If you ask Dave Hixson what it’s like to create new medical devices in the Zoom era, the Medtronic engineer isn’t going to sugar coat it for you.
“I’m not going to fool myself or anybody else into believing that it’s not different,” said Hixson, VP of research and development for Medtronic's surgical innovations business unit. “I think we’re doing well, I think we’ve kept our pace going, but it’s an awful lot harder to get the same level of truly innovative creative thought.”
Hixson came to Medtronic through the company’s historic Covidien acquisition in 2015. He has a degree in aeronautical engineering and a 28-year history of product development execution in medical devices as well as other industries.
Like many of us, Hixson has developed a love-hate relationship with Zoom (mostly hate, he admits) because of the physicality of developing surgical devices. That said, he and his team at Medtronic have learned to adapt and make use of Zoom and other virtual-enabling tools in order to forge ahead and introduce new instruments for surgeons and operating room teams.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, there were Medtronic R&D engineers taking lab equipment home and setting up little R&D shops in their kitchens, etc., Hixson said.
“The teams jumped right in and did their absolute best, but it's been a challenge,” he told MD+DI. “I rely heavily on the accidental conversation … looking over someone’s shoulder, having coffee downstairs at the coffee shop, saying, ‘hello, what are you doing this week? I'm doing this' ... that’s valuable.”
The past couple years have also taught Hixson that he's not quite as antisocial as he once thought he was, something many of us can probably relate to as well.
“I really long for that human interaction, that connectivity, and looking somebody in the face and understanding what they're talking about,” Hixson said.
That’s especially important in the medical device industry, he said, where access to hospital staff is so critical to innovation. COVID cut off a lot of opportunities to observe procedures in person to see exactly how the operating room staff is using certain devices in practice.
“My little tagline is product development success comes as a result of relentless focus on the experience of the person you're designing for,” Hixson said. “It’s hard to do that if you can’t get that exposure.”
Asking someone questions over the phone or a Zoom call about how they use a particular device or the challenges they might encounter during a particular type of procedure just isn’t the same as being there to observe them in action.
“I’ve never gone out to do an observational exercise or an interaction with the context that I was designing for and not seen something that I didn’t expect,” Hixson said. "You always see something that you weren't looking for. You always hear a comment or notice a behavior, that’s why we do it. Again, it comes back to innovation. That’s how you get the true discovery and that little 'ah ha' moment."
Those observational exercises he describes is part of user experience design, which Hixson says focuses on the experience of the person the product is being designed for. That means discovering what job the user is doing, why they’re doing it, how they're doing it, and what adaptions have they made because something doesn’t perform the way that it could or should. From there, the product designer can figure out how to solve that problem for them.
Holding up a Medtronic surgical instrument as an example, Hixson explained that most surgeons who used the device would say they rotate it one way during procedures, but during observation it turned out they were actually rotating the device a different way in practice.
"The reason that's important is because that leads to a different solution where that rotational configure ability comes into play," he said.
Another example he keeps in his office is an early prototype of a Medtronic device used to seal blood vessels. That particular prototype was designed with a latching mechanism based on what surgeons told the company they wanted but in practice they weren't actually using the device the way they said they were. By observing that difference, the R&D team developed a fundamentally different way to activate the device, and that design has found its way into a handful of different products, Hixson said.
Hixson is optimistic that there will be more opportunities in the future to get back into the world of procedure observation as COVID-19 becomes more manageable.