There are a number of successful approaches designers can take when developing a new medical device. However, as the market transforms with outpatients being the primary users of many devices over health care professionals, the critical design issues transform as well. This article looks at designing medical devices that are to be used by the outpatients themselves.


Unlike medical devices used in a hospital setting that are often more about function than form, in-home devices demand a different design approach in order to meet outpatients’ needs. It’s important to observe the user’s emotions, behaviors, and interactions with a device at the early stages of concept development, which impacts the initial design direction and provides guidance throughout the engineering development cycle. Through user feedback and evaluations, the true usability needs of a device—how it’s handled, where it’s stored, and the varying conditions surrounding its use—can be understood. At this point, the design can be improved upon to better suit outpatients’ expectations concerning the device look, functionality, and ease of use.

Successfully creating something for the outpatient involves an organized, professional, and objective evaluation process that integrates industrial design, engineering, and user experience from the start. Through research, a series of interview sessions, and usability testing, designers are able to better understand people’s reactions to a device and the types of features they seek, in addition to the device’s necessary functionality and its adaptability to where and how people plan to use the device.

Speck Design has developed several wearable devices. Since these devices are regularly worn on the patient’s body, the design requirements must go beyond simple function and incorporate comfort, texture, portability, and other considerations. The main ingredient in creating a successful wearable device is user acceptability—long-term comfort, size, and aesthetics are among the key factors that can improve user compliance. For example, in the development of an intranasal drug delivery system for Jazz Pharmaceuticals, Speck Design needed to consider users of various ages and how the device would be used and carried throughout the day. The device, which was intended for everyday use, needed to fit spaces as small as a pants pocket. Speck Design worked with the client to design a system that was compact and easy to carry, but design features were also added that gave it a look and feel that appealed to many different users.

Designers and engineers need to create something that pleases the user’s senses and emotions based on how they interact with the device. In the case of in-home use medical devices, outpatients seek something with an unobtrusive shape that is friendly and inviting, yet has a certain “cool factor.” These attributes can serve as motivations for using the product, especially in therapy devices where a clunky design can deter the outpatient from wearing the device, even if it’s intended to improve their lives. When Speck Design partnered with a medical device company to design a glucose meter for diabetes patients, it sought to create an intuitive product with a new aesthetic and user interface that combined simplicity with appeal—the meter needed to be non-threatening and not resemble a medical instrument. The goal was achieved through multiple iterations of various forms exemplifying different aesthetics; all while working closely with the client’s marketing team to link the design to its consumer-products oriented marketing strategy.

In traditional medical device development, products are mostly being designed from the perspective of the health care professionals. As more medical devices are being developed with outpatients as the primary interface, designers need to adapt to their mindset, which ultimately drives the success of the product in the marketplace. The goal is not simply designing a device that people need to use, but focusing on delivering a product that they will want to use.

Shigeru Tanaka is director of engineering, specializing in medical devices at Speck Design, a product strategy and design firm headquartered in Silicon Valley.