Madlene Lahtivuori is Interaction Designer MA at Ergonomidesign

Inclusive Design Approach in the World of Life Science

Madlene Lahtivuori is Interaction Designer MA at Ergonomidesign

Through Inclusive Design, people are given the opportunity to continue doing the things that provide them with quality of life. It’s also about using advanced technology without making things complicated and putting user needs first, without sacrificing profit or aesthetic advantages.

Inclusive Design is an approach aimed at making products usable for as many users as possible, regardless of ability or age. Through Inclusive Design, people are given the opportunity to continue doing the things that provide them with quality of life. It is also about gaining knowledge of how to use advanced technology without making things complicated and putting user needs first, without sacrificing profit or aesthetic advantages.

The User PyramidIn the med-tech field, Inclusive Design is especially important, since these user groups have very high demands on usability of the products and services they need due to their vulnerable position. 

Over the years we have developed many products that can be used by a broad user group. During the 70’s and 80’s, our studies focused on understanding difficulties in daily activities for people with mainly physical disabilities. Since then the development within inclusive design has been to also consider cognitive disabilities as well as socio-cultural factors. Our objective has always been to enhance the quality of life for people. In our early works we identified the pyramid of needs, ranging from disabled, reduced capability to fully capable. This straightforward model is still valid today within all areas, as it helps identify people with the capabilities that challenge and extend the interpretation of the design brief (see The User Pyramid).

Whenever we observe or talk to users, we learn not only about which physical movements or cognitive actions they cannot perform, but also which ones they are able to perform. This is equally important. Our aim is to always include “critical users”, meaning people who put greater demands on a product, service or environment and therefore challenge it in ways beyond that of the average user. 

This is not only to incorporate their ideas and needs into the design solution but also to make it available to people without disabilities. 

Inclusive design and medical devices

We see an interesting shift in the mentality of even the largest medical companies, increasingly willing to invest in user research and the processes necessary in making these types of products and services inclusive. We also see a shift towards caring for both the physical product and the user interface, thus taking a holistic approach to the user experience.

Within the world of Life Science there is a great diversity in products, ranging from small handhelds to large ICU machines. We can divide them into two categories: professional tools which are those mainly used by professionals, and personal medical devices, meaning those used by private persons.

Let’s dive into the first category, professional tools. In this case, more so than the other, there is a “one product fits all” approach. Meaning there is usually no way to personalize it or modify it to suit your personal requirements yet there the user group is much more diverse in every aspect. The product is usually chosen for you by someone else, leaving little to no room for personal choice in the selection. The option you are left with is to “cope with it” to your best ability. This is why it is very important that the design itself tries it’s hardest to accommodate as many categories of users as possible, to give them a fair chance to understand and relate to the product that is their professional tool. 

Other than the professional healthcare, there is a secondary user group,  the patient and their relatives. This group is often overlooked. They seldom interact physically with the product but they are nevertheless exposed to it and have a relationship with it. We see a need to also include this user group into the design process, if only on an emotional and cognitive level. Being the patient or relative can be intimidating and whatever we can do to make it easier, we should try to do so, but without compromising the professional properties of the product.

The Preotact Injection Pen
The Preotact Injection Pen designed by Ergonomidesign for Nycomed, for treating osteoporosis, is an example of how an inclusive design approach can enlarge the group of potential users.The innovative design with a side trigger embraces many more potential users, able to manage the pen themselves and no longer be dependent on others. Including emotional aspects in the design process: to make the injection pen less intimidating, the designers incorporated an integrated needle guard that shields the needle from sight. The injection pen also has a ‘feminine
and friendly touch’ and looks less like a medical device.

If we look at the second category, personal medical devices, the scenario is somewhat different. Today this segment resembles commercial products more, compared to the first category. The range of choices is not as vast as within the purely commercial field (mobile phones for example) but there is definitely a personalization and customization trend also in personal medical devices. 

Emotional aspects are especially important in this field. Medical devices are usually considered to be intimidating and since it is something you live with and carry with you, you want to have a good relationship to the product as well as the company providing the product. Also in this product category, there is a secondary user group. In this case it consists of relatives and healthcare professionals.  

Good design enables, bad design disables

A lot of new technology can be very suitable for people who make a greater demand on products. For example, technology that supports novel ways of gesture interaction can be valuable for people with dexterity problems, diminished eyesight or where there is demand for less cognitive load. These are still technical tools and mere enablers and they need to be designed carefully to fit it’s purpose. Today we have better prerequisites than a few years back in terms of the knowledge of natural gesture interaction, clearer and crisper screens, larger screens to a reduced cost etc. We continuously learn how to make best use of these tools and we need to be open to experiment and prototype solutions involving both “critical” and “non-critical” users. 

There is an increased awareness within politics and business to create greater opportunity for this type of user research and the type of process necessary for making these products and services inclusive. Here are three important aspects of why the inclusive approach is important:

  • In a life cycle perspective it concerns us all;
  • It is about everybody being able to participate in our society; and 
  • It is about business and expanding the target group. 

Since there are more products and services out there carrying the mindset of Inclusive Design today than five years ago, there are more successful business cases to show the rest of the industry and get others motivated to follow. In our experience, the Inclusive Design approach can often serve as a key to more innovative solutions.

The more research with trial and error, the more we know. The more we are allowed to experiment, the more we learn.  There is a raised level of knowledge and awareness today about the human functions for different people and different abilities in different stages of life, due to the fact that we allow ourselves to experiment. This is a path worth walking further into, to make the quality of life even greater for all.