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More Than Seat Belt Extenders

More Than Seat Belt Extenders

A fan of The King, I recently saw Big Elvis perform at the Barbary Coast Hotel in Las Vegas. Big was an understatement. Although his Jailhouse Rock really rocked, his girth rendered him nearly immobile-what little shaking going on was going on primarily about his midsection.

While an oversized Elvis is the kind of gimmick that works for a nightclub show, the sad truth is that obesity is a major public health problem. Unless you've been living under a rock for the last decade, I don't have to tell you it's getting worse. According to statistics published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 61 percent of U.S. adults were overweight or obese in 1999- up from 47percent in the late 1970s.

Wouldn't it be great if the Atkins diet worked for everybody? Though organizations like the National Institutes of Health have launched major initiatives to prevent obesity, experts say that it will be a long time before we eradicate the problem. Happily, there is a growing emphasis on the treatment of obesity and its associated health problems, which include diabetes and sleep apnea.

Although the medical community was the first profession to worry about quality-of-life issues, human factors engineers like Brian Stonecipher are starting to think about product design in the context of people who have obesity-related conditions. Stonecipher recently joined the Boston-based engineering/design firm Design Continuum to help carry out the firm's commitment to considering the physical and emotional needs of the obese in its product design process.

"Obese people face some significant challenges: They often have a restricted range of motion. It's difficult for them to bend over and tie their shoes. Diabetes can impair their vision," says Stonecipher. "Fortunately, even simple design changes to a product can make a dramatic impact."

Take for example a diabetes monitoring system that Design Continuum recently developed. Realizing that thick fingers lack the dexterity required to handle wafer-thin testing strips, engineers developed a cartridge that comes pre-loaded with 17 strips. Added benefit: Older patients, and even skinny people find it easier to use.

Design Continuum says that about 15 percent of its products-and customers-can benefit from this type of human factors analysis. What about the products you design? Here's one area of design engineering where you could make a big difference.

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