Webinar: Why Medical Device Companies Struggle To Design Home-Use Products

 In Design Strategy
In case you missed it, we hosted a webinar Tuesday, November 6th.  No need to worry, you can read the transcript below or fill out the form below and see the video.

Our entire U.S. healthcare system is undergoing a major change. Decades of focus on business and technology have left the people it serves to pay too much and receive poor service. In hopes of establishing balance, our government stepped in and created the Affordable Care Act.

This legislation has accelerated an exodus of medical care and products from hospitals into the home environment, where most medical product manufacturers struggle to compete in the evolving marketplace.

In this webinar, you will learn:

  • The gap medical device makers must bridge to effectively compete in the home-health market

  • Five specific areas that medical product makers will need to improve

  • How to borrow from the consumer product business model to up your game.

  • Tips for improving your product design and development process so that customer’s emotionally connect with your product and brand.

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Chris Ross: I bet everyone on the call remembers these Mac vs. PC commercials.

The stodgy conservative business guy on the left represents the PC with windows operating system and the young hip guy on the right the Apple Macintosh. If you remember, the Mac guy was constantly pointing out the flaws of the PC in comparison to a Mac’s strengths. His biggest point of contention was that PCs were not designed for the masses or people outside of their workplace. This was a very successful advertising campaign because everyone could relate to it.

What I remember thinking at the time was WOW this is a shift of power from technologists to everyday people. A shift from an industry that served businesses to one that would start to focus more on consumers. People like you and I, outside of our offices.

The problem was that most computer makers to this point were laser focused on two things: Number 1, their own business goals and number 2 their technology. They were missing the THIRD, and what I’d argue as the most important focus — people. That left the personal computer industry out of balance; but as we all know, Apple was determined to fix that.

Let’s look at this another way. Here is a three legged stool. Now picture the computer industry perched up on the seat. If I label the legs Technology , Business , and User Needs this is what it would look like. I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t want to sit on that stool.

Let’s take a quick look at WHY they were struggling to find balance. The PC industry was focused on the pure horse-power of the computers they made. Thousands of development teams across the world were stashed away in cubicles designing all the things you see on this old motherboard.

Improving the speed of the computing technology meant people could be more efficient and get their work done faster. More horse-power and more speed meant more money. A vicious cycle ensued. That pursuit of power, speed, and money left computer users stranded, with a lot of frustrations and unmet needs. Man I love this picture. Don’t you just want to do that sometimes? I know I do!

The problem was…computing technology had become a commodity and was no longer a point of differentiation. Power and speed were no longer enough to drive profits and the only point of differentiation is how people interact with it. If there are any engineers on the call, please cover your ears for a moment…nobody really cares what’s under the hood (OUTCH! I know that hurts)

I mean think about it, No one talks about RAM or processing power anymore. Going back to the Apple commercial the “Mac Guy” was just part of the industry’s wake-up call or its BIG Ah-Ha moment. They finally realized….“We need to serve people, not technology.” That the human connection and people’s experience with their products mattered most.

So, you’re probably sitting there thinking, “CHRIS, what does this have to do with healthcare or the topic of our webinar today.” Well…. Here’s where the healthcare industry sits today. Look familiar? Just like the computer industry — the business of hospitals and medical products, and their technology are out of balance with the people they serve. And it’s about to get worse unless ALL OF US do something about it. But before we decide what to do we need to understand what’s happening in the big picture. So let’s take a look at that.

In the past, healthcare and consumer worlds didn’t have that much in common. In fact, their paths ran pretty much parallel to each other. There were two traits that separated them from one another. Medical devices were governed by FDA regulation and consumer product markets are driven by lifestyle needs. That created a barrier between the two worlds.

Today, two trends have changed all of that. The high cost of healthcare is driving care away from hospitals and to the home. Access to personal health data has put people in control of their own health. The healthcare and consumer worlds are currently converging. This will open up entirely new opportunities for both.

At MPE (Formerly Mindflow Design) we’ve divided this opportunity zone into 5 sections:

  1. Lifestyle
  2. Wellness-Lifestyle
  3. Class 1 FDA
  4. Class 2 FDA
  5. Class 3 FDA products

However, we’re realists and recognize that most consumer product companies won’t develop Class 3 medical devices. And conversely, you won’t find many medical companies making pure consumer lifestyle products.

