Expert Designers Leading Healthcare Product Innovation
Micah Bowers is a designer and writer whose work has been featured in Fast Company, TNW, and other notable publications. He is a Lead Editor at Toptal.
From AI-assisted surgical robots to apps that enable remote management of cardiac devices, healthcare product innovation is occurring at an exponential pace. But modern medical products aren’t just feats of engineering, they’re design marvels that unburden healthcare providers, improve the patient experience, and save lives.
Their faces are radiant. Twinkling eyes and tiny features filled with joyous wonder. Their photos are testimonies. Smiling portraits in a scrolling catalog of lives protected by invention.
“Our baby’s heart rate was reading 280 beats per minute.”
“The doctors asked how we even knew this was happening to our son. They said it’s extremely rare that it’s caught, especially so early on.”
“I am so incredibly grateful for this piece of technology and for the information and peace of mind it provides.”
The Owlet Smart Sock monitors oxygen level, heart rate, and sleep trends. It’s designed for babies who weigh between 5 pounds and 30 pounds, fits on the foot, and connects wirelessly to a base station and the Owlet app. When readings from the sock exceed preset zones, the base station and app alert parents to potential danger.
Since Owlet was founded in 2013, more than 1 million babies have worn the Smart Sock, but the product’s success followed a winding design journey. Michael Bunn, Owlet’s Vice President of Design and Creative, was there for every unexpected turn. The Smart Sock uses a pulse oximetry sensor to measure blood oxygen saturation, but when Bunn joined Owlet in 2014, the technology was housed in desktop-sized devices and encumbered by cords and confusing alarms.
With time, Owlet shrank its sensor to the size of a quarter, but according to Bunn, the real challenge was educating consumers about a product that was virtually nonexistent prior to the Smart Sock. “At the beginning of Owlet, the only category that existed was baby monitor, and that’s an audio monitor,” he says. “Video monitors weren’t that common. Saying ‘This is a new type of baby monitor,’ people didn’t really understand what that meant.”
A similar problem pervades the broader field of medical technology. As novel devices, apps, and platforms emerge with increasing frequency, conveying the benefits to patients can be a massive challenge. And while tech-enabled disruption affects all facets of industry, the pace of healthcare product innovation is astounding, especially in light of historical context.
From Roman Scalpels to Holographic Heart Surgery
Beneath meters of ash and piled pumice, the relics of Pompeii rested in air-tight tombs for nearly two millennia. But an excavation in 1770 unearthed a collection of artifacts designed for a highly specific set of tasks—precision tools with familiar form factors. They were Roman surgical instruments, and they were remarkably similar to medical devices that remained in use in the West until the early 20th century.
That’s not to suggest that healthcare products didn’t evolve in the 1,700 years between the eruption of Vesuvius and the emergence of the Victorian era. The microscope, stethoscope, and X-ray appeared during a 300-year span from 1590 to 1895, but the speed of medical advancement remained relatively constant until the Second Industrial Revolution began in 1870.
On the heels of electrification and industrialization, the first half of the 20th century yielded noteworthy medical inventions such as the EEG, defibrillator, and dialysis machine. The stretch between 1950 and 2015 brought the pacemaker, hip replacement, artificial heart, powered prosthesis, cochlear implant, MRI, CT scan, insulin pump, bionic eye, and 3D-printed bone.
Philosophers and futurists have long pondered the trajectory of technology’s ascent. There are competing visions of dystopias and dreamlands, both of which predict a day when progress exceeds humanity’s comprehension and control. Whether or not that day arrives remains to be seen, but such prophecies do cast innovation in a curious light. Consider a sampling of medical devices launched since 2016:
- A holographic interface that generates live, 3D models of patients’ hearts to help surgeons improve accuracy during minimally invasive procedures.
- A suite of smartphone-based video games that allow specialists, such as pulmonologists and gastroenterologists, to practice diagnosing and treating a wide range of diseases.
- A prosthetic control system that gives amputees nuanced upper-limb command using the electrical impulses produced by their muscles.
- An app that uses machine learning to help diagnose dental conditions and oral cancer.
- A portable EEG device that enables clinicians to assess brain trauma related to seizures and cardiac arrest in as little as five minutes—compared to the typical four-hour response time.
Healthcare Apps Serving At-risk Patients
Amy Oughton has perspective. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 10. Before turning 18, she’d been hospitalized more than two dozen times. With limited access to medical treatment, Oughton was an adult before she was able to see her first endocrinologist. Her mom and relatives were nurses. She understands the strain healthcare workers face.
As a UX designer, Oughton builds digital health platforms for companies such as AstraZeneca and i2i Population Health. But given her background, a career in healthcare wasn’t always Oughton’s ambition. “Honestly, I used say that I don’t want to be in healthcare,” she says.
