5 Strategies for Using Design Research to Develop Better Devices

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The way a surgeon handles a technologically advanced instrument in the operating room. The way a respiratory therapist interacts with the display on a mobile ventilator. The way a patient uses a handheld monitor at home to measure her blood glucose.

Imagine developing any of those products without studying the way real people use them in the real world.

Medical industrial design is about more than creating a product that’s on-brand and aesthetically pleasing; it encompasses safety, functionality, user experience, cleaning and handling, and patient comfort. Design research fuels all these considerations.

Medical companies have volumes of information available to them, from product documentation and market intelligence to feedback from the sales team and from clinicians. But the most valuable input in the product development process comes from observational research where designers see firsthand how a device or prototype is used.

When you’re pushing toward a launch date with sales goals at stake, time devoted to design research may seem like a luxury. Instead, it should be a priority.

Here are five reasons why research is a worthwhile investment.

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1. Design Research Yields Better Products

Designing a medical device without observational research is like learning to ride a bicycle just from reading a handbook. Experience makes all the difference.

At the beginning of a product’s development cycle, primary research uncovers essential user needs. Throughout the process, formative testing puts prototypes into users’ hands to prove or disprove assumptions about how they hold, use and manipulate the device.

Simply interviewing a subject about how she uses a tool isn’t enough; it’s important to create a realistic simulation or observe a live procedure. When designers are in the room watching a user interact with the equipment, they can use their full five senses to gain a rich understanding of how it’s used. They can see whether the practitioner picks the device up in the right way, whether ambient lighting makes a display screen hard to read, whether the equipment is too clunky in a crowded room. Armed with in-person observation, designers can anticipate and solve for usability issues that aren’t covered in the project brief.

2. Design Research Overcomes Bias

Company leaders and brand managers tend to view new product development through their own lenses. They’ve built the company, identified the market opportunity and perhaps worked on the first generation of the product, so they have fixed ideas about how the medical device business works and how new things get made.

As a result, they follow the same old recipe to solve a new set of problems, often missing trends in technology or application. New products don’t hit the mark. Research debunks assumptions about how patients and clinicians use devices, what else they may be using and what they really need.

Too, research can overcome user bias. You might find huge discrepancies between what users say they do and what they really do. In a conference-room interview, for example, a surgeon might skip over some steps because they’re so ingrained he may not even think about them or might embellish his technique to demonstrate his expertise. Witnessing her actually use a device provides a more thorough picture.

3. Design Research Uncovers Opportunity

Watching people use a tool can be as revealing about what they do as what they don’t do. Do they take shortcuts or find workarounds to make a procedure easier? Do they fumble with the device or have difficulty using buttons or reading digital displays? Research uncovers opportunities for your team to create a new, more usable product or to extend your suite of products. While factors like safety and durability are givens, user experience is an important differentiator that wins fans in the market. Remove those functional hurdles, streamline a task, make the product more pleasant to use and you’ll gain a competitive advantage.

4. Design Research Informs an Aligned Development Process

Medical device manufacturers tend to silo the product development process: Product Managers hand off directives to Designers and Design Engineers who pass along concepts to Production Engineers. In practice, though, the operation should be fluid, collaborative and multidisciplinary. Research is the link among these phases. Instead of passing notes from one group to the next, you ideally want to have the researcher or designer who sat in on the formative observation be an integral part of the development phases as well. When you’ve witnessed your target user in action, you don’t have to guess about how she works.

5. Design Research Saves Time and Money

Developing medical devices is a curious blend of speed and caution: Financial goals can fast-track projects, but regulatory requirements and patient safety encourage a methodical process. In this environment, there may be a perception that research slows things down. But thorough research at the earliest stages saves time and money later. Identifying potential problems and resolving them with design prototypes is much less costly than having to scrap and reboot manufacturing tooling.

As a company leader, you’re focused on managing risk — the financial risks that come from releasing a product that doesn’t gain traction, and the even greater risks that involve patient safety. Design research helps you mitigate those risks.

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