Home healthcare devices present a whole new set of challenges for human factors engineers.

February 12, 2014

3 Min Read
The Dog Ate My Medical Device


Imagine this scenario: You think you’ve designed the perfect home healthcare device. It’s intuitive to use, visually appealing, and, of course, safe and effective. You think you’ve covered all your bases. Then, the patient takes the device home and her chihuahua immediately devours it like a T-bone steak.

Welcome to the world of home health.

“If it can happen, it’s likely to in the real world,” Tyler Blake, principal and chief scientist at Human Factors Consulting Services, told an audience at the MD&M West conference in Anaheim, CA, today.

Blake was moderating a panel discussion on the movement of medical technology from clinical settings to the home—a migration that panelist Ron Pierce, vice president and director of design strategy and research at Karten Design, said makes him nervous.

“This trend scares the heck out of me, it really does,” Pierce said.

Part of the problem is that nonclinical environments are unpredictable, as the previous example illustrates. Designers have to account from everything to pets to family members.

Take this example that Pierce gave. His team was working on a neurostimulator to treat overactive bladder. The device included a remote control, which the patient could use to adjust its settings. What the designers didn’t account for was the woman’s young son, who got his hands on the remote control.

“That was quite an exciting few moments as she was trying to figure out why her insides were going through these gyrations,” Pierce said.

To avoid situations like that, Pierce said designers need to change their mindset when it comes to developing medical devices for home environments.

“We’re still in the field of designing for how people should be instead of how they are,” he said. “The consumer is king. What are we going to do to better understand that consumer?”

Here are some suggestions the panelists had:

  • Direct feedback. Don’t be afraid to simply ask users what they want. But Blake cautions that their answers should be considered as just one type of input. “Users will tell you things they don’t really mean, or things they don’t understand the implications of, or haven’t really thought through,” he said.  

  • Ask users to keep a diary. Panelist Korey Johnson, vice president of user experience at GfK Custom Research, said there’s still value in this seemingly old-fashioned method of obtaining research. There are ways to update the diary method with modern technology, too. Blake suggested using a voice-activated video camera, which users could use to record a quick dispatch, and Johnson said even text messages can be used to garner immediate feedback.  

  • Observation. When one audience member asked the panelists to suggest an alternative to observation studies for a home health device to test oxygen levels during sleep, Pierce was quick to encourage him not to rule out observation. “Our experience is that for a price, people will pretty much let you do everything,” he said, adding that he’s studied patients doing everything from showering to using the toilet. Panelist Andy Schaudt, director of usability studies for MedStar Health, chimed in that a popular and relatively low-cost consumer product can help: “GoPro cameras,” he said. “I have tons of them. I put them everywhere.”

Jamie Hartford, managing editor, MD+DI
[email protected] 


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