After having her second child, Oughton stepped away from her role as an information architect in the public sector and started freelancing with Toptal. In one of her first projects, she designed a series of dashboards to help insurance analysts better identify social conditions that impact quality of life. As she immersed herself in the role, Oughton says she realized how the project would benefit people with stories like her own: “It was really hitting home because I was helping analysts figure out care gaps for people with chronic illnesses—like myself.”
Oughton’s concern doesn’t end with patients: She’s keenly aware of the administrative challenges faced by healthcare providers, especially when it comes to using electronic health records (EHRs). According to Oughton, EHRs do a good job of compiling patient data, but they aren’t easy to use or tailored to providers’ needs.
“Providers want to know that they’re doing the right thing, and although these systems provide information, it’s not intuitively displayed,” she says. “So I think we’re moving toward a future where providers will have platforms that speak to specific situations and specific patients as opposed to ‘Here’s the platform, now use it.’”
Like Oughton, Dubai-based product designer Muhammad Uzair is eager to confront the administrative issues hindering healthcare providers. Uzair has spent his career partnering with international brands such as Honda, Toyota, and Sony, but he’s also served as a UX consultant for the Dubai Health Authority and worked on EHRs and telehealth apps.
In one such project, Uzair built an app with a conversational user interface (CUI) that leads users through tasks such as describing symptoms and scheduling appointments. But the feature was more than a matter of convenience; it was the result of careful research. Patient input errors in healthcare apps are a common cause of delayed treatment, and users with low levels of tech literacy often struggle to operate text-dependent interfaces.
Uzair is familiar with the pitfalls of ideating medical products apart from user research. While working at a consultancy, he participated in a design-thinking workshop run by a prominent tech company. The goal was to better understand what women go through during pregnancy and develop product ideas to help. By all accounts, Uzair thought the experience was fruitful—until he witnessed his wife’s pregnancy and realized how vastly it differed from the insights generated during the workshop.
With medical apps booming, both Oughton and Uzair caution against overlooking users who have chronic conditions or societal challenges. “The more we digitize healthcare,” says Oughton, “the more we risk leaving large numbers of people without the ability to access proper health solutions.”
Protecting Life’s Most Vulnerable Moments
John Rector repeats the question. “What do I love about my job?” He stares off, searches for words, and smiles. “I love my patient population,” he says. “I love their stories. I love being able to care for them in their most vulnerable moments and help them get back to a certain measure of strength.”
For more than 13 years, Rector has served as a critical care registered nurse at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Oregon. He’s treated thousands of medical emergencies, but his job isn’t an endless episode of high drama. Whether he’s connecting with patients and their families or relaying information to colleagues, Rector says that a major part of his role is managing the human element. Communication is vital—as are the devices that enable it.
Among the tools Rector uses most are his smartphone and the hospital’s in-room computers. The computers store important patient data, and thanks to a smartphone app called Vocera, he can quickly contact other providers at his hospital using voice commands. There’s also a slew of devices that monitor patient vitals and provide life-sustaining treatments.
Even in such a tool-dependent environment, Rector brings his own finely tuned instruments that guide every patient interaction. “As an experienced nurse,” he says, “I always say that my eyes, ears, and sense of touch are my most important monitoring devices.”
Whether basic or advanced, the best tools extend mental and physical abilities while simplifying the tasks for which they are designed. Over the course of his career, Rector has witnessed healthcare technology become more efficient, yet he continues to find himself repositioning machines and untangling cords connected to patients and power sources. “In my setting, that makes things complicated,” he says. Still, he remains optimistic. He thinks ergonomics and automation are improving medical devices and foresees a future where healthcare providers are free to serve patients with greater levels of attention.
Whatever innovation brings, Rector views technology as a way to further his central mission: treating patients with dignity. “My technology will change. My challenges will change,” he says. “But my patients won’t, and that’s what will keep me doing this for another 20 years.”
Research, Testing, and Ovine Cadavers
Whipsaw is prolific and prestigious. Since 1999, the industrial design consultancy has shipped more than 800 products and won nearly 300 design awards, including 34 Red Dot Awards. Ari Turgel started at Whipsaw as a contractor in 2000. Today, he’s the company’s Director of Industrial Design.
Being a consultancy, Whipsaw takes on medical projects in various stages of product development. It updates aesthetics, re-engineers mechanics, and conceives new devices. “What I like best is when it all merges,” Turgel says. “When there’s human factors, usability, functionality, and branding, and we’re working as a cohesive team.”
Once, Turgel and his team redesigned a device used by spinal surgeons. They addressed existing shortcomings, gathered feedback from doctors, and made refinements. Everything was unfolding as planned until the team tested the device on an ovine cadaver and found that it didn’t perform as intended. Was the updated design flawed? Not at all. Turns out, ovine bone and human bone have different densities, causing inaccurate readings in the ovine tests. “But that’s all part of the process,” Turgel says. “Now the same device is going through FDA testing, and it’ll likely be out [in 2022].”
