Have you ever wondered what angels sound like? We’re not positive, but we think they might sound like the clickity-clack of a giant split-flap display.
If you happened to pass through Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station prior to 2019, you probably noticed the giant, vintage split-flap display that announced train arrivals and departures. Part of 30th Street’s soundtrack, the flips of those flaps were unique and oddly soothing.
To widespread dismay, Amtrak took the sign down last January because it no longer met ADA accessibility laws. Like everyone else, we were sad to see it go, and it got us talking about split flaps. One fateful Friday evening, all of our talking led to the discovery of a starter split-flap display project meticulously crafted by software engineer, Scott Bezek. If nothing else, we had to give this project a shot.
We weren’t setting out to invent something radically different, but we wanted to prove to ourselves that we could make our own split flap.
Split Flaps: Impractical, But So Cool
It didn’t take long for us to realize our project might be an exercise in futility. Our early research wasn’t promising. We discovered that split flap modules are both expensive and prone to breaking. And, of course, they can’t display nearly as much information as pixelated displays.
Our early research wasn’t promising. We discovered that split flap modules are both expensive and prone to breaking.
On the other hand, they’re a novel way to convey information, and we’ve never let impracticability stop us from pursuing a side project. As part of our research we came across companies like Oat Foundry and Vestaboard, which make Internet-connected split flaps that display messages sent from apps — and we ended up wanting one for the office.
But boards like those can cost upwards of $2,000, and since they’re custom-made, they take a while to ship. We knew that by building a split flap in-house, we’d be able to get it up and running faster, and we’d have a lot more flexibility.
Assembling Our Flap Jawn
To get started, we used the open-source model to control the rotation of the flaps. Each character has forty flaps and is controlled by a stepper motor and a simple encoder, which is basically a magnet that goes around on a wheel. There’s a hall-effect magnet sensor at a fixed position, and that indicates start and stop, or where home is. Unfortunately, the hardware costs add up, even when your time and 3D printing is considered free. We decided to limit our project to four split flaps, and even on that small scale, we still spent a couple hundred dollars on parts.
One of our first iterations ran perfectly, but it was silent. It didn’t make the flip-flap sound that split flaps are known for, and we couldn’t have a split flap without the flip flap. With some fiddling and testing, we determined that the interference between the flap and the casework top creates the soothing, uniform flapping sound.
One of our first iterations ran perfectly, but it was silent. It didn’t make the flip-flap — and we couldn’t have a split flap without the flip flap.
We asked John Kurcheski, our resident model maker and all-around model citizen, if he’d help us create an enclosure for the split flap, and he jumped onboard immediately. We all collaborated on a sketch, and John got to work creating the box, laser-cutting some brackets, adding LED lighting, and making the final product look pretty. Fitting all the components inside casework wasn’t easy, and John showed us why he’s the king of cable management — one of the most boring sounding and yet critical pieces of the puzzle.
Getting Creative With Four Characters
Along the way, we started asking ourselves what we could do with a four-character split flap, besides spell four-letter words. It just so happened that the legendary Bresslergroup company-wide shuffleboard tournament was reaching the final matches in the coming weeks. Our colleague chimed in and suggested that we use the split flap as a scoreboard, with two characters representing each side.
After that we went straight into scoreboard mode. We decided we wanted people to be able to control the scoreboard both physically and from the other side of the shuffleboard table via an app.
We started asking ourselves what we could do with a four-character split flap, besides spell four-letter words.
That’s where Brian’s software engineering expertise came into play. He architected and designed a Web application that anyone can access. The application runs on AWS using a serverless architecture to reduce cost and leverages IoT Core to communicate with the split flaps.
To prevent anyone in the world from toying with the score, users need to authenticate themselves. When you open the app, you will be prompted to press the green button on the split flap display proving that you are physically present with the device. You’re then authenticated for the rest of the day and can control the scoreboard remotely from wherever you are.
Developing authentication against a physical device in real time can be tricky, but it’s also one of our favorite features.
Adding Clock and Quiet Modes
The split flap was a success at the shuffleboard tournament, but afterwards it looked a bit sad and lonely. Unless we were playing shuffleboard it was purposeless, and to be honest, it was kind of boring. We needed a way to make it more useful, so we came up with “clock mode.”
If you hold the main button on the split flap for five seconds, it turns into a timekeeper. At first, at least one character would go through a full rotation of forty flaps every minute in order to progress to the next number. Even though the sound is beautiful, that much flapping would’ve been really annoying to anyone within hearing distance. We changed things up a bit, so instead of going through a full rotation to change characters, a single flap drops — our “stealth” or “quiet mode.”
Up Next: A “Spicy Chicken” Counter?
If you visit Bresslergroup, you can’t miss the split flap. It lives front and center in the lobby and it’s the crowning jewel of the office, at least according to the four of us. We have a few ideas about how we might use it in the future, like as an injury counter in the shop (kidding, not kidding?) or as a Web traffic monitor. We’ve toyed with using emojis instead of characters or adding a microphone and counting every time someone says “spicy chicken,” a favorite lunch item from our local food truck.
Unfortunately, split flaps don’t scale well. For starters, they take a while to build and set up. Each module has forty flaps, and each has to be laser-etched or manually labeled. We found out the hard way that placing the character stickers by hand is awful and slow. Then, there’s the encoder — it’s prone to breaking, and it can loosen over time, so your split flap starts to think it’s on B when it’s really on D.
Even with those challenges, we had a blast working on the split flap, and we’re really proud of it. Our office has a cool, new, old-school gadget — perhaps we’ll bring back nixie tube displays or the 80’s boombox next?
Most products you buy in a store are mass-manufactured using costly processes such as injection molding. While this lets us produce a wide variety of products, it also requires designing and manufacturing expensive tools.
That takes time and money, and the more complicated the part, the more expensive the tool. That works fine if you’re producing millions of parts, but for production runs in the thousands, it’s usually not cost-effective.
In the near future, that’s going to change. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, has made short-run production of complicated parts a more viable option. With special printers like HP’s Multi Jet Fusion, companies can produce large quantities of parts faster and for less money, in a variety of materials and designs.
Advanced 3D printing is also opening doors to lighter, more efficient parts; new levels of customization; and simplified supply chains.
How does advanced 3D printing make complex parts more accessible?
With traditional manufacturing, we’re limited to simpler parts that usually take more than a month to receive. Advanced 3D-printing techniques make it possible to design complex parts and receive up to thousands of them in as little as a week.
3D printing also makes it possible to simplify otherwise complicated parts. A part that might be manufactured in multiple pieces and require fasteners, seals, inserts and additional assembly steps can be made as a single part that’s functional right off the production line.
How is 3D printing pushing design boundaries?
As far as I’m concerned, the most exciting aspect of 3D printing for rapid manufacturing is how it’s pushing the boundaries of design. Features that would be impossible to pull off using conventional manufacturing methods are made feasible with 3D printing.
Some companies are already exploring this through limited production runs of innovative products. One example is the award-winning, 3D-printed faucets in American Standard’s DXV line. These are the first residential faucets produced using 3D printing. The Vibrato faucet is a latticework of narrow, hollow tendrils that converge at the top and produce water seemingly from nowhere.
Features that would be impossible to pull off using conventional manufacturing methods are made feasible with 3D printing.
Making these waterways structurally sound, lightweight, and hollow would be extremely difficult and expensive using conventional methods. For 3D printing, features like this are a breeze and dramatically decrease tooling costs. That means American Standard can sell fewer of these faucets and still turn a profit. They don’t need a production run in the millions, and they can get a little more experimental with their design.
What’s the industrial manufacturing potential?