What this means is medical and consumer companies are going to begin competing directly for the same customers. Most of us would never have thought in a million years that consumer giants like Apple and Google would compete with the J&J’s or Medtronic’s of the world.

Each is going to bring their secret weapon to the battle. Consumer companies, their experience meeting people’s aspirational and emotional needs.And, medical companies are going to leverage their knowledge of the FDA and their ability to deliver effective and accurate healthcare products. What’s clear is that both industries will need to strengthen their weaknesses to compete in the new marketplace.

Consumer companies will need to become experts in delivering safe and effective products that are extremely accurate. Medical companies will need to become experts in addressing personal needs, with simple, beautiful products that connect with people emotionally. This gap is why medical device companies will struggle to be successful designing products for home-use.

I’m going to offer you 5 ideas today that will help you bridge that gap. I truly believe that they can make a big difference in your business. Regardless of whether you’re a large established company or smaller start-up.

1. Your products must accommodate a wide range of use environments

Hospital products are designed for predefined spaces like OR’s, ER’s, and nursing stations. Some are simple.. like this examination room… and some are much more complex. But, the workflows are pretty well known. The lighting…the temperature….

Consumer products are designed to follow us wherever we go. Adapting to and enhancing our lives no matter what we’re doing. The problem is that designing for seemingly endless and unknown use-cases will push medical product designers out of their comfort zones. So we need to remember — hospital environments are well-defined, but the places people use their things is not.

2. People who buy your product will actually be the ones who use it

Buying products for hospitals is a business decision. Procurement staff sets out to fill check-boxes. On the other hand, making consumer product purchases for ourselves, friends, or loved ones is a personal journey. We’ve all come home from the store with products we don’t need, right? Let’s just say our purchase decisions aren’t always all that rational. That’s because deep psychological forces are at play, driving us to buy things that tease our emotions.

The challenge will be creating an emotional connection with people, but it needs to be at the top of your development team’s product requirements’ list. Hospitals buy to meet business needs — people buy to satisfy emotional desires.

3. Your new customer will have many options to choose from

Medical salespeople typically need to convince one person at a hospital to buy their product. The result is hundreds or thousands of people who actually use it. It’s completely the opposite in the consumer world. Retail stores and the internet for example give us access to almost unlimited choices so consumer product companies are constantly improving their techniques in the fight for our attention. Next time you’re buying something on Amazon, stop and take note of the sheer volume of options that come up from your search.

The need for a new marketing and sales approach will challenge companies who want to bring medical products into our everyday lives. They’ll need to figure out how to make their products stand out in a crowded marketplace so we can find them. Businesses have fewer options — consumers have almost unlimited choices.

4. Design to delight people, not appease the FDA

We all know that the top priority of medical manufacturers is to get approval by the FDA so they can sell their product. It’s especially important to startups that have major funding or acquisition milestones tied to FDA clearance. The top priority for consumer product companies is delighting their customers at every interaction with their product and brand.

Medical product companies will need to rethink their priorities and shift the way they approach designing products to compete in home-health markets. The FDA won’t buy your product, so focus on the people who will.

5. Design simplicity in and complexity out

Medical product companies are required by the FDA to provide some combination of labeling, instructions for use, and/or training to mitigate risk of bodily harm. The problem is that development teams often file away excuses for design inadequacies in those places. And unfortunately, the unintended consequence is usually a more complicated product that’s harder to use.

Top consumer product companies invest heavily in designing products that are simple and intuitive. They know that the first thing people do after they open the box is throw away the user manual, if there even was one. The expectations people have for simplicity will challenge medical product makers. Complexity is your company’s problem to solve — consumers expect simplicity.

So again, your five key takeaways today are:

1. Consider a broad range of environments

Go there. Watch people. Talk to them in their homes. Build a deep understanding of the context and places people will use your product. Build in some flexibility and your product’s ability to adapt.

For example we worked on a sleep apnea device that’s much different than any on the market. It’s worn on the outside of your throat. Getting a product to stick to the outside of the body while a person is a big challenge. Imagine all the tossing and turning. Or, taking it with you during travel, there are all sorts of other issues, like wearing to the bathroom in the middle of the night. We watched people as they were sleeping to better understand what they needed. We watched them as they went about their daily rituals. While we were there we asked them questions like where would you store it? Where would you charge it?

