Doctors, Nurses and Other Healthcare Professionals: Here’s What You Need to Know About The Medical Innovation Process of Product Designers

Posted by Mike, on March 15, 2017

This post is the first in a two-part series on the doctor-designer relationship. Below, we share the designer’s perspective, highlighting what doctors should know to collaborate well with design professionals during the product development process. The other side of the story, what designers should know to collaborate well with doctors, is coming soon. Want to weigh in? Contact us!

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Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals are in a unique position to discover problems and needs based on the work that they do every day. Their discoveries can lead to meaningful innovations that can improve healthcare delivery and save lives.

Identification of a worthwhile problem is key to innovation, but getting ideas from identified problems to real solutions that can be manufactured and implemented in practice is no small task, particularly if your background isn’t full of product development experience. This is why many medical professionals come to the conclusion that, after identifying a need, it could be a tremendous value-add to partner with an individual or firm expertly trained to handle all that comes next in the product development process.

Collaboration between doctors and product design experts can accomplish great things, especially if each understands how to best work with the other's strengths and processes. To this end, we share some insights below to help healthcare professionals, particularly doctors, better understand how product design specialists work to develop ideas toward commercialization.

1. Designers Like to Focus on the Problem, and Keep an Open Mind on the Solution

Identifying the right problem and developing the right solution are both important keys to successful innovation, but identifying the right problem is a piece of the innovation puzzle that designers need to rely almost completely on doctors’ firsthand knowledge and expertise.

Only the medical professionals who experience certain critical problems with the tools and processes they use are likely to identify those problems. But once the right problem is identified, doctors and designers can team up to find the best solution.

When a doctor comes to product development consultancies like SmartShape, they typically have given the problem a lot of thought, perhaps for several years, and believe they know the right solution. But, while the solution a doctor has identified might be an excellent one, there is also good chance that there are also better paths to explore.

In SmartShape’s experience, more often than not, good product designers will think of alternative solutions that are even more optimal than and sometimes radically different from the original idea brought to them.

So, keep an open mind about finding the best design solution and start by showing designers the problem so they can really understand what’s happening and help consider all of the best possible solutions.

2. Designers Want to Consider All Possible User Types as We Explore Solution Options

A healthcare professional who has an idea for a new medical device, for example, would likely be a user of that device and may tend to have an idea for a solution that would work particularly well for himself or herself. This bias could result in a design that is optimal for that individual, but not necessarily for many varied users.

Rather than optimize the design for one individual, designers know they must consider the full target market and the wide diversity of potential users within that market.

Good product designers will always aim to meet the needs of the full range of potential users, and know that this is especially important when designing medical products. Experienced medical product designers will carefully address human factors considerations and use anthropometric data (measurements of the human body) to understand and accommodate the variability within the population for which they are designing.

Careful testing of concepts with a group of users that represent the variability of users in the intended market is important to eliminate inherent bias and validate ideas and designs. The information and insights these experiences provide can significantly help shape the solution.

3. Designers Leverage an Iterative Process of Prototyping to Optimize Design

Experienced product designers will want to prototype ideas early and often in the development process to test and evaluate them. An effective design thinking process starts with an iterative prototyping process, or exploring multiple ideas in parallel, so early prototypes tend to be of low-fidelity (relatively quick and inexpensive to make, but good enough to answer the questions). As the best design solutions emerge and evolve, higher-fidelity prototyping will be used to more carefully test and validate the design.

Successful development of a product that will meet the needs of a diverse group of users and comfortably fit people of all shapes and sizes requires this process of iterative prototyping and testing with representative users. Similarly, developing new technologies, methods and mechanisms also requires iterative prototyping and testing to be sure your solution is not only the best, but one that has been fully thought through from a wide variety of angles and is proven to actually work.

When any new product is brought to use in the market, people will certainly discover shortcomings and think of ways to improve it. Testing with a quick series prototypes provides glimpses into the future and identifies unique opportunities to improve the design before going to market that might otherwise be left undiscovered. If you’ve identified a worthwhile problem to solve, but don’t take the time to find the best design solution, your competitors will likely find it soon after experimenting with your product. Iterative design thinking helps you beat them to the punch.

Medical and Product Design Professionals Innovate Better Together

When medical and product professionals come together with a problem to solve, an open mind, focus on the user and use an iterative process of prototyping to learn and evolve concepts quickly, the possibilities for dynamic innovation to improve healthcare delivery and outcomes are endless.

All it takes is identification of an important need or a problem that is truly worth solving, the desire to collaborate toward developing the best design solution, and getting the right minds and skill sets collaborating.

This is what many designers believe, anyway. Which just leaves one question: doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals: are you on board?

What else do you wish you knew or understood better about designers, engineers, and/or the medical product development process? Let’s start a dialogue in the comment section below. (Fellow designers: feel free to chime in with your own doctor-designer relationship perspective!)