GE is using advanced 3D printing to shake up its manufacturing and design, too. At the company’s Additive Technology Center in Ohio, its printers produce intricate fuel nozzles for the world’s largest jet engine; ribbed gearbox covers for the GE Catalyst (the first turboprop engine with 3D printed parts); and fuel heaters with honeycombed channels. In the case of the Catalyst, 3D printing allowed GE to combine 855 parts into twelve (!), which reduced weight, simplified the supply chain, and improved the engine’s overall performance.
GE also used additive manufacturing to redesign brackets on its GEnx jet engine. Originally, the company milled the brackets out of a solid block of aluminum. By 3D printing on a Concept Laser machine, GE was able to reduce the brackets’ weight and cost, as well as minimize production waste. GE even got the redesigned brackets to production in less than a year.
What are the limits of advanced 3D printing?
As promising as 3D printing is as a manufacturing option, we don’t want to oversell it. 3D printing products like the Vibrato faucet can’t be done with your run-of-the-mill, resin-based 3D printers. To compete on the scale of mass manufacturing, you need more advanced 3D printers that can work with materials like nylon (HP Multi Jet Fusion) or metal (GE’s SLS printers) and produce a higher volume per unit of time.
The problem is that these printers are still rather expensive. HP’s Multi Jet Fusion printers start around $50,000. To advance its 3D printing, GE had to acquire the German firm Concept Laser. That deal cost the company $599 million. The high cost of advanced 3D printing is reflected in the price of products. That Vibrato faucet costs nearly $20,000, and GE spent $400 million to develop the GE Catalyst.
At these prices, 3D printing can’t yet compete with traditional manufacturing, which is relatively inexpensive, especially overseas. We’ll need to see a dramatic decrease in cost before it’s widely adopted, and that’s hard to predict because so many factors come into play, including politics and trade wars.
What kinds of design-driven advancements are we seeing?
Still, 3D printing does have benefits that injection molding and conventional manufacturing can’t compete with. Right now, it’s being driven by design because it offers designers avenues to realize their products in ways that traditional manufacturing can’t.
For example, 3D printing has created new avenues for customization. IKEA Israel is working with a partner to 3D-print furniture add-ons (like easier-to-grab handles and couch lifts) that make products more accessible. Customers can pick and choose from thirteen items and 3D-print the ones that suit them right at home. Examples like this are few and far between, but they’ll likely become more common thanks to 3D printing.
Additive manufacturing is also getting a push from biomedical and robotics companies. Researchers are experimenting with ways to 3D print things like porous titanium bone replacements and self-healing hydrogels that could be used for robots with delicate grips.
How can you advance innovation with 3D printing?
Many applications are still conceptual and experimental, but I believe 3D printing could be a more mainstream manufacturing option in as few as five to 10 years. I’m excited by how these new tools will continue to lead to new thinking on the part of designers and engineers. Will it cause companies to rethink their product lines to make them more innovative? I hope so.
As a designer or engineer, how can you stretch your thinking to implement these newer technologies? Using these methods, you’ll be able to simplify assembly, cut production costs, and make your end product more innovative.
One trend was the growing popularity of gaming among an older demographic. It included this observation: ” … gaming systems aren’t designed for use by the older population, but that is a thin barrier that we expect will soon be overcome.” This gave me the idea for Portal, a gaming system for users who are age 65+.
It’s well-known that this demographic is growing. By 2035, one in five Americans will be over the age of sixty-five. This population shift is sure to cause ripple effects within our society and culture. I started thinking about this through the lens of gaming, which has been shown to combat boredom, social isolation, and the neurological effects of aging. These are some of the most common pain points as we grow older.
Senior citizens are already using video games. The next logical step was to design a system that addresses their needs.
The Portal Console
What should a gaming console for an aging audience look like?
My concept combines the idea of a video game console mixed with a smart home device featuring voice recognition (think of Amazon’s Alexa).
The display in the middle of the Portal console is easy to see from a seated position, thanks to its angled surface. It’s ringed by a mic/speaker that lets the user converse easily with fellow players. In contrast with the headsets that typically come with online gaming systems, this out-in-the-open console encourages socialization with family and friends. To communicate its function, the general cone shape calls to mind something that projects sound.
The voice recognition capability could also enable a walkthrough for someone who’s having trouble with any aspect of the device. As part virtual-assistant, Portal’s functions are expandable — there are endless possibilities.
The soft minimal aesthetic of both the console and the controller is meant to blend into a mature setting. It breaks from the youthful, sometimes aggressive, aesthetic of traditional gaming systems.
The Portal Controller
Video games are inherently addictive, and users have a tendency to injure themselves on every available type of controller, because of overuse and repetitive motions. The Portal system’s voice control interface alleviates this by limiting the required amount of physical navigation.
The user can talk to the device to take care of many functions, such as turning it on and off, and different kinds of play — including gaming through voice controls for users with limited dexterity (severe arthritis and/or carpal tunnel syndrome).
The physical controller also stimulates movement without being too stressful. Its soft design makes it comfortable to hold, reducing the risk of injury. And it has a secondary “exercise” mode to help users build grip strength and dexterity. The extra, larger trigger at the bottom of the controller provides subtle resistance for games designed to enhance these exercises.
Many of us think of a linear model when we think of the economy — one in which raw materials are extracted, used to make a product and then tossed. But this cycle of “take, make, and waste” can’t possibly last forever. Fortunately, there’s an alternative: the circular economy.
A circular economy is designed to use resources for as long as possible, after which they’re recovered and regenerated so that waste is nearly eliminated. It’s a way to design waste out the system and to minimize negative external impacts. You might have heard it called closed loop, cradle-to-cradle, or zero waste.
What does a circular economy look like?
One of the coolest examples of how a circular economy can work is the city of Kalundborg in Denmark. The city has a symbiotic network of companies that work together to incorporate each other’s waste products as inputs into their own industrial processes.
Waste steam from a power plant is sold to a pharmaceutical manufacturer, and gypsum from the scrubbers goes to a drywall company. That company powers its facility with gas from a neighboring refinery, which happens to have a surplus of cooling water that it sells back to the power station.
In the same network, there are up to 30 exchanges of materials and energy, and each of the companies benefits from a performance advantage because they’re buying resources at lower costs than their competitors.
Where else can we find closed-loop systems?
Another example, one that might be a bit closer to home, has to do with beer. Breweries generate a lot of wastewater, spent grains, and carbon dioxide. Some breweries have started using the spent grains to grow mushrooms. The mushrooms can be sold for consumption, but they also break down the waste grains so that they can be digested by animals.
Later, livestock waste is mixed with brewery wastewater in a digester that produces methane and fertilizer. The methane can be burned in the brewing process, and the fertilizer feeds algae, which later becomes fish food. In some cases, a brewery’s excess carbon dioxide is even pumped into greenhouses to feed plants.
The Zero Emissions Research Institute (ZERI) has done a lot of work to advance this closed-loop model, and companies that adopt it, like Wildwood Brewing in Montana, add their own unique flavor. The key is that they’re recycling raw materials and redefining what we think of as waste.
How does this work in product design?
Product design is key to enabling the circular economy by creating long-lasting products that are easy to reuse and recycle. For example, one of Bresslergroup’s clients, a company that manufactures industrial wire and cable, needed help with shipping reels.
Wooden reels are the preferred solution for shipping industrial wire in the U.S. But because of their size, they’re prohibitively expensive to ship back for reuse. They typically end up in a landfill after only one trip.
Bresslergroup designed a four-part, modular reel that’s easy to assemble and breaks down for return shipment. Twenty of the modular reels can fit in the same space as a single assembled reel, and that creates a cost advantage for return and reuse. The new reel has a life cycle of 36 shipments, and the company started a take-back program to repair and recycle used reels.