2. The people who buy your product will be the ones who use it.

Create an emotional connection with them through your product and brand.

Years ago, we designed a series of oxygen concentrators that are used by patients with COPD who needed them to breathe for the rest of their life. It requires them to wear a cannula that gives them oxygen through their nose.

Back then the DME’s were really the target customer that our clients were designing for, and of course the users. This was because the DME’s were actually the purchasers of the product. Now the market has changed quite a bit, there’s a whole online presence and ability to buy them online direct to consumer (with prescription). The business model has evolved and I believe more products will follow this trend.

3. Your new customer will have many options to choose from

Consider new marketing and sales methods. Borrow from the consumer world. It’s been around for so many years and it’s proven.

We designed a the Lively Wearable PERS (Personal Emergency Response System) for the market leading company Greatcall. Most the competition offered a watch-like device with a giant red button on it that could be pressed in the case of emergency. Nothing says you’ve lost your independence like a giant red button on your wrist. People hated those. We said lets leverage the fitness tracking trends in the consumer world. Let’s increase the acceptance of the product so that when you hand it to your aging parent or grandparent they actually wear it. We wanted them to look over at their kids and grandchildren who were wearing fitness trackers and feel like they fit in. Leverage consumer trends and what consumer product companies are doing already.

4. Design for people, not the FDA

Just like my PC industry example, things like technology and FDA approval are just things that are “under the hood.” It’s just a checkbox, an IMPORTANT ONE, none the less. Nobody is going to see that in the end.

Focusing all our time on the FDA approval and their preferred process is misdirected . We’re big proponents of iterative user evaluations that get repeated over and over again so we design the right product for the right people.

5. Design Simplicity In and Complexity Out

Our home-health products need to be simple and intuitive. The bar for how people expect technology to serve THEM has been raised. People just aren’t going to read instructions or labels.

It’s hard work, it’s expensive, and it requires planning. It requires many cycles of design, build, test. It doesn’t come easy for consumer product companies either, but they understand that the investment is worth it. We need to learn what people wake up for in the morning, and what makes them tick so we can design products that emotionally connect with them. A way to do that is designing a product that fits into their lifestyle so that they don’t even know they’re wearing it. It just does its job in the background.

In all honesty, these five points are just a few of the many changes we’ll all need to make to compete in the home healthcare market. Personally, I’m excited about this challenge. The opportunities we talked about are waiting for all of us. It makes me wonder — who’s going to be the Mac guy for the home health care market?

1. It will be the companies who embrace change.

2. Who put people and their needs ahead of their business and technology.

3. The companies who find just the right balance.

I truly believe it can be any of us on this call! I hope I’ve inspired you to think differently about the future of our industry and possibly your role in it. We’ve positioned MPE (Formerly Mindflow Design) and built our expertise to help companies avoid the challenges we discussed today.

We have other tips and articles to share on our website. If you want to learn more about this topic you can go to the search box in the “blog” section and type “STRUGGLE” into the search box. My contact information is right here. Please feel free to reach out. If there’s any way we can help, I’d love to hear from you. I’m going to open up the call now for some Q&A. If you have any questions please type them in the chat box.


1. What was MPE (Formerly Mindflow Design) ’s most challenging home-use product and why?

The Sommetrics aerSleep — cNEP for OSA is an elastomeric collar worn on the outside of the throat to open the airway during sleep. It has a pump that creates suction and holds it in place. The biggest challenge was getting it to fit what seemed like endless body types and sizes. And people do the craziest things while sleeping; we watched them. Getting it to stay on while they flip-flopped around was a big challenge.

2. Do you use surveys to figure out people’s needs and what they do at home?

Surveys can be useful to learn what people say they do in a broader sense. We prefer observing people during their daily routines and asking them questions in context by following them home, to work, to the gym, or any other places that might apply. This is where you get the nuggets, insights.

3. Why is it bad to just “appease the FDA”? You’re still getting it done.

The way I look at it is the FDA wants you to design a safe and effective product. That’s it. You can make a product that’s safe and effective, but it can still be a pain in the butt to use and frustrate your customers.

In my opinion, following a user-centered design process is the only way to design a product. It’s how you can repeatedly exceed expectations and delight your customers. That requires repeated cycles of design, build, test or evaluate. Not for the FDA. For your customers.

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