The Power of a 20-Minute Prototype

Posted by Brian Buntz on January 4, 2013

Many medical device prototypes are complex, highly technical things. For instance, an early prototype for, say, a catheter might already be functional in an animal lab. “By the time you get to that level of resolution of the prototype, you have already made all kinds of assumptions,” says Stacey Chang, associate partner and director of IDEO's Health & Wellness practice. Those assumptions might not prove to be right in the longer term. For that reason, this method of prototyping can be costly—in terms of time and money.

An early prototype for the Gyrus ENT Diego surgical tool illustrates how simple prototypes can be.

To be valuable, prototypes don’t necessarily have to be highly refined. In fact, crude medical device prototypes made of materials such as construction paper, tape, and pipe cleaners can be extremely useful, Chang says. Prototyping can be employed as a tool for creative discovery, he adds. To prove that point, Chang, along with IDEO’s Brian Mason, lead of medical products group and Jesse Fourt, senior program lead will lead a workshop at MD&M West on February 12 at 10:10 a.m. Attendees will be asked to develop a prototype in 20 minutes.

It’s not the first time that IDEO has facilitated such a workshop. When attendees of similar workshops have been asked to build a medical device prototype in less than a half hour, their first response has often been disbelief, Chang says. But after the prototypes were developed, their power often becomes obvious. “After we have some raw prototypes from the audience, we’ll ask them to get feedback on it from other people in the group,” he says. “What [attendees] realize is you can really advance your understanding about the user scenario and the operation and use of the device really significantly—even with a 20-minute prototype.”  

This type of thinking is common in the software world, where iteration is obviously much easier and faster. Consider for instance the Lean Startup Movement and Agile Software development. But the same basic principles can also be applied to the medical device world—despite the fact that the medtech environment is much different. As Chang explains, the basic idea behind them applies broadly: “how do you get the minimally viable product so you can test its utility and function and viability before you start filling out all of the details and making it look sexy?” He remarks that early testers of such crude devices “tend to forgive [their] roughness because they understand the question you are trying to ask.” And their feedback can go far in helping to answer that question.

Brian Buntz is the editor-at-large at UBM Canon's medical group. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz

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