The product has been so successful that the client started a side business to sell it to other wire and cable companies that were looking to spend less money on reels and lower their carbon footprint. Since then the concept has been expanded into reusable drums for smaller wire and bulk goods.
What inspires closed-loop products?
There are a few core principles to follow when you’re designing products for a circular economy:
Efficient use of material and energy
Use of recycled and recyclable materials
Design for repair, take back, upgrade, and disassembly
We can look for ideas that align with these principles in the nutrient flows of living systems. After all, there’s no such thing as waste in nature; it’s a total closed loop.
Sneakers are a great example of a category that’s looking to nature. Shoes in general are far from closed loop. They are made of many different materials adhered together, which makes them nearly impossible to recycle. Plus, those materials have to be shipped to a manufacturing plant from different parts of the globe. But we’re starting to see sneakers, like the Adidas Futurecraft 4D and Reebok Cotton and Corn, that cut down on the number of materials used.
To do that, they’re learning from nature. The Futurecraft 4D’s sole is 3D-printed with an algorithm that mimics how bones and trees adapt to stress. The midsole is made of a single material, but thanks to the algorithm it’s dense in high load zones and spare in others. While other sneakers derive their function from multiple materials, the Futurecraft 4D gets its complex function from one material with sophisticated, nature-inspired design. The cotton and corn shoe, on the other hand, derives its function from plant-based materials that can be composted at the end of life.
Ideas like these are discovered using the methodology of biomimicry. They imitate biological strategies to find novel innovations and design solutions. Those ideas inevitably lead to more sustainable products. Especially when it comes to closed-loop solutions, nature is always a great place to look for inspiration.
What’s driving the growth of the circular economy?
Design for a circular economy is currently more widespread in Europe. The European Union adopted a Circular Economy Action Plan, which mandates things like water reuse, and new laws that require manufacturers to take back products at the ends of their useful lives. It’s suddenly in those companies’ best interest to design products that are easily disassembled, recycled, or repaired.
Although the U.S. lags in these areas, the growth of the sharing economy is contributing to a shift in how consumers think about ownership and how businesses think about product development. Shared products need to be more robust and easier to repair — notions that are closer to a closed-loop outlook and in direct opposition to planned obsolescence.
Slowly, more products are being designed to last longer, and companies are improving their recycling and reuse programs. Even cellphone carriers now run take-back programs, which refurbish phones or break them down for recycling. A few years ago, your only option might have been to toss your device.
For companies that get this right, durable and recyclable products can be a distinguishing factor and drive brand loyalty. Patagonia, for instance, promises its clothes will last for years. It also repairs worn items, collects clothes for recycling, and sells used products. In doing so, it breaks the take-make-waste cycle and gives customers something to feel good about.
How can product developers move the circular economy forward?
In order for the circular economy to work, we need system-wide innovation, and that will require rethinking and redefining our products and services.
How will you contribute to the circular economy? Do you have a product you’ve extracted considerable value from over a long period or repeat uses? How does its design help you do so? Changing our mindsets to prize these types of products over easily disposable ones will help manufacturers get there, too.
Seth GaleWyrick, a former mechanical engineer and sustainability specialist at Bresslergroup, is currently a Certified Biomimicry Professional with the bio-inspired consultancy, Biomimicry 3.8. From there, he continues to work with Bresslergroup on projects that deliver disruptive innovation. This collaboration works well for companies needing turnkey biomimicry projects — all the way from biological strategies through to products in users’ hands. Drop us a line if you’re interested in learning more!
“Medical is the most conservative category,” designers often say, and for decades this was true. Strict regulation, demanding users, and high stakes meant that change in the healthcare field was slow and steady, and new innovations could take years to reach market.
But even the healthcare industry isn’t immune to change. The mobile apps, online communities, wearable devices, and embedded intelligence that are reshaping how we work, play, travel, and communicate have also been transforming personal healthcare.
Today we have access to medical tools once reserved for professionals, and to information and digital platforms that let us shape our healthcare experience to an unprecedented degree. As designers who’ve worked with medical clients for decades, we’ve never seen a time of more dramatic change.
The ten sociocultural megatrends reshaping product design.
To understand their implications for the healthcare space, we’ve examined each megatrend through a lens of medical and wellness consumer experience. In many cases, their impact is already evident, usually in small startups offering new services, or existing products and services that are becoming more widely accessible.
Through this exercise, we’ve singled out four profound shifts in the field and described them here, along with current examples and links to the megatrends that underlay them.
Shift #1: ‘Healthcare Consumers’ Replace Patients
The single biggest change coming for healthcare will be in the relationship between patient and provider.
In the traditional model, everything went through the doctor. Your doctor (or nurse practitioner) was the gatekeeper to your care, and the sole trusted source of your medical information. You wouldn’t go anywhere else looking for a diagnosis or course of treatment, and if a treatment didn’t work, you’d return to the doctor to try another, or you’d find a new doctor. You trusted doctors’ input and care plans.
The single biggest change coming for healthcare will be in the relationship between patient and provider.
In the new model, we’re consumers — engaged and empowered to optimize our own healthcare experience. We know how many steps we’ve taken and calories we’ve burned, using wearables like FitBit and tracking software like Lose It! We’re tracking sleep patterns too, using an app or wearable like the Dreem band. We’re able to set our own goals as part of a long-term wellness plan we’ve helped develop. These goals place our mental health on equal footing with our physical health. Health is a service with many providers, and the doctor is just one of them.
The Healthcare Consumer shift reflects two larger trends: the focus on wellness as a continuous pursuit, and the belief that every consumer deserves a unique experience. The products and services enabling the shift are embraced at a large scale because they’re responsive, customizable, and well-designed — qualities often missing in traditional healthcare.
Bottom Line: The Healthcare Consumer is engaged and empowered to optimize their own healthcare experience. The megatrends driving this shift are Everyday Wellness and Consumer Remapped.
Shift #2: Anytime, Anywhere Solutions
Many aspects of wellness and medical treatment don’t need to take place in a medical environment, and third-party providers have recognized this and begun offering well-designed alternatives.
Today it’s not uncommon for the busy patient/consumer to take advantage of convenient solutions that fit their schedule — to make a medical appointment using an online scheduler like Zocdoc, get a flu shot at CVS or even their office, or engage in talk-therapy via a text app like Talkspace — all without ever walking into a hospital or clinic. Even when you do need to see a doctor, it’s quite possible the relationship was mediated by a third party like Healthgrades, which provides online reviews of medical providers.
These services are a natural outcome of the push to use technology to detach services from specific times and places, and to give consumers the flexibility to fit them into highly mobile lives. After all, if banking and food shopping can move online, why not healthcare?
Bottom Line: Anytime, Anywhere Solutions are detached from specific times and places (and away from traditional medical environments), and they flex to fit into consumers’ highly mobile lives. The megatrends driving this shift are Quest for Convenience and Connection/Disconnection.
Shift #3: Expectations for Seamless Experiences
In the future world of self-diagnosis and new technologies, you might expect the healthcare experience to become more fragmented, but it’s not. Instead, these innovations act to tie different elements together by putting all the tools and information in the patient’s hands.
Set up your own profile in a user-friendly patient portal like SimplePractice that pushes your information to the office staff, nurses, and physician assistants you spend the most time with. Monitor your father’s irregular heartbeat using an app like KardiaMobile, which takes readings from a small, finger-mounted electrode and sends medical-grade EKGs to his cardiologist thirty seconds later.
Sometimes you don’t need to see a doctor in person, so you request an on-demand video visit via a service like JeffConnect. Or you skip the doctor entirely, diagnosing yourself through an AI-enabled assistant like Ask Aysa. If you go in for surgery, a digital assistant like Stryker Joint Coach and Recovery Coach speeds your recovery. These are all tools in your healthcare toolkit.
