5 steps for making your medical product look “less medical”

 In Industrial Design, Medical Product Design

“Just don’t make it look medical.”

As we research what people want in a home health product, this is what we hear most frequently. Typically, this distaste for a medical look becomes a bedrock client requirement.

However, a dilemma quickly arises: how do we design a product being guided by what people don’t want? Imagine finding your way to Miami from San Diego in a friend’s car by listing all the cities that you don’t want to visit. You’d never get there.

So if your customers don’t want it to look medical, what do they want it to look like? We get our first clues by asking “Why don’t you want it to look medical?”

People will say: “It ruins my confidence at the office and in public.” Or “I just want to look normal and fit in.” Or “I would never put that ugly thing in my living room.”

From these clues, a direction begins to emerge. In the road trip example, you’d say to your friend, “We’re going to a U.S. city that’s warm all year long and it’s right on the ocean.” While there are still hundreds of potential destinations, you know you’ll need to head southeast.

Heeding your customer’s preferences for aesthetics is only part of the story, but it’s the key to their hearts and wallets.

It wasn’t always that way. In the traditional hospital procurement process, the person who purchases a product is almost never the person who uses it. As medical products shift from hospital to home, emotion replaces the analytical decision-making process used in business-to-business sales. Most medical product manufacturers don’t have the notion of choices based on emotion built into their DNA. What this means is that their sales, marketing, and design processes need to change. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the beholder has changed.

Since we’re only discussing aesthetics, it’s important at this point to make a distinction between art and design. An artist who passionately creates a painting needs to find only one person in the world who will love and buy it. The designer hones a craft that requires capturing the hearts and minds of millions so the manufacturer can turn a profit.

Figuring out what your company’s product should look like and how to satisfy so many people isn’t easy. If you don’t want your product to look medical, follow the five steps below to figure out what it should look like.

1. Get in the right ballpark

Steve Jobs was famous for saying, “People don’t know what they want until you show them.” While this is true, you also don’t want to throw a million concepts against the wall to see which one sticks. The companies we work with don’t have the time, money, or patience to rely on chance. I always recommend moving in the right direction, with laser-like focus, at the project onset.

2. Let words guide you

People might not tell you what they want, but they can tell you how they feel. For example we designed a wearable device for seniors that allows them to press a single button in an emergency to call for help. During early interviews they described the current products on the market as “embarrassing”. Digging a little deeper, we learned that the cause of embarrassment was more than the ugly options on the market. It was admitting to everyone a loss of independence and inability to care for themselves. We found that what they wanted was a discrete design that empowered them to help themselves in the case of an emergency. Discrete and empowering became essential product attributes.

Conduct interviews and workshops with your target audience to learn how they want your product to make them feel. Then identify the adjectives that support or have the capacity to deliver that feeling.

3. Next, translate words into pictures

The challenge is that words can mean different things to different people and it is important to build consensus. Not just with customers, but with your internal teams as well. Discrete to one person might mean hidden or out of sight, but to another it might mean to blend in. If we decide blending in is the right approach, does that mean making it skin color or disguising it as something else?

Here is where the creativity begins. Words need to be translated into imagery that clearly expresses their meaning like the image above. It might even require many “mood boards” with subtle differences for each descriptive word to get it just right.

How do you know you’ve gotten it right? You take the boards out to the people who will buy and use your product. Then you circulate them amongst your executive team so that everyone agrees and supports the desired direction.

Many companies make the mistake of simply telling their development team to “make it discrete” or “sophisticated” or whatever the adjective is, and they’ll never get there.

4. Develop concepts that emotionally connect

The mood boards are a key part of your design strategy and will launch your industrial design team in the right direction. They should instantly be able to churn out design concepts that capture the emotion and aspirations of your target audience.

You might stop at compelling, realistic images of each concept or make physical models that look and feel like the final thing. If pictures are worth a thousand words, than a physical appearance model must be worth a million. How far you take these concepts depends on your organization’s budget and risk tolerance.

5. Ask your customers… again

Ask you customers which concept they prefer. If your design strategy is sound, all of your concepts should appeal to your target audience. However you won’t know for sure unless you ask them.

What you hope to hear during preference testing is people describing the concepts with anticipated adjectives. “I like concept A because it is especially discrete – I don’t think people will even notice it.” The goal is to circle back and confirm that you’ve pulled the previously identified emotional triggers.

To keep your product from looking medical, never forget that that a feedback loop is essential. The entire discovery process should both begin and end with the customer.


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