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Medical device design strategies: One more time, with feeling

The products we love—the ones that become commercial blockbusters and pop culture icons—share a common trait: They evoke an emotional response in the user. Medical device design should strive to achieve that same connection, according to design engineer Jeevak Badve.

The products we love—the ones that become commercial blockbusters and pop culture icons—share a common trait: They evoke an emotional response in the user. Today, consumer electronics largely fill that niche. For previous generations, it might have been Tivo, the Ford Mustang or a Marshall amplifier. They all deliver superb performance in a perfecty executed package, but more than that, they connect with the user on an emotional level. Medical products should be no different, according to Jeevak Badve, a Principal and Director of Strategic Growth at design consultancy Sundberg-Ferar (Walled Lake, MI).

It goes without saying that a product won’t get past the drawing board if its functionality and commercial viability are in doubt—two parts of a three-legged stool, as Badve put it—but every successful product blends the functional and emotional attributes to some degree to engage the consumer, he added. Design engineers in the medical space often don’t consider the potential emotional power of the products they are designing, and that’s a shortcoming, Badve told PlasticsToday, in particular “as institutional care moves to the patient’s home and the user of the product is not a trained professional.”

To design products that connect at a deeper level with the user, design engineers need to give careful thought to how the user physically connects with the device. They need to consider the mental models people are accustomed to and ensure that the products interface enables intuitive interaction, said Badve. “The product must mesh with their expectation matrix rather than try to impose something on them,” said Badve. In some ways, this approach harks back to “design thinking,” as exemplified by Apple’s Steve Jobs laser-like focus on craft, empathy and simplicity. One of the precepts of design thinking is achieving empathy with the customer, such that the designer understands the customers' needs better than the customers themselves. You won’t get to that level of understanding, added Badve, simply by asking users what they want because they don’t know what they don’t know.

“If you ask people about their future behavior, they will tell you that they will eat a healthy meal tonight and exercise tomorrow,” said Badve. In the moment, though, those good intentions often remain aspirations. The moral of the story is that actions speak louder than words. To get a sense of the user’s relationship with a design, you need to watch what they do and challenge them, if need be: Why are you doing this like that? Badve recommends applying research techniques to get a sense of the experience a user wants, rather than a specific type of product. That allows the designer to gain an understanding of “the experiential, emotional, aspirational” needs of the user. "Then we can come back to the features he or she wants in a design,” said Badve.

Jeevak Badve is scheduled to speak at a conference session during the co-located Medical Design & Manufacturing (MD&M) West and PLASTEC West event in Anaheim, CA, on Feb. 11. Badve’s session—Designing to Evoke the Right User Response—is part of a daylong conference track, User-Centered Design Strategies and Tactics for Faster Product Development. MD&M West and PLASTEC West will be at the Anaheim Convention Center from Feb. 11 to 13, 2020. For more information and to register to attend, go to the event website.

Badve’s professional design background began in the automotive sector. He spent seven years at Tata Motors in India followed by 16 years at GM Design. At Sundberg-Ferar, medical devices are part of his remit. The studio, which has been in business for 85 years, has a legacy encompassing a broad range of categories, from appliances and consumer products to industrial design and mobility. All of that experience can be meaningfully channeled into the medical device space, according to Badve.

The initial approach is similar across all applications, explained Badve. “Our super strength is in the cross pollination of ideas across all the categories we work in. For example, there are similarities between a kitchen and an operating theater: Both involve fluids, organic materials and contaminants, cooks on the one hand and surgeons on the other, all sorts of equipment in which sterility or hygiene play a role. In one case, you have a kitchen island, in the other a surgery table.” In both instances, you begin with an understanding of the business model and then drill down to the ecosystem. “When you abstract the model, the things you need to ask are similar: What is the experience right now? What might the experience be 15 years from now? What is the experience in the Mayo Clinic? What is the experience in a clinic in Shanghai, Mumbai or Nairobi?”

Sundberg-Ferar is currently working on the design of a single-cell isolation machine that will be used for cancer research and related applications. Here again, the process begins by asking the right questions, said Badve. “The end users are lab technicians and we need to understand the emotional process they go through. How many tests do they do in a day with that machine? How fast does the technician need to work? What about the users in-between—the caregivers, nurses and clients?”

"Ultimately, product design is simple," said Badve. "It's the human element that is the most complicated part of the process. As we like say: ‘Stop trying to be all things to all people. Start by being something to someone.’” That singular approach to product design is one path to universal appeal and, perhaps, a device that users can love.

Image: Peshkova/Adobe Stock

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