In the traditional healthcare model, each service would be handled by a different provider, who would rarely connect or share information with each other. The onus is on the patient to act as messenger, shuttling information back and forth while spending hours in waiting rooms. In the new, technology-mediated model, where companies are taking into account the patient experience — and not just product functionality — seamless healthcare becomes a real possibility for the first time.
Bottom Line: Healthcare consumers increasingly expect a seamless experience across digital and in-person interactions. The megatrends driving this shift are Experience More and Empowered Individual.
Shift #4: Personalized Treatment for Better Outcomes (We Hope)
Nothing is more personal than your health, so why should healthcare treat all of us the same? The “chat for five minutes and prescribe a pill” approach makes no sense to patients in an era where they have access to so much data about themselves, up to and including their genome.
Foundation Medicine, for example, uses genomic testing to match cancer patients to the specific treatments most likely to be effective, while “whole body” clinics like Parsley Health leverage a wide range of nutrition, lifestyle, and test data to offer healthcare that’s truly customized to each patient.
The “chat for five minutes and prescribe a pill” approach makes no sense to patients in this era.
For the patient, much of this information and insight is available directly. You can arrive at a doctor’s appointment with a likely diagnosis, obtained from an AI-based predictive service such as Babylon Health, ready to ask informed questions about courses of treatment. And you can take advantage of a growing array of health data services, like Seqster, promising to bring all this information together, and place it under your control.
The end result will go beyond just making you more aware of your health details. It will also allow you to make smart decisions about the kind of healthcare you want, and provide the information and tools to make it happen.
Bottom Line: Patients expect personalized treatments based on their needs and lifestyle, and on their specific health data. The megatrends driving this shift are Radical Personalization and Search for Authenticity.
Implications for Brands and Manufacturers
For companies that work in the healthcare space, the rapid pace of these changes might feel overwhelming, but they’re far from mysterious. To successfully navigate them, it’s crucial to acknowledge that, first, your customers and competitors tomorrow may be very different from the ones you’re encountering today, and second, the products and services you offer will be used in a wider range of environments and contexts than they are currently.
Specifically, there are a few long-held assumptions that are becoming less relevant by the day:
• Old Assumption: Healthcare is based in the clinic and the hospital.
• New Reality: Healthcare happens everywhere.
Established medical brands face challenges from new entrants eager to move wellness out of its traditional venues, but there are also big opportunities to improve efficiency, service levels, and health outcomes. That said, established firms likely have an edge in the “integration race” since they own multiple points in the ecosystem.
Data is the new healthcare currency, and patients will be producing a lot of it. By taking advantage of IoT devices, real world evidence, and AI-enabled analysis, providers can target treatments far more accurately, creating massive savings while delivering better health.
It’s crucial to look at the long-term patient journey and find ways to address healthcare beyond the hospital or clinic, which may result in new service offerings.
• Old Assumption: Medicine is an exclusive, highly regulated club.
• New Reality: Medicine can be disrupted by new services and empowered users — just like everything else.
A patients gain more control over their own healthcare journey, traditional power dynamics in medical relationships can quickly shift. Established brands that anticipate this can get ahead of the shift, by finding ways to make their product give patients a sense of greater control, so they don’t feel a need to go elsewhere. Regulation, too, may cease to be the hard stop it once was. When healthcare services become consumer products, clinical trials may become less relevant.
• Old Assumption: The hospital is the primary customer for medical products and services.
• New Reality: The patient is the customer, and increasingly expects a consumer version of medical products and services once reserved for professionals.
Medical brands and manufacturers that have spent years learning about the needs and motivations of hospitals and physicians will need to become experts on the needs of another group: their patients. Since patients will increasingly be making decisions about what products and services to use, it’s important to take their needs into account when designing the next generation, and focus on making benefits apparent to the non-medical professional.
The upside of all this change is that it’s affecting everyone, including your competitors. So while these shifts might threaten established players that adapt too slowly, they also offer opportunity to those who stay ahead of the curve. There’s nothing magical about updating a consumer offering, even in the medical industry. But it does take the boldness to embrace a healthcare industry that’s not quite so conservative anymore.
In product development, MIL-SPEC means designed to MIL-STD (military standard). This standard was developed by the United States Military as a means of ensuring a certain level of expectations for the performance and maintainability of military equipment. MIL-SPEC products are designed to perform at expected levels under a variety of harsh environmental conditions.
While meeting the military standard is required by funding agencies who purchase products used by, or developed for, the military, it’s now gaining in popularity in consumer, commercial, and industrial arenas as well. “Military-grade” as an attribute is applied to a wide range of consumer goods, from pickup trucks to picnic coolers.
What Are MIL-SPEC and MIL-STD?
Since its inception in 1945, MIL-STDs have evolved to embrace an ever-changing suite of performance characteristics. There are different standards that cover everything from handling of pyrotechnics (MIL-STD-1234) to digital communications (MIL-STD-1553), but in general, when referring to MIL-SPEC equipment, most people are referring to MIL-STD-810, “Environmental Engineering Considerations and Laboratory Tests.”
Tough Enough: Eric Kemner, one of this post’s authors, worked on M1A2 Abrams Tanks during his Army days. The tanks had to comply with a long list of military standards.
MIL-STD-810 covers what different types of equipment should be able to withstand given their use cases, and how the devices should be tested to ensure compliance. Included are environmental effects such as drop, shock, fog, humidity, sand, vibration, leakage, explosions, and more.
A MIL-SPEC qualifying product doesn’t necessarily have to test for all of these variables — just the ones that are relevant. Part One of MIL-STD-810 talks about the process of “tailoring” the device profile, based on how it will be used. Figure 1-4b (borrowed from MIL-STD-810), below, shows an example of how certain types of equipment might be expected to comply:
Standardized Testing: MIL-STD-810’s Fig. 1-4b helps companies decide which military standards apply to their product and how, depending on how it’ll be used.
There’s a growing demand for rugged design in sporting and outdoor goods as well as consumer electronics, particularly mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. The rugged mobile computers segment held the largest rugged devices market share in 2018. The Panasonic Toughbook was one of the first commercially available computers that was rated to military specifications and is noted as being MIL-STD-461F, MIL-STD-810G, and IP65 rated (to list a few). (Read our post about IP and NEMA ratings.)
In fact, the global market for rugged devices is expected to grow at a steady clip of 7 percent from 2019–2023. These devices are being adopted in new application areas, such as hospitality, retail, waste management, and public transportation.
When Should Product Designers Accommodate Military Specifications?
This escalating demand for rugged devices begs the question: Should product designers and manufacturers simply design to military standards and then sell these military-grade products to consumers? The answer is yes — and no.
Uncertainties abound when it comes to the application of MIL-STDs to consumer-grade goods. For manufacturers and product developers who want to define what “rugged” means, MIL-STDs are tried and true standards that serve as a great guide. They also lend credibility from a marketing standpoint.
In a commercial sense, the term MIL-SPEC or “military-grade” is a marketing claim — you can see this at work with a company called Mil-Spec Automotive. They take Hummers, which are already designed to MIL-SPEC, and refine them by adding luxury (leather-clad interiors, etc.) and power (6.6-liter Duramax turbodiesel V8 engines, etc.). The name of the company helps telegraph their brand message that their products are “intensely rugged” and “the baddest thing on wheels,” as they’ve been described by Forbes and Maxim magazines.
It sounds impressive because military products are clearly rugged. But the definition of rugged is not objective. Increasingly, manufacturers claim to be rugged or waterproof — also, “grizzly-proof” and “built for adventure” — without really explaining what that means. Water and dust ingress aside, there are no simple levels to measure just how “tough” a product truly is.
