April 25, 2012

9 Min Read
Form and Function: Karten Design and Vessix Vascular Emphasize Aesthetics

Consumer-inspired design is not just for consumer-facing products. Vessix Vascular’s V2 Renal Denervation System shows how traditional cardiovascular device manufacturers can learn a lesson from consumer electronics companies about creating excitement through design.



In consumer design, where potential customers are faced with a wide variety of options and often make final purchase decisions based heavily on a split-second emotional reaction, aesthetics is a critical success factor. Consumer companies have made an art out of this split-second emotional reaction. Procter & Gamble has popularized it as the First Moment of Truth. It’s roused by a product’s looks, packaging, and the overall message that it communicates. If the message connects with the customer, this impression often leads to a purchase.


But how often do you feel compelled to reach out and touch a medical device? When is the last time you’ve looked at a medical monitor and breathed a reverent “Wow!”? Chances are it hasn’t happened in your career. 


Medical devices are traditionally driven by functionality: if it accomplishes the intended clinical result with a reasonable amount of ease, then the device is a success. Over the past 10 years, design has become a more significant consideration in medical devices. However, business-to-business medical devices have been slower than their consumer-oriented counterparts to embrace aesthetic design as an integral part of the product development process.


The recent partnership of Vessix Vascular and Karten Design illustrates the power that a development approach emphasizing aesthetics and emotion can have even for a traditional medical device company.

Appearance is Everything

Vessix Vascular is a pre-revenue stage company developing novel radiofrequency balloon catheter technology. This year, Vessix Vascular introduced the V2 Renal Denervation System—a percutaneous catheter-based system now in clinical trials for the treatment of drug-resistant hypertension.


Renal denervation is a procedure that uses a short blast of radiofrequency (RF) energy, delivered through a catheter, to disable the nerves surrounding the arteries leading to the kidneys, thus treating hypertension at one of its physiological sources. The results of the first in-human clinical study, conducted by a company called Ardian and published in The Lancet in 2009, proved that this procedure can significantly reduce blood pressure in up to 83 percent of people who suffered from drug-resistant hypertension.


Today, Vessix Vascular is one of the fast followers that have entered the field and are competing to define the next generation of renal denervation.  But standing out and commercializing its new technology in an emerging field would be a challenge.


Despite the tremendous promise of renal denervation, this highly specialized and relatively new process can be difficult to communicate to a non-technical audience. Vessix realized that evoking the excitement and potential of its system—creating a powerful First Moment of Truth— would be a critical component to success as it sought funding and support from the medical community.


When CEO Raymond Cohen joined Vessix in 2010, he evaluated the engineering prototype of the company’s RF generator, the system used to navigate and generate power, and decided that it lacked the desired emotional impact. To look at the “square, typical, plastic box,” as Cohen describes it, one would never guess they were looking at a new technology capable of changing the quality of life for millions of patients.


Cohen saw an opportunity to design a system purpose-built for renal denervation—one that would generate excitement and help advance the procedure in the medical world. To make people understand the system’s value, Vessix was going to have to let them see it for themselves. That’s when Karten Design became involved.


Starting with a Strategy

At the highest level, Karten Design’s goal was to use design to attract investment and build the level of trust with the medical community that would be necessary to quickly advance Vessix’s new technology toward commercialization.


Before designers put pencil to paper, Karten Design’s first step was to understand the advantages that the Vessix system offered over its competitors. In this case, the advantage was speed (able to accomplish renal denervation in just 30 seconds per artery), which means less discomfort and less exposure to radiation and toxicity for the patient, and time and money saved for the hospital.


“I want this thing to look fast,” Cohen told Karten Design. “It has to communicate that this is the second generation of Renal Denervation—the ultimate. I want people’s first reaction when they see this device to be WOW!”


To create a powerful First Moment of Truth, we approached designing the RF generator—the face of the system—the same way we would approach a consumer product, with a focus on high-quality materials and finish, and an evocative, emotional form. Like the technology itself, the design had to be new and different, jarring people from their expectations and routines.


