Do Your Products Speak the Same Design Language?

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In touring a Fortune 100 medical device manufacturer’s headquarters recently, I was most impressed by the way they showcased all of their products in simulated hospital rooms. These included a nursing station, an intensive care unit, an operating room, and a pharmacy. It was so real I expected a gurney and group of doctors to rush through the door.

Yet scanning the rooms, I noticed few visual links between the products, or between the products and the brand. I knew all of the products were made by the same company, but only because I was standing in their corporate headquarters. This was the result of many product acquisitions over the years. The ability of these products to stand out in the crowd would be hindered in a real hospital where hundreds of products are inter-mixed. As impressed as I was by the breadth and diversity of products on display, clearly an opportunity was being missed.

Brand Language Basics

A design language requires a strategy established, approved and enforced by your executive team. It transforms into a living, breathing document that reflects your business goals, market posture, and user needs. The document will guide your development teams and ensure consistency of your future products as they move through and exit your pipeline.A visual brand language consists of design elements that link products to each other and their brand while offering cues for how to use them. A common visual vocabulary is the result of a strategy that includes the product, packaging, literature, website, brand guidelines, and any forward-facing brand expression. In discussions around brand and product consistency, you’ve probably also heard the term design language. Just to clear up any confusion, a design language typically focuses on the physical attributes of the product itself. A product’s design language should reinforce the principals of the broader visual brand language.

A design language requires a strategy established, approved and enforced by your executive team. It transforms into a living, breathing document that reflects your business goals, market posture, and user needs. The document will guide your development teams and ensure consistency of your future products as they move through and exit your pipeline.Smithnephew

The image on the right represents good design language in action. Note the proprietary orange and blue colors that make all these items easy to locate in a quick scan of the surgical suite. A visiting surgeon who prefers Smith & Nephew medical devices would immediately be put at ease.

From a business standpoint, adopting a common design language for all your products will reduce both development costs and time to market. As with any business strategy, you make a one-time, upfront investment to establish a design language and some continuing maintenance effort over time. With a design language strategy in place, you can expect to reduce your product definition phase investment and schedule by one-third to one-half.

Ease of Use

Creating a design language is about more than the visual part, style and perception. Just as important, you should strive to enable a consistent and intuitive user interaction.

Your medical product should both invite physicians in and suggest how it would like to be used. If physicians have experience using one of your devices, the other products in your portfolio should be familiar and require similar interaction. The physician’s confidence in your products will soar with each intuitive interaction that meets his or her expectations. Greater confidence leads to greater brand presence, awareness and acceptance. And this, in turn, will make your salespeople’s jobs much easier, leading to further market penetration.

Safety

The need for intuitive and consistent interaction has become more important as products and technology increase in complexity. Regulatory agencies like the FDA have specific guidelines and requirements that need to be followed or they won’t grant approval. Their main concern is the safety of patients and people who use your medical devices.

A safer product is one of the key outcomes of a consistent interaction enabled by a carefully planned and executed design language. I’ve seen a single hospital with more than four brands of acute care ventilators in their fleet. They are quite different except for their clinical purpose. Respiratory therapists at that hospital are required to know how to use them all. That can lead to an overwhelming and sometimes confusing situation.

Now imagine if all acute care ventilators in the world used exactly the same graphical user interface, alarm states, and indicators. Think about the burden lifted from the shoulders of the operators. That consistency would allow them to focus more of their attention on the patient and less on the product.

Designing all medical products in the world to be identical is obviously ridiculous, but your company has this choice. The point is that products created by the same company should share a carefully considered design language that increases ease of use and safety.

A Case History

The first five product images below represent a sample of laboratory instruments from one of the market leaders prior to 2010.

Design_language_1

About five years ago, this company created and implemented a design language specification that guides all product development today. The following set of images represents a small sample of the same company’s product line today.

Design_language_2

Self-Assessment

I challenge you to conduct a self-assessment of your company’s product line. Print a photo of each of your company’s products, lay them on a table, step back and ask yourself a few questions.

What do you see? Do these products contribute to creating a single, unified brand image in the marketplace? Would users instinctively pick your products out of a line-up of similar products? Does the use of every product appear intuitive? Do they collectively share a design language that reflects your company’s business goals, desired market posture and user needs?

If not, I would suggest that you are missing an opportunity.

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