While there are external, independent labs that can follow the test methods defined in the MIL-STDs (and report on compliance), unless the product is being designed specifically for a military-funded development effort it is not required that any developer conduct these tests, nor is there any regulatory agency overseeing certification. It’s up to the end user or product vendor to look under the hood with the understanding that “rugged” can mean pretty much anything.
How To Design MIL-SPEC
Once the decision has been made to design to MIL-STDs , whether the end use is in the military, consumer, or industrial space, the next step is to develop a detailed product profile and decide which of the standards apply — and how, based on the intended use case.
The number of specific requirements is large and covers a gamut of options, including impact, rain, humidity, fungus, thermal shock, gunfire shock, sand and dust ingress, acidic atmosphere, low pressure, immersion, explosive atmosphere, to name just a few. While these requirements might be necessary for a military product, only a select few might apply to a commercial product. Specific standards and tests should be defined early in the design process with a product requirements document, to set the expectation from the beginning for what a successful design will achieve.
The relevant parameters and associated standards will define the design approach for a product. MIL-STDs can impact the materials and components that can be used. Certain OTS (off the shelf) components, in particular electronics, are certified as MIL-SPEC. MIL-SPEC hardware will generally conform to standard sizes and finishes commonly used in military products and be developed to pass a range of common MIL-STDs. Depending on the level of performance, connectors and components can be significantly more expensive than non-rated components.
Specific standards and tests should be defined early in the design process with a product requirements document, to set the expectation from the beginning for what a successful design will achieve.
In order to evaluate whether the device meets specific standards, it must be tested following the protocols associated with the selected standards (as defined in the device profile) to MIL-STD-810. This testing should be performed on the actual product, or on a prototype with production-equivalent materials and assembly. The testing can be performed internally, but third-party testing facilities are commonly used as they’re independent and also have calibrated test equipment.
Theoretically any product can claim to be “designed to MIL-SPEC” as long as some provision to satisfying one of the tests from MIL-STD-810 was made during the design process. Outside of Department of Defense equipment, there is no certificate of MIL-SPEC compliance. The takeaway is that MIL-SPEC can mean a lot — or it can be a bold marketing claim.
A more informative claim would be “Complies with MIL-STD 810F Method 509 Salt Fog,” but this kind of specificity is very rarely seen.
Examples of MIL-SPEC products
While there are many products that claim to be MIL-SPEC, not all are. Here are a few Bresslergroup has developed to specific requirements:
For the military, just any old storage box would not do. The box had to be stacked easily, be able to be hauled over extremely rough terrain, have lids that could be locked tight, and be waterproof. Our redesign lead to longer handles and lock plates. Grooved lids allow for easy stacking, like Legos. The Speedbox is an example of a rugged product designed for the military that has also enjoyed adoption from consumers.
The Biological Decontaminant Accelerated Spray Plus is another product that is designed according to MIL-SPEC standards. The product, which is used to neutralize biological threats, is encased in high-impact plastic that provides drop and impact resistance, a must-have to prevent accidental dispensing of the chemical solutions.
Blue Ocean Rugged Megaphone
We redesigned Nielsen-Kellerman’s megaphone to render it completely waterproof and to improve on the acoustics. Designed to meet MIL-STD-810G 516.6 (drop test) and ingress protected to (non MIL-STD) IP67 the Blue Ocean is the World’s most rugged megaphone.
This version of the classic rower’s companion uses engineering principles to build upon the original and includes three interlocked horns for the best sound. A gamut of parts and wires necessitates foolproof sealing to ensure water-tight performance. Epoxy to silicone gaskets deliver that solution.
Industrial IOT: A Growth Area for MIL-SPEC
Tenna’s GPS asset tracker has become an invaluable tool for a variety of heavy-duty industries such as oil and gas, and construction. Through integration with Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors, these trackers relay information such as location, speed, and other diagnostic information to paint a complete picture for asset management.
Because these trackers must perform under harsh environmental conditions on the ground and because they’re often embedded with electronic sensors, being extremely rugged is important. While it wasn’t of particular importance for this product to be MIL-SPEC as it did not directly apply to this market or industry, this was an example of one project where the MIL-STD environmental test methods were used to help define how rugged the device needed to be and how it would be tested. As such, Tenna’s asset trackers are encased in thick-walled, glass-filled plastic, and all components are further fully potted in epoxy to protect from shock.
The Tenna asset tracker is a perfect example of how the growth in IoT — and specifically in this case, Industrial IoT (IIoT) — data through equipment outfitted with electronic sensors is driving growth in demand for ruggedized and even MIL-SPEC products. The global IIoT market is expected to clock an increase of 24.3% annually, reaching a whopping $991 billion by 2026.
The global IIoT market is expected to clock an increase of 24.3% annually, reaching a whopping $991 billion by 2026.
The growth in on-the-go industrial equipment with embedded electronics combined with the increasing consumer appetite for rugged products means that there will be an increasing clamor for military-grade design and production.
It’s a good idea for companies who want to gain a competitive edge in the marketplace and win enduring brand loyalty to consider designing for compliance with military standards as the starting point for their design and production conversation.
When’s the last time you were driving in your car and your favorite song came on the radio? How did you turn it up? When it comes to volume controls, you can assume that turning a dial to the right or pressing the top of two buttons will make your music louder. That’s thanks to a design principle called mapping.
Mapping is the relationship between controls and their movements or effects. When you turn a wheel, flip a switch or push a button, you expect a specific outcome. And when you’re designing a product, your users will expect controls that are intuitive or familiar. Good mapping is when the effect corresponds to your users’ expectations.
Design Controls That Mimic Their Real-World Effects
Controls should always correlate with their real-world effects. When you turn a steering wheel to the left, your car should turn left. When you press down on the switch that controls your car window, the window should roll down. When you pull up on the switch, the window should roll up. Anything else would be disorienting and possibly dangerous.
Unfortunately, mapping is not always so straightforward. Have you ever tried to use a stovetop you weren’t familiar with? Did you need a minute to orient yourself to which knobs controlled which burners? If so, you experienced poor mapping.
The stovetop is a classic example. Often, burners are laid out in a rectangle and the knobs are placed in a single row below. It can be hard to tell which knob activates which burner. But if the four burners are laid out in a trapezoid and the knob layout mimics that shape, it’s easier to understand the controls.
The latter is highly user-friendly, and if you’re presented with the choice to use either stovetop, you’ll likely pick the one with more intuitive controls. So will your users.
Present Users with Controls They’re Familiar With
While mapping can be a function of behavior — i.e. turning a wheel turns your car — it can also be learned through the use of other existing products and contexts.
Learned mapping is when something is not necessarily intuitive or natural, but the action becomes expected through repeated interactions with a similar product. Most people understand that when you twist a pen, the pen nib will extend or retract. The twist doesn’t relate exactly to the in-line movement of the pen nib, but we’ve seen this so many times, we expect it.
Another example is the water faucet. The handle on the left usually controls hot water. The handle on the right gets you cold water. If you reverse this, the controls won’t match users’ expectations. You’ll end up with poor mapping — and a cold shower when you want a hot one.
Designers can map controls with colors and visual language, too. For instance, hot water controls are usually red, and cold water controls are typically blue. In the same way, we assume red means stop or signals some kind of important alert. Green generally indicates things are good to go.
Shapes and icons are another type of learned mapping. You’ve probably used the on/off icon on several different products. No matter where it is, the icon has a clear meaning because we’ve seen it so many times and learned what it does.
Consider How Controls Vary Between Countries
This is all complicated by the reality that conventions change depending on culture and circumstance. In England and Australia, people flip a light switch down to turn it on.
This can make mapping tricky when you’re designing for global audiences. In most cases, designers should either find universal controls — like the on/off icon — or invent new and intuitive gestures that transcend cultural norms.
