Design thinking - Making Sense of the Complex = Simple Paradox

Humanity finds itself in a strange and sometimes frightening place in the 21st Century.

As we enter the fourth industrial revolution amid exploding research and development into artificial intelligence and robotics, where the man/machine interface is becoming closer and digital, the social landscape is full of paradoxes - one in which our ever-expanding global population is plagued by the phenomenon that while the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.

When the poor get poorer, their health is the first to suffer.

And when health suffers, the quality of life for humans is seriously and mostly irrevocably impaired.

Like hearing loss.

Despite all advancements in digital and telecommunications technology, access to basic primary healthcare remains a massive global problem. Over 700 million people in the world suffer  from hearing loss.

This is the technological challenge eMoyo is passionately taking on -  to remove these barriers to primary healthcare and to make a positive and meaningful change to the lives of millions of people in both developed and developing countries.

The KUDUwave, a complete digital; portable; telemetric electronic audiometer is eMoyo’s spearhead innovation in achieving our mission.

This technology solution was invented by eMoyo CEO and founder, Dr Dirk Koekemoer with ongoing development by a highly motivated research and development team comprising of biomedical, electronic, software and mechanical engineers, medical professionals and industrial design.

In this post, I want to concentrate on industrial design at eMoyo and the process we follow to design and develop medical devices of the future.

Our DESIGN PHILOSOPHY may sound like a paradox itself.

 

“The art of design is the complexity of making it simple”.

(Bernard Smith)

 

INDUSTRIAL DESIGN

Industrial design is the process of designing a physical product or device - that item  you use and interact with to perform a specific function. Because medical devices  typically involve physical contact with the patient as well as with the practitioner who places the device on a patient, we pay particular attention to ergonomics and anthropometrics - the dimensions of human anatomy.

This ensures that our products are user friendly, that they are easy and simple to operate and are as comfortable for the patient as possible. As there are many parts that are connected to each other to perform a function or medical test that make up a device, the challenge to make those functions simple for the user and patient, becomes exponentially more complex.

An example of this is the design process for an ear probe. This is a small device that needs to be inserted into the ear canal to perform ear hearing and tympanometry tests. The probe needs to have two small canals that connect to tubes which in turn connect to the main KUDUwave. One of these tubes carries sound waves at specific frequencies while the other allows the steady flow of alternating pressure  generated from a small pump inside the KUDUwave.

Before a test can be performed on a patient, the system needs to be checked for calibration. So a separate product needs to be designed (called a “Calpod”) consisting of three sealed cavities of different volumes, snapped into a silicone pod that has apertures allowing the probe to be inserted and sealed into any one cavity.  This is all assembled into a durable plastic housing.

The system can now be calibrated.

A special ear plug needs to fit and seal over the probe to conduct a clinical ear test. The human ear is a sensitive and complex anatomical structure. Insertion of a device into the ear must be done with utmost care so as not to cause damage or discomfort but at the same time ensuring the best possible seal in order to conduct the test.  

So as more functions and constraints are placed on the design of the probe, so does the complexity of design increase. In order to keep the user and patient interface as simple and user friendly as possible but not compromise on functionality, quality and ease of manufacture, requires us to apply ourselves fully to innovative design solutions.

In essence, industrial design is a problem-solving activity involving right brain creative thinking and left brain cognitive thinking.

To achieve simplicity as well as highly accurate functionality, we embark on a dedicated design process that involves research, anatomical referencing, conceptual design, preliminary CAD (Computer Aided Design) modelling, rapid prototyping (3D printing), manufacturing methods, materials technology, testing, safety considerations, compliance, means of production, final CAD engineering, user graphics and final production.

Essentially, we start with a creative process of “design thinking” through sketches and rough 3D digital modelling and refine the concept to technical perfection.

Sketching is not an activity merely to create nice drawings of concept ideas but is actually a highly complex process of “design thinking” where numerous design configurations are developed in a creative and cognitive thought process - something like trying to solve a Rubix Cube, where your brain is used as a computer to analyse various design options with the aim of reaching a workable solution.

Now imagine that the Rubix Cube you are trying to solve has no predetermined solution - that there are no block colours to guide your problem solving. This becomes even more complex when you need to bring other design considerations into the mix - safety issues in the design, assembly and form-and-fit to other parts, manufacturing constraints and maintenance considerations.

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STATE-OF-THE-ART   

We use state-of-the-art CAD systems (ALIAS Design) that enables a seamless process of design from sketches through to the CAD-CAM (Computer Aided Design - Computer Aided Manufacturing) process.

We can pull 2D sketches into our system and quickly develop a 3D model from them or we can sketch directly onto a 3D model or we can sketch digitally and develop 3D models from digital sketches.

When we have a workable concept in digital 3D form, we can build a prototype directly from our data on our in-house 3D printers.

This all aids to making our design process expedient and gives us room to explore and analyse design options quickly, to make decisions and achieve the best result. .  

This also means that we have digital connectivity to manufacturing processes anywhere in the world. Using design technology in this way allows us to shorten the design process significantly whilst ensuring accuracy and quality.

 

DESIGN LANGUAGE

Design language is another important aspect to the industrial design process that we take very seriously. Here we aim to develop a definitive “look and feel” for our devices. This involves more than just aesthetic appeal. Here we go in-depth into those visual cues that are more subliminal in nature, exploring the psychological aspects of design.

