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The case for making hearing aids and insulin monitors as sexy as an Apple product

Just because something technically does its job doesn’t mean that people will be happy to use it.

The case for making hearing aids and insulin monitors as sexy as an Apple product
[Source Photo: StudioM1/iStock]

When you hear the words medical device, you likely imagine an MRI scanner, a ventilator, or a bulky dialysis machine. But the phrase actually covers a whole gamut of technologies, from life-saving surgical equipment to breast pumps, fertility trackers, and insulin monitors.

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Most of us are assisted by technology all the time, whether it’s the phone we use to communicate, the spectacles we wear to see, or the smartwatches we sport to monitor our fitness. We rely on these devices and can’t imagine life without them.

And yet the human response to medical devices is hugely varied, with adoption and adherence a problem around the world. It’s not because these products don’t work. They do—medical devices must be rigorously tested and proven to be clinically effective. But the human context isn’t always fully considered. How people interact with medical devices can be overlooked in favor of efficacy and regulatory needs.

There are major psychological and physical challenges that designers must overcome to convince people to engage with medical technology. It might be that the device is complicated to use. Or that it’s cumbersome. Or that we fear using it incorrectly. Or that it embarrasses us.

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It’s only by understanding the human response that we discover why AirPods are so popular, for example, but most adults who would benefit from a hearing aid refuse to wear one. Spending time to truly understand the emotional needs of people alongside the physical ones could improve adherence, alleviate psychological issues, and boost the overall user experience.

Overcoming psychological barriers

This is the sweet spot where designers can step in and make a difference. Done right, effective product design can tap into the psychology of behavior and communicate a product’s benefits to the end user in a creative and empathetic fashion.

What we’re aiming to do is fill in the gap that exists between medical technology and the person for whom it’s intended. As product designers, we’re constantly seeking to understand and overcome sticking points. How are devices used? (“Intended” and “actual” don’t always tally.) Do they impede everyday activities? Do people trust them? Will people stick with them? Do they look cool?

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Continually talking to those who rely on such devices allows product designers, engineers, and strategic thinkers to add more value by considering end users’ emotions, behaviors, and motivations. Clinical needs and the safety of devices are paramount, of course. We must also balance the needs of different stakeholders while staying on budget and holding to tight deadlines. But it’s the feedback you get from real people in forums and focus groups that can take a product from effective to life changing.

Making complex problems seem “everyday”

Medical devices need to be easy to use and must often become part of everyday life, much like brushing your teeth or taking a shower. They also have to be trusted and make people feel in control. And they should be mindful of social context—if a medical product looks like a piece of “regular” technology instead of screaming out the word assistive, it can help smooth over associated stigmas.

There’s a lot of exciting growth in female-focused devices right now. Innovative breast-pump maker Elvie, founded by London-based mom-of-two Tania Boler, has created a discreet 5-ounce receptacle that fits into a bra. Controlled through the phone, it’s hands-free, wire-free, silent, and aimed at women who want to use it on a train, on a call, or in a meeting. Boler said she wanted to address the taboo topics around women’s health that were holding back product development. Historically, breast pumps have been isolating and inconvenient for women: You have to assemble the parts, attach them to your body, sit in a private room for 30 minutes, disassemble, wash, sterilize—and then get back to work. Every three hours. The practice has been ripe for innovation for years.

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Compare Elvie to the bulky, ugly, claustrophobic sleep apnea machines out there. Just because something technically does its job doesn’t mean that people will be happy to use it. In fact, 83% of people who are prescribed sleep apnea machines take them off halfway through the night. Which is a worry when you consider that the disorder can increase your risk of stroke by three times, and heart attack and death by 30%, according to the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

A move toward a more consumer-centric approach has seen medical device designers look to game-like features, behavioral science, and wearables—using every tool in the box to create experiences that drive engagement, increase adherence, and prevent illness.

It’s interesting to see how strong design can take a functional medical device and make it aspirational. Consider sports-technology company Supersapiens, which took a continuous blood-glucose monitor developed for diabetics and transformed it into a performance-enhancing device for athletes through design, gamification, and clever communication. It demonstrates the power of design and communication strategy in shifting perceptions, promoting self-care, and reducing stigma—all while generating a plethora of data, which can be helpful for clinicians and scientists.

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Dealing with the data dilemma

That said, not every problem has a physical design solution, and some of the biggest issues today surround the collection of data. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of Americans think their personal data is not secure, and that data collection poses more risks than benefits.

So while large-scale health data has a lot of value, there need to be conversations about why it’s being collected and how it will be used. Tracking and analyzing information about someone creates a clearer picture of their health, and that information can be shared with the necessary specialists. But that needs to be conveyed in the right way. Designers must be careful to ensure that people see data collection as a benefit, not a concern and therefore a barrier to engagement.

German fertility company Inne collects data to research how chromosomal abnormalities, hormones, and genetics affect fertility. The website creates a space for “radical self-knowledge,” with in-depth articles and data sharing that inform people on a fertility quest. Founder Eirini Rapti has talked about how she wants to help women understand their bodies—and stop feeling like outsiders when it comes to discussions around their health.

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As we move toward a world in which people take more responsibility for their own health and well-being, addressing how they experience medical products—their ease of use, reliability, and emotional appeal—is only going to move up the agenda in what is an increasingly competitive and changing healthcare landscape.


Oscar Daws is a cofounder of Tone Product Design.

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