Of course, expectations are always evolving. As more products are marketed globally, some design differences are disappearing. For instance, European appliances are sold in America and Asia (and vice versa), often with the same controls. And while phones used to vary in appearance from country to country, today there are only a handful of major smartphone manufacturers. For the most part, their designs don’t vary across borders.
Keep Controls Safe and Simple
When possible, it’s best to avoid using a single control for multiple effects. This is becoming increasingly challenging as physical-digital devices attempt to ditch as many buttons as possible. When Samsung released its Galaxy Buds, each wireless earbud had a touchpad. With a quick tap, a long press, or a double click, users could control different features. But reviews quickly proved that users found the controls troublesome and frustrating.
When we designed the Alcon cataract surgery scalpel, we realized surgeons needed to be able to remove the blade guard while keeping their eyes focused on the view through a binocular microscope. We chose a simple sliding control mechanism that is so intuitive, users don’t even need to see it. The control has one function and keeps both doctors and patients safe.
Good Mapping Leads To Brand Loyalty
Mapping is all about making products easier and more intuitive to use. When it’s done well, it can create a powerful connection between a product and its users. And it can be the difference between users buying or recommending one product over another.
Can you think of examples of good control mapping? How about poor design mapping? Think about this as you use the products in your daily life. Which products do you like best and what controls do they have? If you’re a designer, how can mapping inform your products? Remember to keep your controls simple and straightforward. Good mapping should always be your goal.
We flew to Chicago a few weeks ago to deliver three talks at the 2019 HFES Healthcare Symposium, including one on long-form contextual inquiry, called “Mind if I Awkwardly Watch You for Four Hours?,” and “I Want To Learn in Context,” on virtual reality.
But our primary motives were to spend time with friends in the industry, meet new friends, and listen to everyone else’s talks — or at least as many as we could fit in. Also: deep dish pizza.
As usual, the HFES healthcare symposium was a fun and enlightening conference that manages to feel small, despite having the largest attendance ever this year. Bresslergroup wants to thank all the organizers, sponsors, and attendees for making this event a pleasure to attend.
Between Two Sconces: From left to right, Conall, Chris, Jes, Maddy, and Alex.
All the tracks, even the ones not specifically geared toward medical devices, were relevant and interesting to us and our work in the healthcare industry. This year showcased some great design thinking and creative uses of technology in the medical space.
When we got back to our desks in Philadelphia, we realized we all still have a lot of ideas and inspiration rattling around in our heads after the symposium, so we got together to share them with each other, and now we’re sharing with you!
Are there real, pragmatic applications for virtual reality in medical device human factors work? Definitely!
We loved hearing about applications of VR that come at human factors from the design input end, but we find it especially useful as a tool to share research insights. Alex and Conall spoke at the symposium about an effective and efficient way to use VR to add value to research data and reports, especially with the technology becoming more accessible and affordable.
We loved hearing about applications of VR that come at human factors from the design input end, but we find it especially useful as a tool to share research insights.
It was clear from the conference that human factors professionals are searching for creative applications for VR. While our own VR toolkit leans more toward cheap-and-cheerful, Dave and Larry from 219 Design gave a demo of a design review in AR/VR that leveraged more complex equipment and showed how you can quickly gain design insights using VR.
Their demo showed how we can give a better sense of scale, size, and complex design elements (like LED light patterns) by placing a model inside the manufactured space where it will ultimately live. We look forward to seeing how our two approaches might be combined to do design reviews within a more realistic real-world context (captured by a 360 camera).
The Future Is Now: A demo of a design review in AR/VR from 219 Design.
It seems like VR can be especially useful during rapid insight testing or formative testing, because we can create a virtual design prototype and have real users interact with it in a virtual space to gather feedback. A VR prototype enables researchers to make adjustments more quickly, to allow for a more agile approach to upfront research explorations. Rather than waiting for a physical prototype to be made, we can digitally mock one up while providing a real-life context in a virtual space.
Hospitals and Human Factors: Perfect Together?
While many hospitals are starting to form human factors-aligned groups and there’s a strong pull from the medical side to include human factors, institutional factors can often confound the best intentions. Because of this, the consensus seems to be that progress will continue to happen in spurts — isolated initiatives rather than a clear, consistent slope up, until serious momentum is gained.
But evidence of a slowly-changing mindset can already be seen in how hospitals are communicating about clinicians and patients as partners who work together to co-produce good health outcomes. This paradigm shift from paternalistic to partner-oriented is leading to data-sharing innovations such as patient-owned EMRs (electronic medical records).
Evidence of a slowly-changing mindset can already be seen in how hospitals are communicating about clinicians and patients as partners who work together to co-produce good health outcomes.
The value of opening a dialogue between patients and clinicians was discovered inadvertently when patients in one hospital were given a “urine color comparison” bracelet to make it easier for them to describe their bathroom visits in a consistent way to their nurse (e.g., “I went 20 minutes ago and the color was, like, number 5 on this bracelet”).
While the color reporting was effective, the real value came from giving patients an appropriately simple tool to start a dialog with hospital staff about their bathroom use. Although the bracelets focused on the color of the urine, once implemented the hospital saw about two times the number of bathroom visits reported. It’s unlikely that the patients suddenly started urinating double, so one suspects that creating a talking opportunity made it more likely the event got tracked at all. The data itself was not as important as the conversations it sparked between patients and nurses.
On the flip side, human factors professionals are recognizing the cultural inertia of physicians and getting more savvy at integrating human factors processes into the ecosystem of hospitals, doctors, and nurses. At Bresslergroup we’ve found a couple of ways to do that — by hiring a doctor, and by forming a partnership with Thomas Jefferson University, one of our local hospital systems.
Several presenters shared study findings about cognitive overload and ways of dealing with it. The Audible Alarms track was particularly interesting since it’s a large issue in healthcare. Alarm fatigue happens when many alarms sound frequently and at similar frequencies, and soon become background noise. There are regulatory documents that suggest ways of creating alarm tones to alleviate this, but they are constantly being evolved as new issues surface.
The first presenter shared a study her team did about identifying where alarm fatigue comes from, and their main finding was that alarm fatigue is generally linked to fatigue. As medical professionals (doctors and nurses) grow more tired on the job, they become less likely to hear alarms and respond appropriately. Her talk described a direct link between “alarm fatigue” and general fatigue.
Part of the problem with alarm fatigue is that alarms get masked by other alarms. Matthew Bolton shared his findings from a study on testing simultaneous alarms. Three alarms were sounded in sequence (see the diagram, below, from Bolton’s presentation). Alarm 2, in the middle, gets masked by the two alarms around it. Participants were able to notice there was something different when the alarm was being masked, but couldn’t identify which alarm it was or what action it was telling them to take to respond to the alarm.
A few presenters discussed a way of designing audible alarms that uses the concept of auditory icons. Just as visual icons represent actions (e.g. a house represents navigating to the homepage), auditory icons follow the sound pattern or tone of the thing they’re alerting about (e.g. a lub dub for a heart rate that speeds up as heart rate increases).
There’s also the quite common situation where clinicians find themselves having to take their eyes off of a patient to look at the stats on a screen. One presenter, Joe Schlesinger, discussed the possible solution of using haptic feedback for alerts, rather than auditory or visual alarms. Haptic alarms would incorporate tactile patterns to elicit actions related to individual alarms (e.g. different vibrations for different alarms that increase or decrease as status changes).
UX and Agile in Medical Device Design: Not There Yet
It’s clear that medical device design is still heavily focused on safety and efficacy, which are absolutely critical. But we were a little surprised not to hear more about UX (user experience design) in healthcare. Though the acronym, “UX,” showed up in the program, it was typically only in the context of digital experiences. The discussion for physical devices was still mostly about safety and efficacy.