Most people resist to having medical tests performed on them. It is a natural human response to feel this way as a medical test involves some form of intrusion on one’s personal and physical space and the placement of probes on one’s body.

People are also sometimes wary of new technology being used on them - particularly a medical device. Humans generally resist change. However, a “good experience” with using new technology and repetitive good experiences mitigate this initial fear.     

Therefore, we place strong consideration to the patient’s subconscious perception of the device in relation to the medical or clinical test to be performed on him or her.

Consider for a moment, how the visual appearance and perception of a medical device can influence the user experience. If a device portrays the visual appearance or “design language” that suggested it could hurt or harm you, then a patient could become uncomfortable at the mere sight and thought of being subjected to a medical test by such a device even before the test has begun.

This could cause a patient to feel uneasy and become tense when they should be relaxed.

We also go to great lengths during the design process to make the test easy and simple for the operator to perform. This ensures that the test is done professionally and in the shortest time possible. Shorter test times also relax the patient and creates confidence to be re-tested at a later stage.

The visual anxiety that can be created for patients of medical devices is amplified in the case where children need to be tested. If the device has a calming design language then anxiety levels in children are more likely to be subdued.

There are many ways to achieve this desired effect as well as combinations of design features such as shaping surfaces with gentle and “softer curves” and mixing this with soothing colours. The challenge here is to simultaneously create a design language across our different products so that they deliver the desired subliminal effect as well as developing a strong design brand identity that visually embodies the design philosophy we aim to create and implement.

Ultimately our design philosophy is aimed at portraying a feeling of quality and trust in the underlying and often “hidden” technology innovation embedded in our devices.

The advent of the internet created not just a new technological revolution worldwide but also heralded  the age of postmodernism. This is because the internet is an “invisible” product. We cannot touch, hold or see data “information” as it literally travels through the air. Therefore the internet is not the product of modernity.

Yet on either end of this digital communication, a physical device is needed to access, make sense of and use the information. This may be a laptop, cellphone or an iPad.

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THE CONFLUENCE OF DESIGN

Industrial design can also be defined as combining art and engineering/technology.

The progress of humanity through the ages is  mirrored by iconic art movements. These reflect the social, cultural and technological advancements and changes in mankind - demonstrating how powerful our thought processes and actions have changed the way we think and live.

Art movements such as Realism, Cubism, Impressionism and Futurism reflect those periods of major shifts in our history that jolted mankind onto another path. And many iconic works of art bear witness to how creativity, in all forms, progressively pushes mankind into a new reality.

On the engineering/technology front, industrial design products also reflect this progress. Iconic designs of cars, aeroplanes and trains are products of the Industrial Revolution and the development of industrial cities which were glorified as modernity by the avant-garde artistic movement Futurism, founded by a manifesto in 1909 in Italy.

Over a hundred years later we can hold another iconic product in the palm of our hand. We could say that this is also a product of modernity. It has functions like buttons that we can press. It is a physical “device” that is made in an industrial form by a mass manufacturing process.

But this physical device belies the extraordinary power of what it can do and how it has changed the way people live and think by those functions that are invisible. Because this device has functions we cannot see but that we can use, it becomes a paradox to itself as it is both a product of modernity as well as being postmodern at the same time.

I am speaking of the iPhone.

You may wonder why this is important or even relevant?

Firstly, it is interesting to note that the iPhone could be seen as a combination of two art/social movements, whereas previous movements and products were mainly from the domain of one movement.

 

Interesting. Maybe. But important or relevant?

Well, it becomes more interesting. Steve Jobs, CEO and pioneer of Apple Inc. once commented on the industrial design of their products, saying they were the result of the confluence of art and technology.

 

Or the confluence of modernity with postmodernity?

The reason why the iPhone is so important and relevant in this discourse is because this device (and similar products) has given humankind “access” to information and communication anywhere in the world like never before..

 

This “access” has changed lives.

Anyone with an iPhone can send/receive messages, access information, send emails and documents, take photographs, make/send messages, listen to music, watch movies, get the latest news, download and use apps and go on facebook.

This device, that fits in your pocket, is one of the most powerful personal tools that has changed and revolutionized the way the world works, thinks and lives. Yet for all the complex technology, visible or invisible, the iPhone is simple to use.

If I had to choose three words to describe the power, importance and relevance of the iPhone, they would be:

Simple. Useful.  Access.   

The advent of the fourth industrial revolution will no doubt create new and more complex technologies. Humans will need to interact with and use these complex innovations. Technological progress is ultimately aimed at making the lives of people better. Better communication, better transport, better living conditions and better healthcare.

The technological progress of humankind is exponential. I believe the future trajectory of this trend  will enter a space where innovation is driven by multi-disciplinary interaction.

This has already started. In the field of industrial design, research using powerful Computer Aided Design software use algorithms drawn from the molecular structure of plant stems to generate new structures that are stronger and lighter.

Similar projects are happening in the biomedical field where industrial design, genetics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, robotics and artificial intelligence come together to develop advanced implants and prosthetics.    

Our design philosophy at eMoyo of complexity to achieve simplicity is a dedicated quest to design world-class medical devices that are useful, simple to use and will give access to primary health care for millions of people.

Ours is not a stagnant design philosophy. It is a dynamic work in progress, finely tuned to the changing nature of our technology development and cognitive consideration to the people who will use our technology and devices.

 

Complexity = simplicity.

Makes sense.

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