Ultimately, medical design appeals to Turgel because he gets to create long-lasting products that help people who are sick or hurting. “I’m designing things that make an impact,” Turgel says. “It might be for a doctor, it might be for home care, but it still lends itself to the betterment of the human experience, and it does so in a sustainable way.”
Tiny Feet, Tiny Screens, Big Challenges
Keeping a sock on a baby’s foot may be the most impossible feat in all creation. Long socks, short socks, and socks with extra elastic are all useless. They slide off feet and into oblivion, never to be found.
At Owlet, Bunn is all too familiar with the anatomical awkwardness of baby feet. “Every baby is different. Their feet are chubby, they’re skinny, they’re long, they’re short,” he says. “And so making something that will work accurately on something that’s always changing is a challenge, which anybody in wearables will tell you.”
But fit is only the first concern. Owlet’s designers juggle a variety of variables. The Smart Sock is a connected device. It syncs with a base station and an app. It relies on Bluetooth, batteries, and Wi-Fi. There’s unboxing, set up, and daily use. Sensors and processors become more sophisticated with time.
It’s a complex device, but each touchpoint must blend into an utterly simple user experience—a challenge that Bunn and his design team take to heart. According to Bunn, education is one of the best ways to deliver a seamless experience to new users, but it’s not FAQs and help-desk articles that he has in mind. “When you’re introducing something new, you often hear ‘What’s the user experience and how intuitive is it?’” he says. “But a lot of that, how intuitive something is, depends on how well you educate people without them knowing it.”
It’s a delicate balance: Convey everything that users need to know, but don’t overwhelm them with information. The goal, Bunn says, is to sprinkle education throughout the experience “so that by the end of their first night they’re fully aware of all the things they’ll need to do for any challenge that might come up.”
While Bunn has spent years turning bulky components into a state-of-the-art device, product designer Val Vasylenko has seen firsthand how medical technology can go from cutting-edge to commonplace. Vasylenko develops healthcare products for companies such as Fitbit and Mawi. A few years back, he encountered a unique challenge: how to design tiny interfaces for wearable devices. At the time, “It was new and appealing,” he says. “But now, these devices are all around us, and it doesn’t seem like anything magical.”
Because healthcare products evolve so quickly, Vasylenko believes designers ought to be willing to develop domain expertise that complements their design knowledge. While working on a diabetes-related product, Vasylenko realized that his ability to understand the disease’s complexity would have a profound impact on users. “These challenges go so deep,” he says. “It becomes more important to understand physiology and psychology than just design practices.”
As much as Vasylenko strives to learn about healthcare, he also understands that most people just want to live their lives. When it comes to medical wearables, Vasylenko urges designers to simplify output data. “Usually, we overcomplicate the role of data visualization,” he says. Instead of intricate charts, users need straightforward graphics and notifications that reveal health metrics in relation to benchmarks they can understand.
Vasylenko believes that treating illness not only helps people feel better, it enables them to flourish. “Design,” he says, “is one of our best tools to achieve that.”
Quality Over Immortality
Ancient myth and modern fiction make much of immortality. Why shouldn’t they? Despite its brevity, life seems as if it should endure forever. Indeed, some are pursuing an everlasting future. Whether cloning, cryonics, or senolytics, the search for the fountain of youth is ongoing.
And while longevity has obvious appeal, it would be inaccurate to assert that permanence motivates the design experts leading healthcare product innovation. Quality of life is their common thread. They are driven by a desire to alleviate chronic conditions, improve access to care, and protect people in life’s most vulnerable moments.
Further Reading on the Toptal Design Blog:
- Own Your Health: The State of Connected Medical Devices
- Haptics in Healthcare: An Opportunity for Designers to Help Revolutionize Telemedicine
- The Importance of Human-centered Design in Product Design
- Prioritizing Health Pros’ Pain Points in Connected Medical Device Design
- Vital Design: The Importance of Healthcare App Accessibility
Understanding the basics
How do you design a medical product?
Like designers in other disciplines, medical product designers follow a cycle of research, ideation, testing, and iteration. These designers often have specific areas of focus. For example, some specialize in designing surgical instruments, while others concentrate on EHRs or telehealth apps.
Why is the patient experience important?
The patient experience is akin to the user experience. To build effective healthcare solutions, medical product designers must understand patient problems, needs, and touchpoints. When the patient experience is confusing or hard to navigate, people aren’t able to access the care they need.
How do you improve the patient experience?
One aspect of healthcare product innovation that’s improving the patient experience is access to information via telehealth apps. Today, patients can review their health records, contact specialists, and schedule appointments using a smartphone. In the past, each of these tasks had to be carried out separately.