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The 10 principles of good medical design

Medical product design carries a huge responsibility, as we’re developing products with which millions of people worldwide will have to interact on a daily basis. Products that quite literally have the opportunity to change and save lives. Products which may remain on the market for ten years or more, influencing the way people manage their health or the health of others.

Medical product designers must therefore make decisions that will stand the test of time, and that suit the broadest spectrum of users as these will be people who often can’t exercise choice over the products they are offered. How do we ensure that the decisions we make result in well-designed products? We’re not the first generation of designers to have had this dilemma. I’ve written about one of my biggest design influences, Dieter Rams, before in Insight and feel that once again medical product designers can learn much from his approach to design.

Dieter Rams is a highly influential German industrial designer who is famed for his functionalist approach to design and his celebrated career as Chief of Design at electronic devices manufacturer Braun.

Towards the end of the 1970s, Dieter Rams was becoming increasingly aware of the influence he was having on the world around him through the products he was creating. Describing the world as “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises.” he asked himself an important question: is my design good design?

To help inform the design decisions he was making, Rams captured what he believed to be the ten most important principles for what he considered was good design.

I’ve taken a fresh look at these ten principles and reflected on their relevance to the sector we serve — medical product development.

  • DR: Dieter Rams
  • PG: Paul Greenhalgh

1. Good design is innovative

DR: The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

PG: Innovation in such a risk averse industry can be challenging. Innovations from other analogous industries have huge potential for improving the usefulness of medical devices, but we shouldn’t add technology for the sake of it. Innovation should focus on addressing real needs and harnessing the benefits of new technology, not forcing it into products where it’s not needed.

2. Good design is useful

DR: A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasises the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

PG: Medical products are designed to do a very important job. They are neither ornamental nor objects of desire. Good design focuses on identifying and addressing the key ‘jobs to be done’ in a way that is compatible with the lives of the people who use the product.

3. Good design is aesthetic

DR: The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

PG: The way a medical product looks and feels can influence the emotional connection with its user. Fundamentally, aesthetics should be driven by the function of the product but where appropriate can be used to engage a user and evoke a specific emotion.

4. Good design is understandable

DR: It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.

PG: A medical product must be intuitive on first and repeat use. It should be easy to learn and easy to remember. It should achieve a high level of safe usability throughout its lifecycle. It should be respectful of the varying cognitive abilities of the user.

5. Good design is unobtrusive

DR: Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

PG: A medical product should integrate seamlessly into the user’s lifestyle. Whilst there is a requirement to provide safety critical information and guard against incorrect use, consideration must be given to how the device will be perceived in the context of the ‘other’ products surrounding the user.

6. Good design is honest

DR: It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

PG: A medical product must not promise more than it can deliver. Persistence and adherence is of utmost importance in the context of compliant use. The product should not try to hide any negative aspects of the therapy or service it provides, or user trust may be affected.

7. Good design is long-lasting

DR: It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years — even in today’s throwaway society.

PG: Medical products cannot adhere to latest fashions and trends because the time to market is too long and the cost to update is often prohibitive. Colours, features and details which are likely to ‘age’ should be carefully justified and limited to parts of the device which are easiest to update, such as labelling, graphics, packaging and GUI.

8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail

DR: Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user.

PG: Medical product design starts and ends with the user. Users need to feel confident before, during and after use, and quality and attention to detail will help encourage this confidence. A rigorous design process should be adopted to ensure only real needs are addressed – time should be spent perfecting the minimum number of features and interactions.

9. Good design is environmentally friendly

DR: Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimises physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

PG: As recyclability is often not possible in the medical sector, consideration should be given to the overall impact of a product, and the material and manufacturing processes used to produce it. Can the architecture support partial reuse, for example, or can the simplicity of a design reduce the amount of material used?

10. Good design is as little design as possible

DR: Less, but better — because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

PG: We should strive for simplicity and elegance in all aspects of medical product design where every feature and function must be justified. If they are not essential to improving usability, appeal or robustness they should be removed. We should not attempt to dress products by adding superficial aesthetic details. The products we create should not feel ‘over designed’.

I’m not going to claim that our design approach is revolutionary, in fact it’s fairly obvious that we’re following in the footsteps of great designers whose work we respect and whose approach to design we feel is appropriate to medical product development. But medical product design is a bit different, and we can’t pretend otherwise. Over the years, we’ve had to develop our own ways of doing things to ensure our approach is relevant in an industry where a great deal of emphasis is put on safety and risk — an industry where we have to justify and validate every design decision that we make.


About Paul
As Director of Design, Paul is a passionate advocate of the importance of ‘good design’ and is involved in all stages of product development from front end innovation to detailed design for manufacture.

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