Demystifying the Role of Industrial Design in Medical Product Development

 In Industrial Design, Medical Product Design

Industrial design is so important that it can single-handedly determine the success or failure of your medical device. Think of it as the bridge that connects your technology with the people who use it. The type of bridge you build determines the way people will experience your product and brand.

Instead of building bridges, many medical device makers inadvertently create canyons. It’s not with mal-intent or purposeful neglect; it’s just that inventing and engineering technology is tough work and usually gets most of the attention. In such a science- and technology-driven industry, industrial design, which is predicated upon the user experience, can take a backseat or become addressed too late in the medical device design process.

What is the link between industrial design and user experience?

You know your project is off track once your engineering team has committed to a direction and someone asks, “Is that really what it’s going to look like? Shouldn’t we bring in an industrial designer to make it look better?”

Once on board the designer is usually asked to review the engineering prototype and sketch out concepts for what your new product should look like so the engineers can proceed.

Sketching “the look” quickly becomes the catalyst for deeper discussions about user experience that generate more questions, like:

  • If we put the touch screen there, how are shorter nurses going to reach it?

  • The sensor works great, but will people actually wear it in their daily lives?

  • How will the technician know which sample belongs to which patient?

  • Will the doctor know what all the blinking lights mean?

And the list goes on. Frighteningly so.

Since industrial design and user experience issues are one and the same, the request for a sketch masqueraded as a request for much, much more. What they really needed was not only a design that looks great, but also one that’s easy to use, safe, effective, and able to meet all business requirements.

The best approach is not to back into this effort by asking anyone to critique a sketch that may have been developed without taking the user experience into account. To avoid this situation, you should carefully consider the role that industrial design should play before your project starts.

How to integrate industrial design into your development process

On its most basic level, successful industrial design begins with understanding that industrial design is not simply the product of what one individual, even one with great experience, brings to the table. Completing the industrial design of a complex medical product system involves accepting a process in which team members play supporting roles in creating and executing a design solution for problems of form, function, usability, physical ergonomics, marketing, brand development and sustainability, and sales. Doing all these tasks would be virtually impossible for one person to complete because it takes a team.

Therefore, the industrial design process is and must be collaborative, requiring input and expertise from many disciplines. The industrial designer is the quarterback of the process. Picture an industrial designer in the center of a multidisciplinary team of experts who are simultaneously feeding her information. The team might include design researchers, strategists, user interface designers, user experience designers, engineers, branding experts, project managers, graphic designers, and even other industrial designers.

Not all industrial designers can or even want to manage that process. Some excel at strategy and are very comfortable being at the center. Others are more tactical in nature and prefer to roll up their sleeves to solve detailed design problems.  Make sure you understand the strengths and weaknesses of an industrial designer before you hire or assign them to a project.

Getting the best value from industrial design

The level of value your company receives from industrial design depends on where it is integrated into the organization – at the top, the bottom, or somewhere in between.

At the top you might have a chief design officer as do Philips, Apple or Braun. Structuring your business like this likely means innovation and design thinking is infused into every facet of your organization’s culture.

In the middle, you probably have a design director running a multidisciplinary group addressing all facets of user experience.

At the bottom, an individual designer working under an engineering manager is often expected to “make a prettier box.”

A common mistake is to put someone tactically minded or inexperienced in charge of “doing the industrial design” on all products in the pipeline without further resources. Or worse yet, bringing in a brilliant, strategically minded quarterback and limiting their power or involvement to a tactical role without budget to bring in a team and full process.

The level of impact industrial design makes depends largely on when it’s brought into the medical product development cycle.  Parachuting in a designer belatedly to create or even make flashy sketches is deeply flawed and reactive.

We recommend bringing it in early to inform the complete product development strategy and craft just the right plan to connect your technology with your customers’ needs.

Early industrial design involvement will also ensure that your design considers the competitive landscape and your brand. It should yield a unique and defensible design style that differentiates from competitors. But you don’t want to just be different – you want to be different AND promote your brand in exactly the right way.

Build the right bridges by integrating industrial design into all facets of your development cycle, and you’ll add value by improving usability, lowering production costs and developing more appealing products.

It’s an investment that you can’t afford not to make.


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