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Involve, ideate and iterate – how to tackle human-centred design

Research has found that a lack of attention to human factors and contextual considerations can lead to limitations in design solutions, and sometimes to solutions that are unwanted, inappropriate or downright dangerous.

aruna shekar, massey university, human centred design

It is very important to fully understand the user and his or her abilities, identify people who are closely involved with the product, and also study the context of use (lighting, temperature, user-position, humidity, noise and other contextual elements). 

The application of user interaction design principles, and the participation of stakeholders in the design and testing phases of a product for their use, are vital. For example, a medical device can be used safely and effectively only if the interaction between the operating environment, user capabilities and device design is considered and integrated during the development stages.

To simplify a design or user interface is actually quite challenging. Sometimes creators can get carried away by the various functions that can be offered and tend to put it all in, even when most users may only use a few main functions. In these cases, most of the rarely used buttons and functions should ideally be hidden away, keeping the user-interface simple and clear, with only the critical operations upfront.

Involving users in design: examples of co-design

Fisher & Paykel is an iconic New Zealand company known for a number of radical innovations including the recently launched ICON breathing device for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and the Optiflow oxygen delivery system.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines have typically looked like medical appliances largely due to the fact that they are made by manufacturers who also make hospital medical equipment. In the hospital this is a good thing and is an expected result of the hospital environment they need to be able to survive in. However in the home and more especially beside the bed, these devices that are appropriate in the hospital are not suitable for the home.

The implications of the ‘medical looking’ CPAP machines meant that sales were slow and it was clearly time to work on improving the design to suit the home environment. An international survey found that people were very clear on the fact that a medical device in their home should not look ‘medical’ or in any way reflect their illness, and this threw light on the way forward for the new product design.  The answer was to develop a radically new CPAP machine that would make people feel things were normal in their home again. And so the ICON CPAP model range was born.

Medical devices for home or personal usage are now entering the space occupied by consumer electronics in being perceived as more ‘pleasurable’ to have and use in the home.

human centred design process

Human-centred Design Process (Project Time: 30% input definition phase; 70% development, validation and production; 100% completion of the device)

This new framework includes a specific stage at the beginning of the development process (input definition phase) where product usability and desirability are incorporated, taking up about 30 percent of research and development time, as opposed to the mere 5 to 10 percent that many companies take. 

human centred design processF&P’s product developers spent a lot of time with users in sleep-labs and hospitals with clinicians, and the insights gleaned from these interactions help create initial requirements and technology inputs.  Simple spatial cardboard models were built to determine the form factor that best fitted the user environment and the bedside table. Usability analysis led to the large dial user-controls that could easily be found and operated even during the night, while lying down. Use scenarios were storyboarded and actions like opening the humidification chamber lid and entering user menus were acted through in a bedroom situation at night to ensure that the best possible experience was provided.  Role-playing by the designers and simulations of the environment were a big part of the research.

Patient interviews were also done in the sleep laboratory where they were in an environment similar to their bedroom with similar ambient conditions. This was important because environmental context can change perceptions of how well a product fits that environment.

“Patients are looking for medical devices to use in their home that appear natural and normal in the context of a home,” says industrial design manager, Andrew Salmon. An in-house study showed that medical devices that do not make the patient feel like one and that do not look like ‘hospital equipment’ are seen as more desirable by patients.

“Patients do not want to enter their bedroom and be reminded that they are sick and unwell.”

Manual operations have been deliberately kept simple to reduce user errors and the number of selection buttons limited to key functions only, with user interface buttons kept large for ease of use and maintenance.

As a result, patient compliance is better than before and user errors have been minimised.

The most recent product launched – the Optiflow junior, an oxygen delivery system for premature babies – was designed after visiting 50 hospitals around the world! These resulted in a number of user insights, observations of the context, product interactions, and the ways in which nurses handle babies, and the things they needed to do.  This enabled quick iterations, approximately 500 prototypes, trialled on more than 100 babies resulting in the unique Optiflow nasal cannula.

human centred design process

This demonstrates the value of involving stakeholders, and the importance of contextual understanding early in the design process.  The behaviours that are observed serve as inspirations and stimulate ideas among designers and innovators.  These insights lead to more practical and appropriate design innovations. 

It is critical for designers, engineers and R&D personnel to immerse themselves in the product’s natural environment, and to enable early stakeholder participation in design. These leading examples are to be shared with different audiences, until we genuinely design products for usability, desirability and emotional appeal.  Form and function have been embedded in our thinking, but we need to include the ‘feelings’ component, and the environmental footprint. 

Dr Aruna Shekar is a senior lecturer in product development at Massey University