Posted Monday, 7 May 2012
By David Mellonie, for the Design Institute of Australia
‘There are no dumb users, only dumb products.’
It’s not immediately apparent why car headlamps and cigarette lighters have anything to do with baby incubators, websites, the Apple Corporation, and call centres, but there is a connection.
Nearly everyone has had the experience of trying to navigate through a website that has truckloads of bells and whistles – but nothing that helps you achieve what you want to do easily and quickly.
Or trying to solve a problem with your phone or your bank (‘Your call is important to us’) – but only after you’ve negotiated ten sets of menu options and waited another twenty minutes in order to speak to poor, overworked ‘Danny’ or ‘Clare’ in deepest India.
That’s what it’s like to use a product or service that has forgotten the reason for its existence.
The needs of the user have been sublimated to that of the technology; a fatal flaw in any design.
And that’s why businesses like Apple, and software like Flash, first saw the light of day.
Created by nerds, admittedly, but nerds who saw a market niche in the lumbering, user-unfriendly world of PCs and HTML programming.
They recognised that lots of people had no interest in complexity for its own sake and simply wanted something that was intuitive, user-friendly and worked first time, straight out of the box.
Hence the first commandment in Apple’s marketing philosophy in 1977, as espoused by the then head of marketing, Mike Markkula, started with Empathy: ‘We will truly understand (our customers’) needs better than any other company.’
It’s a lesson not just restricted to product designers, but every design category.
Whether it’s jewellery or architecture, landscapes or textiles, if the designer ignores or forgets the wishes of the user, dissatisfaction is the inevitable result.
Putting the user first and foremost in the design matrix is the underlying philosophy behind an inspirational, award-winning, non-profit American design studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called ‘Design that Matters’.
Design that Matters (DtM) collaborates with leading social entrepreneurs and hundreds of volunteers to design new products and services for the poor in developing countries.
Its founder and CEO is Timothy Prestero, who quit his PhD course in 2001 to start Design that Matters, and last year published a thought-provoking discussion paper in ‘Innovations’, a quarterly journal published by MIT Press in India.
Prestero champions the cause of ‘empathy in design’, and says that products should always be designed for the people that are going to be using them, rather than as a platform for designers’ egos or a vehicle for the latest available technology.
‘In my work, I see two distinct approaches to problem-solving with technical innovation: the invention approach and the design approach,’ explains Prestero in his article.
‘In the invention-centric approach, the inventor begins by specifying the technology that they think will solve the problem.
‘The inventor then attempts to fit the technology to the problem through an iterative series of design refinements.
‘Finally, having tweaked and changed the product into what the inventor hopes will be a useful tool, they then go in search of a specific user group or market segment for which the product is a match.
‘The design approach is … (where) … design starts with the user and then goes in search of the technology.’
In other words, good product design puts the user first and then goes in search of the design solution.
‘The principal difference between the examples of design and invention described above is the demand for empathy: the ability to imagine the world from someone else’s perspective,’ says Prestero.
‘The first component of empathy is the understanding that there are no “dumb users,” only dumb products.’
DtM has produced several products that highlight this credo, including the NeoNurture ‘Car Parts’ baby incubator – which is where the headlamps and cigarette lighter are of relevance.
The story behind the NeoNurture incubator shows the exhaustive effort that DtM undertakes to identify the most practical, cost effective design solutions to users’ requirements.
In the case of the incubator, DtM found out that conventional incubators designed for industrialised countries could cost up to US$30,000 each, a figure far beyond the reach of many developing nations.
But what was even more disturbing was that a study by the Engineering World Health group at Duke University found that up to 98% of donated medical equipment in developing countries was broken within five years.
The parts and maintenance required were often simple, sometimes costing only a few cents, but may be totally unavailable in the countries the equipment is donated to.
‘After seeing countless piles of discarded medical device donations behind every hospital we visited overseas, we started asking the question, "What does gets fixed?"’ asked the team at DtM.
The answer was the car.
‘Automobiles are one of the few technologies that are reliably repaired in rural communities,’ said DtM.
‘Is it possible to design an incubator such that, if you know how to fix a car, you can figure out how to fix this incubator?’
The DtM team decided that it was, and the NeoNurture concept was born.
NeoNurture takes advantage of the abundant local car parts supply chain and the knowledge of auto technicians in developing countries by using a range of simple, easily repairable automotive parts as the basis for the incubator.
Amongst other components, it uses sealed-beam headlights as the heating element for the incubator, a dashboard fan for convective heat circulation, signal lights and a door chime for alarms, and a motorcycle battery and a car cigarette lighter provide backup power during incubator transport and the frequent power outages that often occur in impoverished countries.
It may not embody the sweeping curves, touch screens and exotic elements commonly associated with the latest in technology, but it’s simple, relatively cheap, does exactly what it’s designed to do (save lives), and won’t end up in the rubbish heap at the back of a hospital because it’s lacking an unobtainable sixty cent fuse.
NeoNurture has two distinct parts: the bassinet and the base, with the bassinet being detachable from the base and having a surrounding handle that allows two people to easily carry the newborn up and down stairs and over uneven ground – an important feature in countries where infants often need to be carried long distances between the delivery room and the newborn intensive care unit (NICU).
The bassinet houses all of the mechanical systems for the incubator, allowing the bassinet to stay in the delivery room, maintaining a constant temperature until the newborn is ready for transporting elsewhere.
The body of the incubator houses a door chime and signal lights which alert healthcare workers when the temperature of the baby or the environment rises or falls out of range, and it has built-in power regulation to protect against voltage spikes (the source of 95% of damage caused to donated incubators).
The bassinet canopy opens along a single hinge, providing three-sided access to the baby during medical procedures, a feature currently limited to only the most expensive incubator models.
The incubator can maintain a level position as well as two positions tilting ten degrees to the left or right, thanks to integrated ‘mating curves’ in the base and body that eliminate the need for expensive, automated systems to power the tilting action.
A range of digital and analogue controls provides easy reading and easy repairs if needed.
DtM has also developed the Firefly crib, which uses all-enveloping phototherapy to prevent jaundice in newborn infants, and is currently undergoing clinical trials in hospitals in Vietnam; the Kinkajou microfilm projector that helps people learn to read in countries where access to power and light is restricted; and a low cost, easy to use, intravenous drip controller that can be operated by family members where nursing staff are not always available.
‘Despite enormous budgets for R&D and marketing, most new products and new technologies created for the commercial market in the industrialised world fail to achieve scale,’ claims Prestero.
‘In poor countries, the statistics are even worse: we find very few examples of successful appropriate technologies.’
‘At DtM, our goal in every product development process is the contrarian mantra: “Fail as fast as possible.”
‘Product development is an expensive process and fraught with risk.
‘It is critical to get products in front of users at the earliest possible stages of design.
‘As (American designer, author and IDEO partner) Diego Rodriguez wrote, “Prototype as if you are right. Listen as if you are wrong.”
‘Frequent user course corrections increases the efficiency of the product optimisation process.’
It’s an inspirational design studio, a valuable journal article, and full of practical insights for all designers.
(Images courtesy of Design that Matters.)Return to the news list
‘ “It looks good” is the worst feedback you can get.’