Medical Design and the Human Condition

Dan Formosa, Smart Design
Consultants Corner June 2, 2012

Healthcare is not about the products we create. It’s about the ultimate effect the product or service will have on someone’s life. Although this may sound obvious, medical companies by and large seem to know much more about their products than they know about people. It’s not because they don’t care—it’s because most medical researchers and engineers aren’t trained in even the basic elements of human perception, physical ability and behavior.

Approaching product and service development for the healthcare field should begin with an understanding of two people-centered topics: the impact of design on behavior and, second, the ways people behave under stress.

We have seen instances where design has been the determining factor in adherence to a regimen and improvement in health. For example, our company worked on the design of a new syringe for use with Cimzia, a biologic drug for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients. RA patients have limited strength and dexterity, making self-injection an arduous task. In designing the Cimzia syringe and its associated packaging, we set our goals not on the syringe and package, but on compliance. In other words, we asked ourselves what can we add to the design of Cimzia’s delivery system to help patients take their medication successfully?

This approach made a considerable difference in the questions we asked and the design solutions we conceived. The packaging, for instance, wasn’t simply a box to house the medication. It was an opportunity to walk patients through the steps required to take the medication, almost like a storybook.

The power of design to communicate and to affect behavior is a business opportunity. Unfortunately, our design group is rarely approached by medical companies that aspire to use design to influence patient behavior to improve the efficacy of their medications or treatments.

Also rare is a discussion of usability and behavior under varying levels of stress. If you think about it, the simple act of taking a blood pressure reading can induce anxiety in some people. And under stress, the mind and body work differently. So for all the logic that may have been put into a task flow for a medical device, the development of medical devices (and many other types of products for that matter) often takes place without any real-world context. This means a designer or engineer’s logical explanation of how a product works and how it is supposed to be used can make perfect sense in the lab—but not once the product is at home in a kitchen or bathroom. Unfortunately for the patient, it’s extremely unlikely that a medical company will send designers and engineers to patients’ homes to explain the reasoning behind it all.

We all know from numerous pleasant or annoying examples in our daily lives that behaviours are heavily influenced—for better or worse—by the products, services and environments that surround us. Home healthcare products are no different. A patient’s actions will determine to what extent a product or service will work. It also means that a patient’s ability and willingness to operate the device or perform a task will ultimately determine the reputation of that product, service or brand.

The good news is that while the development of a new technology or medication could take years and many millions of dollars , the opportunity for companies to increase the effectiveness of a product or service through design is often much closer at hand. That same attention to design will simultaneously enhance brand equity.


This is excerpted from an article titled, "The Future of Home Healthcare: Searching for Extreme Usability," which was originally published on Dan Formosa is a founding member of Smart Design, which has offices in New York, San Francisco and Barcelona, Spain. The company's stated mission is to create informed and inspired design for people and memorable brands for clients.