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Good Industrial Design Requires Consumer Insight

Product development teams need to understand not only the pragmatic needs of the end user, but also the user's emotional response to new technology that may be intimidating.

Product development teams need to understand not only the pragmatic needs of the end user, but also the user's emotional response to new technology that may be intimidating.


The virtual explosion in new technologies over the past couple of decades has had a dramatic effect on industrial design and the product development process. The availability of new materials and communication techniques, along with vast amounts of computer memory at almost unbelievably low prices, has transformed the product designer's world in ways that could not have been foreseen -- back when clouds were for weather forecasters and tablets required a pen or pencil.

Many of these changes have enabled us to create devices and systems with capabilities that would have astounded even visionaries like famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who predicted the Internet 20 years before it was actually invented. One thing that has not changed is the need for a product development team to be able to understand the technical and pragmatic needs of the end user, not only on a purely intellectual basis, but also the emotional response of the user to new technology that is probably unfamiliar and may even be intimidating.

One of the techniques that my firm, HS Design, uses is called Front End Research & System Architecture (FERSA). Since quite a bit of our work involves medical devices and systems, for example, we spend a considerable amount of time visiting different hospitals, including laboratories and operating rooms. We do this to gain a better understanding of how the products and systems we are designing will interact with both users and patients in their natural environments. Does the task require rapid-fire repetition that creates a stressful environment for the user? Can it be approached in a more relaxed and deliberate manner? Is the patient awake or unconscious while the task is being performed, and does the procedure involve any discomfort that could be avoided?

A key FERSA objective is to design a product with which all end users will be comfortable. One critical consideration is the first impression that the new product will create. Experts say, "You only get one chance to make a first impression," so it is imperative that the device or system be immediately perceived as useful. The term useful may change based on the environment and intended purpose. All products are created as tools for a purpose. That said, the product should be intuitive to the intended users. A good example of this is the user interface design.

When the user first encounters the product, its use should be focused on the intended purpose, making the interaction simple and direct. There should be no doubt how it is activated and used, and what result it should achieve. If the product creates a good first impression and the user is immediately comfortable with it, its frequent use is guaranteed. If not, acceptance will be an uphill battle.

Combining Front End Research with System Architecture

Understanding how the product will interact with both users and patients needs to be integrated into the system architecture process, which specifies the required components and how they will be positioned for optimum effect.

Medical devices may operate independently or be required to communicate with other devices and systems. They can be freestanding, placed on a countertop or handheld. They can be mounted on a wall, a pole, or a ceiling. The decision -- made clear through careful front end research -- allows the designer to make choices that will determine the system architecture of the product. These choices may include the need for light weight versus durability, fixed use versus mobility, wired versus wireless communications, and the ability to withstand moisture or exposure to electrical fields.

These choices become especially critical when attempting to integrate new emerging technologies into an existing workflow. If the designer is able to keep the workflow or process essentially the same, but make it more efficient, more accurate, or otherwise more desirable by adding new technology, users are more willing to embrace change.

An excellent example of this is the transformation taking place today in handling patient information. A few years go, patient data (MRI or X-ray) would be provided via film. Transferring this information required a high degree of logistics and sharing the information was difficult. Today, these images are managed online, changing how doctors share data and how the data is stored. This trend is moving to other areas in the hospital, including labs such as pathology.

Traditionally, pathologists have needed to read under a microscope and interpret as many as 20 physical slides per patient, all of which needed to be stored under controlled conditions. Consultations required physical transport of the slides, exposing them to possible damage. Today, the images can be transported and stored electronically, eliminating a huge logistics problem. The transition required a huge technological leap, requiring not only pathologists but also technicians to change the way they handled and interacted with the images on which a patient's health, and sometimes his or her life, depended.

In order to make this possible, the new digital tools used by clinicians needed to be humanized and integrated into the existing workflow. This required the ability to not only solve technical problems, but also to understand the entire system, including the people who process the slides, the space available within the lab, and how it all fits in with the existing infrastructure.

FERSA enables designers to not only create such technological advances, but also to smooth their transition into the workplace. It is critical that designers personally involve themselves in the process, observing user and patient interactions firsthand rather than relying on third-party research, such as voice of customer (VOC) data.

The difference between VOC and FERSA is twofold. For one thing, FERSA allows direct engagement with and firsthand feedback from the user rather than input filtered through a marketing layer. FERSA also relies on direct observation under real workplace conditions rather than on the reported opinions of users. While VOC is necessary to identify and prioritize the needs of the customer, FERSA offers the potential to discover unmet needs of which the user may not even be aware, leading to the possibility of dramatic breakthroughs. Companies that take the time to understand the needs of the users and design their products with tools like FERSA will have a huge strategic advantage in market penetration.

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