Vessix_Hero_SMALL.jpgThe design seeks to arouse an unusual emotion in the medical field: intrigue. Breaking from the tradition of boxy medical equipment, the V2 Generator has a sweeping, parabolic form that takes advantage of the cart-mounted configuration. Because the generator would never have to sit on a table, it didn’t need a flat bottom. Cantilevered beyond the cart pole, the RF generator appears to be hovering—an effect that adds to the device’s intrigue.


Details such as texture and contrast draw people deeper into the product, encouraging closer examination. We employed a new palette of materials that suggest consumer electronics more than hospital equipment. Made from CNC-machined aluminum, the generator is designed to take advantage of the manufacturing process to achieve stunning details, such as the interlocking diamond texture of the device’s side housings. Designers worked with the machine shop to define a precise cutter path, run at a 45-degree angle in either direction, creating a series of ridges and valleys. A polished, black-anodized finish reflects light from every angle, providing a high level of contrast to the matte, bead-blasted main enclosure.


A brilliant, full-color screen is the heart of the design. As the component that communicates with the world, a custom-designed graphic user interface reinforces the simplicity of the 30-second procedure. With dimensional, gel-like forms and light, glowing graphics on a dark background, the crisp interface takes aesthetic cues from the XBox gaming console and the futuristic, fictional world of Tron.


A series of six minimal screens guides users visually through the procedure. Before treatment is initiated, it confirms when catheter electrodes are optimally positioned inside the patient and prompts the user to deliver therapy. After the therapy is performed, the display summarizes relevant information for reporting. Key to the system’s ease of use, designers provided a visual distinction between information that’s displayed for knowledge and information that requires action. Color, layers, and size create an information hierarchy that emphasizes action points. 




A Purpose-Built System 

Lessons from the C-Suite:

Vessix Vascular CEO Raymond Cohen shares his strategies for success that any medical device manufacturer can adopt.

Designing the Vessix V2 System from the ground up gave us the opportunity to tailor its functionality to the needs of end users in the cardiac catheterization lab.


Karten Design went into hospital catheterization labs to observe procedures and interview doctors, learning about cath lab layouts and workflow and the ceremonies familiar to doctors and technicians. Along the way, we considered questions such as, how will the catheter and generator relate? How will doctors see the progress of the catheter and its positioning in the renal artery of the patient? How will the treatment be activated and delivered? The goal was to make the system very simple, integrating familiar ceremonies into a new technology to ensure usability. We used this information to evaluate several use case scenarios and hone in on the most efficient one.


Functional features resulting from the research reinforce the brand strategy of simplicity. They include the decision to position the device outside of the sterile field, where it would be operated with minimal effort or training by a non-sterile nurse or technician, in order to keep clutter out of the critical sterile field. The team decided the RF generator should be operated with a push button on the front of the device, eliminating the potential for too many cords and clutter that could come with a foot pedal. Research also informed the decision to implement the generator as a pole-mounted, cart-based device, giving it the flexibility to accommodate different cath labs’ procedures for operating and storing the equipment.


The Real Moment of Truth

Cohen describes the impact that design has made in public presentations to investors and in medical forums, “The main benefit is that people get the message. It comes screaming out of the design of the product. It gets people’s attention even though we haven’t sold a unit and don’t have clinical results for the product. People take us much more seriously. This is important, especially when you’re a fast follower and there are others who would like to get in on the prize. We’ve been able to successfully position Vessix as THE fast follower in this space.”


Vessix’s V2 System is currently in the middle of a REDUCE-HTN in-human clinical study at 10 international clinical sites. The study is expected to be completed this year, and Vessix anticipates receiving a CE mark by summer 2012, which will allow it to begin marketing the product. Cohen expects an official product launch in Europe as early as 2013, making this procedure available to the wider number of people suffering from drug-resistant hypertension.




Anne Ramallo is the Manager of Marketing at Karten Design, a product innovation consultancy creating positive experiences between people and products, where she helps connect medical device and consumer health companies with strategic product innovation. She is a graduate of the University of Redlands whose writing on healthcare, design, and business has appeared on Karten Design’s blog and in Fast Company’s Co.Design.

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