We anticipate that as medical devices increasingly move out of hospitals and doctors’ offices and into peoples’ homes, safety and efficacy will continue to be just as necessary, but no longer sufficient on its own.
Safety and efficacy are must-haves to get to market — but even the FDA acknowledges that once those needs are met, experiential outcomes like confidence and empowerment are what will help one device stand out from others like it. We were happy to see Rachel Aronchick and Erin Davis from Emergo by UL begin this thread as it relates to separating UI elements from HF elements in validation work. And we anticipate these conversations will go much further in the future.
Even the FDA acknowledges that once safety and efficacy are met, experiential outcomes like confidence and empowerment are what will help one device stand out from others like it.
In future symposiums, we expect the discussion of UX to go beyond safety and efficacy and into understanding the fear and anxiety that comes along with using certain medical devices and leveraging design to mitigate those feelings. We’re thinking specifically about one current project — a product we’re designing for teens to feel independent and empowered to administer an awkward treatment on their own without having to ask a caretaker. Maybe we’ll present it at a future symposium.
Another aspect of UX we anticipate seeing more of is agile approaches to medical device design. We loved the poster by James Parker and Ambika Chou, also from Emergo by UL. Because digital design is so fluid and physical design is fairly stepped (or waterfall), we anticipate this debate to increase as more digital-physical products show up in the med device industry. Balancing the two approaches and aligning them along FDA check points will be critical.
Similarities Between Fractures and Human Factors
At the beginning of the symposium, keynote lecturer, Richard Cook, gave a fascinating talk on the resilience of bones. What struck us most were the parallels he drew between fractures and human factors.
We take it for granted, but it’s remarkable that our body heals itself. Even after 30,000 years, humans are still simply pushing broken bones back into position to help them repair themselves. As we begin to learn what triggers the healing process, this intervention is evolving and we’re playing with the notion of sending chemical signals to the bones to help them repair themselves faster. This is a huge leap.
Cook likened human factors to that first level of bone repair — right now we’re more reactive than anything. We respond to incidents and try to reposition the system so it lands in a good spot. He sees a similar evolution for human factors where we start to mess with signals.
We’re excited by the parallel and by the possibilities!
I know, I’ve changed. You have, too — but I’m afraid we’re growing in opposite directions. I don’t think I’ll ever really understand you. And you just don’t seem capable of picking up on — much less meeting — my fundamental needs.
I’ve come to realize that we see things differently, you and I. The way I see it, a home is more than just a collection of rooms and zones clustered around a centrally located router. It’s a place to build a life and a family. A place of respite where a man can set aside the stress and strife of the world, and rejuvenate his spirit with the love and companionship of the family he’s built.
A man’s home should serve his purpose; a smart home even more so.
But goddammit, you are completely s%!##ing the bed.
The Honeymoon Period Is Over
For nearly 40 years, up until about three and a half years ago when our first son was born (The Before Time), I bobbed about in a vast sea of choice and leisure. A domain governed primarily by my own personal preferences, whims. and fleeting interests. Boredom was a type of experience one could have, and hobbies were activities specifically designed to avoid it.
I’ve always enjoyed a compelling challenge. I’ve spent weeks building and painting WWII aircraft models. I’ve built drones. I’ve replaced sinks and installed bathtubs. I designed, built, and continue to maintain an elaborate garden railway system in our backyard — despite having no particular interest in trains, and under the pretext that it was “for my son.” Figuring things out and overcoming the inevitable obstacles has always been a big part of the fun for me.
So it was with you at first, my elusive temptress.
You made vague promises; allowing me to believe that with enough tinkering, I could achieve anything I desired. And we had our moments. That first Hue Lightstrip I set up in the new nursery seemed great; a tentative first step that seemed to justify further investment.
I started to notice how being a parent of small children fundamentally changed my relationship with you, my Smart Home, and your products.
I began to encounter your limitations and flaws one at a time, accepting each as I altered my plan or found a workaround. I showcased my cleverness even as I concealed your flaws and excused away your limitations. I was in too deep to do anything else.
Hue lights can help create a fun atmosphere, set the stage for bedtime, or offer minimal visibility without waking the wee ones.
I diversified and expanded. I added Sonos Speakers. Nest Cameras and Nest Protects. Harmony Remotes. We cut the cord and went all Apple TV. Things took a while to get set up correctly. Often what I hoped to do wasn’t possible but I forged on, thinking that if only I could get things configured just right, I’d reap the rewards of my initial effort in perpetuity.
I soon learned that heartache and frustration would be my only rewards.
That’s when I started to really notice how nothing ever seems to just work when you need it to.
I realized how needy you are.
You Weren’t Designed for This
I also started to notice how being a parent of small children fundamentally changed my relationship with you, my Smart Home, and your products. Things that seem trivial to a non-parent are potential disasters to a parent of young kids.
When an infant or toddler needs attention, he needs all the attention. When he wants something, he wants it now. He doesn’t have time or patience for delays, fumbling, firmware updates, signing in, password recovery, 2-step authentication, or tours of your latest features.
Last week I turned away for thirty seconds to fish out my phone and skip a terrible song that had popped up on the speaker, and the pause nearly sparked a tantrum. The other weekend I was trying desperately to play white noise to soothe my wailing infant. I was frozen like a deer in headlights, not able to find what I needed, and my kid was inconsolable.
Anything designed for the home should account for the fact that, at some point, there’ll be some kids running around, and at least one adult huddled in a corner, sobbing into a plastic cup of Pinot Noir.
At Bresslergroup, we often design medical devices and other products to be used in demanding environments where stress, noise, and chaos can make it difficult to think clearly. My home is now a similar environment, and it’s clear that you weren’t designed for this.
I once read that caring for young kids is essentially a temporary disability, and as someone who’s had two of them, I concur. The physical and cognitive effort required to care for an infant and toddler can severely hamper “normal product use.” It’s been an eye-opening experience for me, and a source of both expanding empathy and irritation.
My oldest was frightened when our Nest Protect smoke alarm announced “Smoke has been detected — an alarm will sound. It will be loud.” He ordered them all removed for inspection. Why not offer a few reassuring phrases that the “nice lady” could say when prompted by a parent?
The fact that more things aren’t designed to encompass the needs of parents with young children boggles my mind. It’s not exactly an uncommon state of affairs. I look around my house at all the “workarounds” we’ve put in place (which is always an indication that a design is not meeting a need, BTW) — baby gates, cabinet locks, bumpers. There’s an entire industry built around it.
How are we smart enough to design smart thermostats, smart TVs, and smart smoke detectors, but so dumb about how they’ll fit into the lives of such a huge part of the population? Anything designed for the home should account for the fact that in all likelihood, at some point there’ll be kids running around and at least one adult huddled in the corner, sobbing into a plastic cup of Pinot Noir.
I Thought We Knew Each Other
Ultimately I’ve noticed that these products each have a feature or two that could be considered “smart,” but the whole thing is a house of cards ready to fall apart at every turn. And frankly, it’s not very smart. My son was less than two when he could have predicted I go to work every day and come home, following a basic routine. Why doesn’t any of my technology get this, or offer me anything useful?
My lights can’t just come on when I’m nearby, or get a general sense of when I go to bed? Why must I initiate twelve interactions before a single note emanates from the speaker? Can’t it make an educated guess? I thought we knew each other better.
My son was less than two when he could have predicted that I go to work every day and come home, following a basic routine. Why doesn’t any of my technology get this, or offer me anything useful?
I remember the moment I realized I could no longer make use of my wall switches or lamp switches. This was the beginning of the end of my infatuation with you. I realized how handy these had always been. I battled with muscle memory so as not to inadvertently switch them since they must forever now remain in their “on” positions.
