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Industrial Design Moves Beyond Ergonomics

November 1, 1997

7 Min Read
Industrial Design Moves Beyond Ergonomics

Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry Magazine
MDDI Article Index

An MD&DI November 1997 Column

An interview with Kent Ritzel, medical section chair of the Industrial Designers Society of America and a juror for the Medical Design Excellence Awards.

Medical device, material, and component designers and engineers are about to achieve a higher profile. To highlight the creativity, innovation, and technical expertise that are instrumental in medical product development, MD&DI's publisher, Canon Communications, is sponsoring the Medical Design Excellence Awards. In addition to publicizing design excellence in the medical industry, the program will call attention to the contributions of medical designers and engineers who have not received the recognition enjoyed by their consumer product­creating peers.

The annual program was created in collaboration with the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA; Great Falls, VA), which sponsors the annual Industrial Design Excellence Awards published in Business Week magazine.

In the following interview, awards program director Amy Allen talks to IDSA medical section chair Kent Ritzel, a director for Metaphase Design Group (St. Louis), who discusses the merits of the Medical Design Excellence Awards and describes the industrial design profession's evolution.

Q.What are some challenges facing designers in the medical industry?

A. In addition to understanding user needs and appropriate ergonomics, industrial designers have to deal with the complexity of the international marketplace, which requires knowledge of international standards and material development. Generally, people are familiar with how consumer products and appliances work, whereas in the medical area even the companies that focus on medical product development are constantly learning new procedures and new processes.

Q. The term ergonomics is used frequently in the industry. Do you have any concern that some people do not have a thorough understanding of it?

A. Unquestionably, there's a concern. My company, Metaphase, describes to our clients something called ergomania, in which people think that if they understand the size of a person's hand for a handheld product, then they can call it an ergonomic product, and of course that's not the case. Ergonomics goes way beyond the traditional measure of body parts that came out of the military's World War II efforts to fit equipment to soldiers. It involves a more dynamic situation of understanding not just how the product and user fit physically at some point, but how they interface throughout the entire process of use. Ergonomics also encompasses fit in motion and needs to include the cognitive and perceptual side of things.

Q. Can you talk about how the study of human factors has contributed to medical device design?

A. In the past, with product improvement as the focus, we've been charged with preventing repetitive movement problems, reducing human error, and addressing risk management. All of these are very valuable and vital goals. However, in the future we need to not only improve a particular process but really understand the basic process as well as the intuitiveness of the practitioner-and-product interaction. New technologies are adding an additional layer of complexity, and we need to understand the technology as well as the human interaction with it.

Q. Why have you chosen to participate in the Medical Design Excellence Awards program, and what is the value of programs such as this one and the Industrial Design Excellence Awards?

A. On the one hand, it's important for the medical industry to have its own design awards because no praise is as meaningful as praise from your peers­they understand what it took to get there. But the real value of the Medical Design Excellence Awards is that they will focus attention on the complexity of product development in this industry and showcase examples of how it can be done well. In this way, the Medical Design Excellence Awards will be a valuable educational vehicle that should help companies improve their competitiveness. As a result, the program will foster the development of better products by encouraging investment in high-quality design and engineering.

Q. You're also involved in assembling the jury for the awards. Can you describe what kind of approach you're taking to convening a balanced, knowledgeable, and expert panel?

A. Given our experience and contacts in the medical products industry, we're going after all the leading practitioners. Mirroring the way a lot of product development teams work, the jury will bring together multidisciplinary and dual-disciplinary people­professionals who have expertise in a couple of different areas, such as engineering and marketing, technology and design, or ergonomics and technology, for example.

Q. IDSA has helped the general public reach a greater understanding of industrial design. Do you encounter any common misperceptions about industrial design?

A. One misperception was that industrial designers made things that look pretty; thankfully that notion is behind us. Another misperception was that we designed things that you really couldn't make. Industrial designers possess a depth of knowledge and are part of a team. We do not just come up with a concept and hand it off to some poor guys who have to try to make it; as an integral member of the product development team, we can eliminate restarts and conflicts. Getting it right the first time makes for significant savings down the road, given that 80% of a product's cost is established in the first phase of the product development cycle.

Q. What are some technologies that are showing promise in the medical industry?

A. One area is telerobotics, which allows practitioners to perform surgery at a location other than where they are physically. Also, we've been involved in looking at surgical procedures that traditionally require a lot of extra movement: the practitioner is either looking back and forth or up and down, trying to find the right monitor or the right control and switch. We are considering how to eliminate the additional movement and change the medical practitioner's process.

Q. Can you describe some of the issues involved in developing equipment for the home-care market?

A. For medical practitioners using these products in the home with a patient, there are issues such as sterility of the environment and lighting. Also, most often one medical practitioner, rather than a team of practitioners as in the hospital setting, is caring for a patient. In addition, there are a growing number of products being used by consumers who receive training in the hospital setting and operate the devices in their homes. When we develop products for either type of user, we have to focus on the point of use. We observe people's use of products in a variety of ways, typically involving videography. Then we determine the best way­the most ergonomic, comfortable, and safe way­to use a particular product.

We find that what people say they do and what they really do are two different things. What they say is important. Their perception of how they interact with a product and how they actually use it will tell you a lot about their thought process. There's a great deal of intuitiveness that needs to be included in successful product design. By conducting the design research with an understanding of the ergonomics on the front end, you can shorten the time frame for product development and avoid mistakes and restarts.

Q. In addition to home care, what other areas in health care are presenting challenges for industrial designers?

A. One exciting area involves going back and helping people revisit traditional ways of doing things. Over time, certain rules, regulations, and procedures have become standard practice. We are challenging some of these traditional processes based on real information, not just on our own conjecture.

For more information about the Medical Design Excellence Awards, visit www.devicelink.com/awards.

Copyright ©1997 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry

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