In all parts of life we surround ourselves with carefully curated objects. Things we deem valuable which speak to who we are as people. They become part of our own personal exhibition, showcasing to the world who we are as an individual, from the way we dress, the cars we drive, to the phones we use and the furniture we fill our homes with. Those of us living with a health condition often rely on devices and objects which we do not get to choose, and can often contradict our curated identity.
Living with a health condition can be an unpredictable and unpleasant experience, and with the addition of a medical aid thrust into our lives it can add further interruption to our lifestyle, becoming a constant reminder of our health. These aids can act as a badge or a beacon which shout to onlookers “look at me, I am ill, my body is less able than yours”. A badge which can easily create a negative stereotype. The nerdy kid with an asthma inhaler. The weak and elderly with mobility aids.
Because of these negative connotations, you’d be forgiven if you become self-conscious – compromising your lifestyle around your aid, or worse, choosing to neglect your aid and health for your lifestyle. Scenarios such as “will I be ridiculed by my classmates if I have to use it during class?” or “I rarely go on beach holidays any more because I don’t feel good in a bikini with my insulin pump on show”, highlight how important the relationship between a device and your personal identity can be.
The irony here is that these devices are enabling objects – tools designed to improve your quality of life, yet through their experience and existing connotations they become surrounded by negativity, frustration and neglect. So why should they project a negative image? Why can’t they be seen in a positive light, something which feels familiar, fitting comfortably amongst your carefully curated environment? To me, it’s all about how we design the objects to fit into your lifestyle.
Exhibit A – The elusive benefit
In our industry, millions of dollars and man-hours go into creating devices which are safe and effective in the hands of users – but when it comes to meeting the emotional needs of the individuals who interact with these objects on a daily basis, are we giving them fair consideration? The benefits of influencing the way someone feels about their therapy is much harder to quantify especially through design when compared to factors such as technical robustness or pure usability. Yet as elusive as they may be, the benefits are there and consumer health is a great place to look for inspiration – particularly in relation to engagement, an aspect that can help us tackle the ongoing issues of compliance and adherence.
The benefits of influencing the way someone feels about their therapy is much harder to quantify especially through design
Fitbit and Apple Watch may be the obvious poster boys, but I’d like to draw your attention to Sabi and Withings. These health related companies take a design driven approach into your lifestyle, by focusing on an experience beyond the considerations of simply working.
Sabi have examined and improved upon some of the pitfalls of long-standing traditions surrounding health aids, to produce inclusively designed alternatives which appeal to a much broader range of consumers. Their products include a cohesive assistive bathroom range including an easy to install attractive grab rail – void of stigma and a pill management system which removes fiddly interaction for an aesthetically pleasing alternative. They have created intuitive, easy to use products that wouldn’t look out of place in the hands of the most fashion conscious consumers.
Pill Box by Sabi
Withings create smarter products for healthy living, reinventing ritualistic scenarios and everyday objects we already use, such as the wristwatch, weighing scales or a thermometer, products which also monitor your lifestyle and activity to learn more about your health.
Designed in an elegant non-clinical manner, honest to their purpose and aesthetically sensitive to their environment, they take a fresh look at the image a healthcare product can portray – as Withings themselves put it…
“Styled for life. Built for health.”
In parallel to the growth of these new players in the healthcare field, we are beginning to see a positive social change in attitudes towards disability and illness. The 2012 Paralympic games has left a lasting legacy through the positive inclusive coverage in the media, and more recently we’ve seen global coverage of Sierra Sandison proudly showing off her insulin pump throughout her victory in the Miss Idaho competition. Changes like these suggest we may be reaching a tipping point where medical assistive devices are becoming accepted and even celebrated as part of our identity. Maybe now is the perfect time to begin thinking differently about how we design these objects.
Exhibit B – Nobody wants an aid
During my university major I began exploring this challenge and posed the question, “Can medical be beautiful?” I chose an area which I believed had become stagnant, surrounded by negative stigma and a confusing experience for all involved – hearing aids. Spectacles were once a stigmatised visual aid and over time have transcended into objects with connotations of style and intelligence. Why can’t hearing aids follow a similar path?
I knew that to break the stigma I needed to not only differentiate physically from the current stereotype, but also change branding, retail and marketing – the entire experience.
Through an in-depth investigation and time spent putting myself in the user’s shoes, I found that whilst most of the users I spoke to told me they were happy with their devices, mainly because they can now hear better and are grateful for that privilege, their body language of tucking the aid behind their hair or choosing a discreet grey or beige coloured device suggested otherwise, almost as if they’d feel guilty complaining about a device which improved their quality of life.
I knew that to break the stigma I needed to not only differentiate physically from the current stereotype, but also change branding, retail and marketing – the entire experience. I even went as far as removing the term “hearing aid” from all my content the devices were now Hearwear.
Instead of being designed to be hidden, the new object was designed to have presence, in a sophisticated yet subtle way. The introduction of high quality materials such as gold and silver gave the object properties similar to that of a fine watch or jewellery. The straight profile broke away from the traditional stereotype of how a hearing aid should look, providing an added benefit of conforming to the individual ear. A small touch-point to help the user feel like this device is theirs, part of their identity, unique to them. All interactions and features were reduced and simplified – removing the confusion and intimidation of previous designs.
The brand, ‘Listen Carefully‘, reflected these values in its name, tone of voice, and sales and marketing strategy. The devices would be sold in large department stores alongside fashion and tech brands, and advertised in the likes of GQ and Vogue to further break the medical stereotype. The product would speak for itself, so the brand could focus on making the user feel welcome and stylish.
Exhibit C – One small step
The reality is that the highly regulated products we develop often have constraints which prevent us doing many of these things – we have to be careful not only what we say on drug packaging but even how we say it. It’s pretty unlikely that we’ll fi nd ourselves in a situation any time soon where our end users can select their preferred device from a shelf in a department store. But we can’t ignore the user benefits of this holistically considered experience. If we can’t provide end users with a choice, can we persuade the medical industry to acknowledge that these factors might be important, and ultimately design products which better fit the user’s environment and lifestyle?
Maybe the first step is to forget that these are medical objects all together. Let’s think of them as a vehicle for a technology which provides a solution to a problem. If we start there, we can begin to design an object that fits with its surroundings.
If we consider the end environment these objects will be used in, what values and traits would we begin to look for in an object if we had the choice? Would cheap plastic really be the right material for a device with a long lifespan? Or would beautifully polished ceramic or even glass be more appropriate? Does a scientific looking nebulizer really fit in someone’s home environment? Or could it and other home-use devices be designed to sit more comfortably with the furniture you might find in a modern living space?
I truly believe that considerations like these will make for a better life, affecting daily routines in a positive way. If anything, it communicates that someone cares, that our industry cares. It tells the patient that “we aren’t just going to provide you with an aid to your ailment, we have considered that you are a human being with needs and wants, we have thought about how you are going to use this device, how it will fit with your life and your personal make-up”. If we begin to take this different approach, celebrating the objects for what they are and the environment they exist within – can we begin to help change the way people feel about their assistive devices? I’d like to think so, and hopefully we can see medical products become a proud addition to our personal exhibition.