I became keenly aware of the number of steps involved in the marketing appeal, “Control your lights with your phone!” (For the record, there are seven steps: Pull out your phone. Unlock it. Find the app. Open it. Find the room/light/etc you want. Choose it. Turn light on or off.)
I noticed how often I walk around the house with no phone, or anything else, on me. Underwear doesn’t have pockets, you know.
Let’s Go Back To Basics
I have some suggestions for how we can begin to turn this around. Let’s start by laying out some expectations around the term “smart.” The following guidelines represent the promise of “smart” — sure, it’s the ideal, but I believe we can get there:
Smart requires less effort. “Work smarter, not harder” is a popular saying, because one of the main benefits of being smart is the ability to figure out how to achieve the same result with less effort. (This is why nerds lack physical strength and agility.)
Smart delivers better outcomes. It solves a need or set of needs more completely; solves a larger set of needs; creates a positive emotional response; or provides a social benefit.
Smart learns and anticipates. It picks up on patterns and anticipates what I need, delivering it before I have to ask for it. (Anyone named Jeeves knows this.)
Smart makes connections. It connects various aspects inside and outside the home, allowing communication and collaboration that enables better learning and more powerful solutions.
Smart guides informed decisions. It gives actionable insights versus raw data. It elevates important information when I need it. (Tell me it’s going to snow, even if I don’t usually care about the weather.)
Smart self-regulates. It doesn’t require the user to be smart, or have loads of free time to spend figuring out a new device. Ideally it sets itself up and fixes itself.
Smart adds value. Many smart home devices are intended to protect us or help us when something bad happens — fires, intruders, etc. The best of them find ways to be useful outside of that primary function. 99.9% of the time, my house isn’t on fire, but Nest Protect at least offers a handy nightlight when I walk by in the dark. How can these devices provide more value when everything is okay?
Our cameras capture all sorts of precious moments we might otherwise miss. A truly smart system could surface these as an added benefit.
A Final Rant — and a Request
It’s funny — when I realized that what I really wanted was for our lights to just do what they should be doing for the most part with some ability for me to make minor on-the-fly alterations, I set up elaborate on/off routines mapped to our typical weekdays and weekends.
Let me say this more clearly: I SAT DOWN AND THOUGHT ABOUT MY FAMILY AND OUR COMINGS AND GOINGS AND THEN MANUALLY TOLD THE LIGHTS TO GO ON AND OFF IN DIFFERENT ROOMS ON DIFFERENT DAYS AND TIMES.
Do you get why that’s wrong?!
I guess if I had one request for you, my Smart Home, and the designers who create devices for you, it would be to think a little more about how you define “smart.”
Knowing how to do a lot of things doesn’t necessarily make you smart if they’re the wrong things, or if you do them at the wrong time.
In my experience, the smartest people are the ones who listen best, and that’s what I’d suggest. In your next generation, don’t try to do more things, or connect with the most devices. Try to pay a little more attention to the people whose lives you’re trying to improve … so they don’t have to spend so much time paying attention to you.
There’s a good chance you’ve used Uber or Lyft to get from one place to another, or opted for an Airbnb over a hotel room. You might have even had packages delivered into your home, thanks to Amazon Key.
While these all seem commonplace now, if someone had told you ten years ago that one day you’d be comfortable getting into a stranger’s car, sleeping at a stranger’s house, or having a stranger unlock your front door to deliver your groceries, you wouldn’t have believed them.
New technologies are subject to the highs and lows of consumers’ expectations. We embrace them, doubt them, and underestimate them. While this adds complexity to the work of product designers, there are frameworks that can help predict how people will respond to emerging technologies both now and ten or more years into the future.
The Peaks and Valleys of Product Adoption
It might seem like Uber and Airbnb are overnight success stories. That’s because humans have a cognitive quirk that makes it hard for us to comprehend how long it takes for a new technology to begin to snowball. Remember that before ridesharing, we had taxis with GPS. Before Airbnb, house-sharing trendsetters were “couch surfing.”
Our response to new technologies is characterized by the Gartner Hype Cycle. It’s a methodology that helps us understand our relationship with new technologies.
First comes our wildly excited reaction, which quickly reaches a “Peak of Inflated Expectations.” This soon gives way to a “Trough of Disillusionment” when years go by and nothing much seems to happen.
Slowly, people advance along the “Slope of Enlightenment,” as they begin to understand how they might incorporate the technology into their lives in a meaningful way. Lastly, we reach the “Peak of Productivity,” in which mainstream adoption takes off and we consider this technology or product the norm.
From end to end, the Gartner Hype Cycle oscillates up and down before it plateaus. It’s not a straight line, and it’s a reminder that users’ attitudes toward new technologies fluctuate.
Amara’s Law: How Our Expectations Take Us Over-Under
Scientist and futurist Roy Amara took this one step further when he recognized this quirk and immortalized it sometime in the 1960s or ‘70s as “Amara’s Law.” The law states, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate it in the long run.”
It’s a very simple statement, but it touches on an interesting peculiarity. People are better at visualizing linear, algebraic growth, but technology’s growth is geometric before it plateaus. And the average person has a limited ability to figure out the compounding numbers of exponential growth.
In other words, people expect a new technology to have a linear trajectory. At the same time, we tend to have high expectations for brand new technologies, even when they still have lots of kinks to work out.
Then, by the time those tools are commonplace, we’re just as likely to underestimate them.
Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, and GPS, According to Amara
We can see this in action when we look at artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), and autonomous vehicles — new technologies that we currently overestimate.
Everyone’s currently buzzing about AI, VR, and autonomous vehicles, but according to the Gartner Hype Cycle, over the next few years, people will likely become frustrated and disillusioned with these technologies when they perceive progress to have slowed. Then, per Amara’s Law, by the time AI, VR, and autonomous vehicles have truly transformed our day-to-day lives — by the time we’re all traveling in autonomous flying vehicles — we’ll be underestimating them.
Over the next few years, people will likely become frustrated and disillusioned with AI, VR and autonomous vehicles when they perceive progress to have slowed.
We can see this from the other side when we look at GPS navigation. It started out as an exciting Cold War technology, sparked by Sputnik. But when it didn’t have a tremendous immediate impact on our lives, people lost interest. Fast forward to today and GPS is what makes our smartphones so powerful. It enables much of our daily lives, yet we take it for granted.
The Amara’s Law Sweet Spot
As economist and writer Matt Ridley points out, “Between the early disappointment and the later underestimate there must be a moment when we get it about right.” What he means is there’s a kind of sweet spot in Amara’s Law.
We can see this in the human genome project. When it was first released as a draft sequence in 2000, prominent figures including Bill Clinton proclaimed that it would eradicate cancer. When ten years passed and the project hadn’t delivered any novel medical use, critics began to dismiss it. But another decade later, we’re starting to see gene therapies that are actually making an impact on cancer treatment and other chronic diseases.
Before gene-based therapies become so commonplace that we take them for granted, there might be a brief moment when people appreciate the technology for what it does — nothing more and nothing less.
Using Amara’s Law to Drive Design Strategy
There’s a good chance that 15 to 20 years from now, we’ll take for granted something that seems totally wild today. (Space tourism, anyone?) Which is why it’s important to consider Amara’s Law when you’re doing product design strategy work that looks ten or more years into the future.
This is especially true if you’re working with concepts that hinge on an emerging technology. An innovation introduced today might be overhyped in the short term and underestimated in the long run. How will that inform your approach? Can you balance the initial hype with the imminent underestimation?
Also consider Amara’s Law if your concepts will live in an environment that is at all affected by an emerging technology, or by a technology becoming obsolete. Are you developing a product to be used inside a car? Will it still make sense in autonomous vehicles?
Forecasting technological change is almost impossibly difficult, but Amara’s Law and other frameworks like it can give us a new perspective.