Innovative technology without this main ingredient will fail every time. And failure is not cheap.

One of my favorite places to see upcoming innovation is the Design of Medical Devices conference at the University of Minnesota every spring. I just returned from the conference and have to say it was like drinking from the fire hose in terms of being immersed in new concepts.

I noticed a disturbing trend however. So much of the medical device design was coming from the academic side of the world, and because of this many of the device concepts were the celebration of a new technology idea or method. The problem with many of these great and very creative ideas was that they may not have been addressing the right problem.

It seemed that there was a lot of excitement around each technology or device idea, but I found myself asking, “is this what the user would want? Is this what the user needs? Does it solve the problems most important to the users?”

Oftentimes scientists and engineers are ill-suited to presuppose the correct solution to a users need. This is where human centered work comes in. Discovering user needs is an art practiced by industrial designers, human factors engineers, and usability professionals. Knowing what these true needs are FIRST is the best way to creating an device that is a true innovation, and to me, true innovation means that it is adopted by the users and widely accepted in the marketplace. I saw too many ideas this week that were interesting technology ideas, but were not addressing the user needs in the best way.

One of my favorite mentors, Walter Herbst, once said, “Without onsite observation you will fail every time.”  To me, that kind of failure means losing money. Lots of money. Developing an ill-conceived idea all the way to clinical trials is not cheap.

One shining exception was a presentation by Vanderbilt University’s Karl Zelik who demonstrated how his team examined the problem and the users needs first, before moving into solutions that might integrate various technologies. Zelik stated, “Beware of designing interventions that target the wrong outcomes.” Zelik’s comments were as inspiring as his presentation in which he shared product design research experiences developing spinal devices and ankle orthotics, while encouraging all of us to look to non-intuitive biologic mechanisms for the gems of creative ideas. Check out Dr. Zelik’s fascinating work here:

Minnesota’s Pediatric Device Innovation Consortium also gave a great session focusing on the topic of user needs to drive development and how to properly discover them. I love the work that the consortium is doing to help kids and find solutions to pediatric healthcare problems.

In our product development work at Kablooe, I have found the discovery and definition of user needs to be the most critical component of successful development, and this is why we have created such a robust method for uncovering these nuggets and using them as a foundation for medical device development.

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