware, software, service).

For us as designers, this offers some of the most challenging questions I have seen in my career–as well as a rich opportunity to test and extend our thinking and talent.

A version of this article originally appeared in FastCo Design