Retrospective: Design of the Times

Author: 
Tor Alden, HS Design
MPMN 25th Anniversary Coverage

When asked how design has evolved during the past 25 years, I had to give pause. Imagine 1985: The first Nintendo premiered. Personal computers were just emerging with a whopping 1 MB of ram. Microsoft introduced Windows 1.0! And while these computer breakthroughs may seem archaic now, they had a profound, lasting impact on medical device development in terms of capability, productivity, quality, and technology.

Technology has ultimately enabled us to increase speed to market. Over the span of 25 years, design has been integrated into the product development process. Consequently, design and human factors have transitioned to an earlier step in the development cycle, which has also necessitated the creation of new roles in design and human factors tasked with making sense of the influx of information.

Instead of being asked to merely skin a device, designers are now working upfront on research and system architecture to understand the problem, well before putting pencil to paper. As a result, the traditional role of design has evolved from ‘compromiser’ of aesthetics, ergonomics, and manufacturing to that of a holistic problem solver. Designers have become the voice between end-users and manufacturers, serving as a sort of ombudsman.

Moving into the information age has also placed new demands on the design community. User-interface design, interaction design, and system integration are now increasing factors in new medical devices. Supported by technology, designers are working to simplify complex information with intuitive navigation by understanding the environment and needs of the user.

And these environments and needs may differ depending on location. Today, products are designed for global consumption from the start, and design has contributions in both use and manufacturing. The cross-pollination of products across cultures requires an increased awareness and understanding of human desires and ergonomic differences. As a result, medical device design demands the simplification of communication by creating informative and intuitive features that ultimately reduce the need for explanation.

Customers and end-users are seeking more-sophisticated product designs, such as the Bionanomatrix nanoAnalyzer 1000 system, designed by HS Design.

Intuitive feature ideas are also coming from new sources. Although medical devices have always lagged behind trends in the consumer product industry, the gap has closed significantly in recent years. As consumers clamor for high-tech, intuitive, and sophisticated-looking devices, life science products are resembling popular consumer products such as iPads and smartphones more closely. This trend is interesting because with home healthcare evolving, new, nontraditional end-users may emerge.

Then there is sustainability. Twenty-five years ago, sustainability had a different meaning in the medical profession. However, sustainability places a new responsibility on the design community, forcing it to now look at the big picture to help reduce waste and increase reuse.

Assessing the evolution of medical device design over 25 years naturally begs the next question: What expectations does the future hold for design? I believe the role of design will continue to blur into other disciplines as the creative-thinking designer’s offer becomes better understood. The designer’s traditional role will remain important, as aesthetics are an integral part of making a product more intuitive to use, reducing anxiety, and creating a brand identity. And as products become more technologically overwhelming, good design will simplify use and help reduce perceived threats that lead to patient anxiety. Good design will also continue to build a sense of excitement and openness, establishing a relationship with the user.

Trends also appear to be leading design toward new fields that are no longer tied to engineering, marketing, or manufacturing. Integrated tools that diagnose, monitor, and maintain health will increase patient compliance. This, in turn, may make patients more responsible for their own health, which will empower design to humanize technology. Working collaboratively with scientists and engineers, designers will solve complex problems, simplify products, and add the emotional element desired by Gen X and Y. Furthermore, the evolution of social media and the utmost need for stimulation will change the landscape of how designers approach problem solving to meet the demand of users in the next quarter-century. I look forward to seeing what the next 25 years will uncover.

Tor Alden is a principal at HS Design Inc. (Gladstone, NJ). Visit the company’s Web site at www.hs-design.com for more information.