The 3 Key Ingredients Behind Every Successful Medical Device

 In Design Strategy, Medical Product Design

When medical device companies set out to produce a new product, they are often driven primarily by one of two things: business goals or technological innovation. These are necessary elements of any well-conceived medical device. But neither should be pursued in isolation. In fact, when it comes to developing the right medical device, success lies in how well you balance three distinct needs — business goals, technology objectives, and user needs.

It may sound simple. But in practice it can be challenging and even counter intuitive. The reality is that we all fall into the trap of looking at products through a single lens. It’s natural, but from a business standpoint it’s also dangerous. Focus too heavily on any one of these three ingredients to the exclusion of the others, and you’ll wind up with a device that doesn’t hit the mark. This sort of imbalance is why companies release medical devices that are highly innovative yet don’t meet user needs. Or devices that users love that don’t yield enough profit margin to meet business needs.

Balancing the Three Elements of a Successful Medical Device

Let’s take a closer look at each of the three ingredients and how they interact with each other.

  • Business goals. You must start by clearly defining your business goals before jumping into each device you bring to market. This may sound obvious, but the truth is that it doesn’t always happen. Consider, for example, medical devices that are developed to take advantage of IP that has already been licensed by research universities. In most cases, the university was 100% focused on the technology during the development of the IP. Business goals were beside the point. If a private business then takes that IP to market, they must first ensure that a sound business case actually exists. To begin, identify two or three things business-wise that are especially important for your next initiative and spell out what steps need to be taken to get there.
  • Technology objectives. Technology objectives refer to your company’s goals for the core tech or IP that will undergird your product. The medical device industry is so tech-driven that many firms begin with technology objectives as their primary jumping-off point. Only after they develop their technology and get patent protection do they start looking for ways to connect that technology to real-life user needs or business goals. Even if your team generally leads with technological innovation, you must back it up with a well-defined business case and a clear understanding of how that technology will meet your users’ needs.
  • User needs. Your users’ needs are directly linked to your ability to meet your business goals. After all, if your product doesn’t succeed in meeting users’ needs, then they won’t see the value in your device. When it comes down to it, end users care more about the experience of using your product (and, of course, its efficacy) than the under-the-hood technology that makes it all work. Of the three ingredients, user needs tend to get the short end of the stick in the medical device world. Even still, it’s possible to go too far in the direction of user needs when planning a medical device. For example, let’s say a doctor invents and develops a new device to better meet her needs working with a particular subset of patients. From her perspective, the device’s ability to meet those user needs is paramount. She focuses time and energy creating a technology or solution that solves her problem. But she may not have considered the business constraints and opportunities associated with doing so. Can she make money with the device? Are there other products like it in the marketplace? Can she protect the technology with patents? Her hard work (and valuable insights into real user needs) may not amount to a successful product if she doesn’t also bring those business goals to bear on the project.

Balancing business goals, technology objectives, and user needs doesn’t mean that each one is always given equal weight on every project. Like seasoning a dish to taste, the process of balancing these three key ingredients is about finding the right mix for your company in relationship to each individual device.

The first step, therefore, is to define your company’s business goals, technology objectives, and user needs with respect to your specific device. We recommend conducting a thorough project diagnostic to consider all three of these elements in a holistic and strategic way.

The decision about how to balance the three ingredients should be pragmatic — not about chasing innovation.

Medical Device Companies and the Innovation Delusion

Innovation is a major theme in the medical device development industry. Many companies get caught up in the desire to be innovative, as do the design firms that work with them. It makes sense. Innovation is sexy and exciting. More than that, the default assumption is that medical device companies must pursue innovation in order to remain competitive.

Innovation is important, it’s true. But not every project warrants disruption or innovation. In some cases, aiming for something grand and new is the wrong approach. Medical device businesses have all sorts of reasons for developing products. At times, they may need to develop a new product just to fill a short-term gap in their portfolio. In that scenario, the business case is simply to have a particular device, not to build a revolutionary new version of it. For me-too medical devices, innovation may only represent 2% of the process — and that’s probably the right balance.

Keep in mind, too, that innovation means different things to different companies. For one company, innovation might mean new technology for their patent portfolio that can be leveraged into new products. For another, it might mean repurposing their current IP (technology) to solve user needs in a new way or to apply that technology to a different product for a completely different market. You need to be clear about what innovation means for your company. Recognize that the answer may change from product to product. Otherwise, you’re liable to waste precious time and resources focusing on the wrong areas.

The other faulty assumption about innovation is that it exists solely in the realm of technology. But that’s not the only way to disrupt an industry. For example, the Dollar Shave Club upended the razor industry by focusing on an innovative new approach to meeting users’ needs (by delivering razors and other shaving products to customers’ doorsteps). Their story doesn’t revolve around the creation of a better razor technology, like that of razor giant Gillette.

Ironically, by centering innovation in technology objectives, medical device companies may miss opportunities to innovate in other ways. The vehicle for arriving at the right solution is once again to balance business goals and user needs with technology objectives. The places where these three ingredients overlap represent the most fertile ground for innovation (or allow you to recognize where innovation should take a back seat to other goals).

Leading with Business Goals Rather than Innovation

As a medical device company, you can and should strive to improve the lives of your customers and contribute to better health outcomes with your products. But at the end of the day, the point of any business is to make money and stay in business. If you can’t do that, you won’t be able to continue contributing in positive ways. In like manner, innovation for the sake of innovation is more art than business.

What does this mean? It means that your business goals should ultimately lead the way in your planning and decision-making process. But like each of the three ingredients, they can’t stand alone. You must weigh those business goals against your technology objectives and user needs. Do that, and you’ll discover the right products for your company and your customers.

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