If we were to live in a Utopian world, every device would be perfectly intuitive, fully sustainable, and take full advantage of emerging technologies. The reality is that very few devices can achieve this.

Achieving this would require a perfect balance of everything from, current material production, manufacturing, distribution, and disposal methods. Not to mention the very specific user needs that are often found in medical settings, safety and efficacy, or the juxtaposition of new technology and its environmental demands. To embed all these contrasting ideas and design methodologies into a single device is challenging, and often is not possible, and really, is not the right way to go about design in the first place.

When tasked with writing this piece, the proposed title was ‘Can we embed the perfect balance of usability, sustainability and emerging technology in a medical device?’ in other words, the changeable criteria on which potential users evaluate their choices. Next year our big technological drivers might relate to AI or mass customisation. So, the answer is both yes and no, but it is specific to your problem.

Complementation and contradiction are at the heart of new product development. Design is a careful balancing act. This is why we talk with such affection about our processes. They help reduce ambiguity and more importantly allow us to channel and make sense of the noise and complex relationships that surround us.

We have many goals and aspirations that we would like our products to achieve, all based on societal issues, user specific problems and market forces. All of which are constantly changing. Often, clear compromises must be made in ultimatum to deliver. Much to the sweating of foreheads and hastily typed emails! Delivery is everything as a designer, it is how products are judged and how they are experienced by users.

You may find you have created an epic feature, but the economics of implementing, market demand or manufacturing capability is not actually there for it to be feasible at this moment.

Properly devised problem specifications can help you avoid this heartbreak. It is highly important that your problem specification is clear in what it wants to achieve and has been done with enough research that it understands where compromises may well be needed.

  1. Take a human centered approach in your initial research. Speak to humans, observe and immerse yourself in the problem setting.
  2. This helps you make sure you are solving the right problem. But what are your assumptions, how can you test them?
  3. Think of things as a system. What interacts with what, how does this intervention fit in the process, understand the relationships at play.
  4. Iterate and develop your solution to pass your gatekeepers and meet your performance metrics to fulfill your discovered need.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you have metrics that your assumptions can be tested with?
  • What are your bounds/scope?
  • What are your gatekeepers?
  • Have you properly observed and immersed yourself in the problem setting?
  • Have you ‘spoken with humans’, the humans that live the relevant experience day-to-day?

Human Factors Approach

Metrics can relate to performance in use (speed, power consumption), commercial performance (production volumes, % uptake) or could relate to sustainability (manufacturing energy consumption, waste). Effectively, they are the quantifiable elements that you can test and evaluate your design solution on.

Your bounds can then be used to evaluate your design solutions from testing for a specific metric, if a metric falls out of the target bounds you may need to look at the effectiveness of what you have created and iterate. Bounds also relate to project scope, keeping this clear and refined is also beneficial.

Gatekeepers are simple requirements that are critical to success or failure. I call them this because they are points in time and targets that may result in success or failure as your product develops on its path. Understanding what these are early allows you to understand what is essential and what is value added which in turn helps streamline your decision making as you progress.

A clearly defined specification provides sufficient ambiguity to foster creativity, but is clear in its aims, bounds (scope) and gatekeepers (non-negotiable’s).
Your specification should connote what the hierarchy of needs of the project are. Is your primary goal to create an unrivaled UX that reduces the risk of a procedure, the most sustainable product in the sector, the most novel device that enhances the efficacy of a medication? Ask yourself how cost comes into play – this WILL affect your outcome.
A clear problem specification means that we can focus on lean device development. Solving for a clear, core need allows us to simplify our process, communicate efficiently and benefits the quality of decision making down the road. In turn, resulting in bringing products to market that people actually NEED, which is sustainable in itself.

Design engineer observing legislation, standards & regulations for sustainable new product and medical device development

So, now that you have your problem specification, you can begin to understand the relationships at play. Usability and sustainability can be managed together using the process outlined – by thinking at the system level you can create a fuller picture of the impacts the product or intervention you are creating may have. Sustainability requires you to think of the systems that your product will work within, which includes raw material extraction, manufacture, transportation, use and end-of-life (and what follows). Transportation through to end-of-life are all areas that can have an impact on overall UX so thinking about how the product works in these situations is also beneficial to usability. As much as we’d like to think we can, we cannot retrofit sustainability to products that were designed for a linear life cycle, see the mixed results of take-back-scheme trials. Sustainability must be built from the ground up and built out from core user needs.

Achieving sustainability is a distinct challenge in the medical device sector as the forms required in many devices currently can only be achieved through formed plastic with multi-materials. As these devices are critical to life, taking the risk on a recycled polymer may be too great, but you can do your due diligence to explore your options within the realms of regulation. This an area that HD is looking to evolve in industry. As mentioned, your problem spec and use case are going to affect how you compromise on drivers.

The technology you choose to incorporate into products should be purposeful, aiming enhance an area of the overall system. Tech is not something that should be shoehorned in, often this increases complexity, affects your environmental balance, and will have impacts on UX. You must think deeply about the benefits of choosing to use something, additionally (pessimistically), emerging technology is often costly and comes with bugs and plenty of unforeseen issues. This is not to say that you shouldn’t rise to the challenge if the potential benefits are extremely strong, and we can make something previously impossible, possible. Tech is utilised generally with the principle that you can streamline a pain point in your user journey or scientific process, with a clear problem specification you can weight against your core goals for the product to understand the importance of that specific feature. You may improve a pain point, but the environmental impact of your product may increase tenfold, so you must be clear on your aims.

Usability, emerging technology and sustainability areas are inter-connected although categorised separately; product designers need to have an appreciation for how they interface with each other and what each of the areas require and enable with respect to product and medical device development. Understanding this allows us to apply the right technology to the right situation. Design is a balancing act, and at its heart is the ability to clarify and channel the noise to produce elegant results!

Robert Garland - Medical Device Design Development Engineer at Haughton Design Rob Garland 26 October 2023


Get in Touch with Rob Garland

Design Development Engineer

Rob graduated from the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College London in 2021 with a Master’s in Design Engineering. Prior to joining HD, he worked in the automotive sector using state of the art 3D scanning and 3D printing techniques. He has a keen interest in human centred, interaction and experience design and has expertise in additive manufacturing, CAD, IoT, UI and mechatronics.

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