‘9 out of 10 dentists’ – the importance of user-centred design
My spouse is a dentist – and she is quite indifferent to product design. Despite this, she recently found herself in an ideal position to compare the design of two competing products, while working alternate days in two separate dental clinics. Each clinic was kitted out with different equipment, meaning she was effectively enrolled in her own private comparative clinical study, able to assess the design and usability of each device. Mostly, she found she could adjust easily when moving from one set of equipment to the other, with one notable exception. For plaque removal, one clinic was equipped with a device which I’ll call Device A, while the other had, you guessed it, Device B.
These two devices ostensibly performed the same function: grinding and scraping plaque from teeth and sucking it out of the mouth – pretty standard dental techniques that most patients have experienced. Working with Device A, she found she could complete the plaque removal in 15-20 minutes, while Device B would require 30-40 minutes. That’s a significant difference, with Device B resulting in roughly half as many patients attended to across a day. Since dentists in France are paid per procedure – either by the patient, social security or insurance – this additional time spent has a very real impact on revenue.
When raising the issue with her peers, my spouse found that this was a common issue experienced with Device B, with most dentists preferring Device A by a significant margin. Deciding to take her investigation a step further, she went on to ask the manufacturer of Device B if they were aware of this potential flaw in their product. Their official line was that their device ‘provided a gentler experience for patients’. While this is a potential benefit, it is debatable as to whether this justifies such a difference in product performance. Likewise, some patients might prefer to spend as little time as possible in the dental chair, versus a longer, more comfortable experience.
This example highlights a common issue in medical device development – user-centred design is often not made a priority. One of the key reasons for this is due to what is required by the regulations.