Designing a healthy future for medical devices

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As global companies seek to make their products stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace, design has earned a place on the CEO agenda. That’s only to be expected when you consider the rich rewards that companies can reap when they get it right. Over the past decade, the S&P 500 companies that have invested most heavily in design processes, capabilities, and leaders—companies such as Disney, Nike, and P&G—have outperformed the rest of the index by 211 percent.1

But design isn’t the sole preserve of consumer industries; it’s also critical for medical devices. This is especially true in light of more elusive growth in the medtech sector. High-growth segments2 are shrinking: down from 20 percent of the market in 2011 to 12 percent in 2016 and falling. For the many medtech companies exposed to categories with low to moderate growth, patient-centric and clinician-centric design offers a key to stand out from competitors, and unlock gains in market share, access, and reimbursement.

Yet medtech companies often struggle to capture the benefits of good design. McKinsey has identified ten design practices organizations can take that are correlated with improved business value.3 In a recent survey, we found that medtech lags behind most other industries in these practices.

Medical companies can follow ten design practices to capture the benefits of good design.

One of the factors contributing to the relatively poor showing for medtech manufacturers is the additional obstacles they face when compared with consumer companies. They must work to understand multiple stakeholders: patients, users, physicians, providers, and payors. In a highly regulated industry, they must overcome the complexity of designing products that integrate hardware with software. And they must ensure that their offerings can connect with diverse and fragmented healthcare data systems. With so many challenges to address, it’s hardly surprising that few medtech companies have harnessed design to its full potential.

In this article, we look at three examples of actions medtech companies have started to take to unlock improved business performance and patient outcomes through design.

Make design more than a department

If you want to come up with game-changing ideas that your users will love, don’t rely exclusively on in-house engineersmake user-centricity everyone’s responsibility and bring in external talent as a complement. As medtech companies grow larger, they often find it harder to stay directly connected with payors, physicians, caregivers, and patients day to day.

One medtech CEO was convinced his executive board had lost touch with its patients. Effective immediately, he decided to invite a group of five patients every month to the board meeting. It was his team’s responsibility to make best use of this opportunity: whether they were the CFO, COO, or head of HR. They listened to patients’ personal relationship with the disease, learned about the pain points of today’s solutions, and tested ideas for future products and services. Almost overnight the senior discussions on their product portfolio changed from timelines and suppliers, to focus on whether they were truly lowering the burden of the disease. Fast forward five years, and the company introduced a number of digital services to complement its physical products and give comfort to patients. The market share price almost doubled over the same period.

Sometimes internal expertise is not enough. One medical products company was concerned about a lack of ideas in a critical upcoming device. To inject a dose of creativity, it brought in not only external clinicians and academics, but also more unusual sources of expertise: a children’s toy designer to help with the ergonomics of its device (the role of the toy designer was to exploit the similarity in dexterity between a ten-year-old and a 70-year-old with arthritis), and designers from a dating-app company to refine the user experience. This diverse group spent a week together, isolated from the everyday demands of the business, to focus on the needs of a group of patients that the company had served for 20 years.

The effort generated more than 20 new ideas for improving usability and reducing patients’ day-to-day awareness of their disease. The ideas included a new shape to prevent the device being positioned incorrectly, reflecting feedback from nurses about accidental injuries they had incurred when using the existing design. Other ideas were about improving the grip, making the device easier to use for patients with limited dexterity or impaired vision, and providing feedback when the device was used correctly. With the expertise of the dating-app developer, the team also managed to bring down the required touch points in the device’s supporting app from 32 steps to four, which improved user satisfaction, increased adherence, and reduced the overall perceived disease burden for the patients. The executive team hailed these refinements as “completely game changing,” and over the first three years the redesigned device exceeded market growth by 4 percentage points.

Make design more than a phase

Don’t just involve patients and physicians once at the beginning of product design. Keep them engaged and iterate with them every step along the wayeven post launch. One pitfall that many medical device companies fall into is the one of following the traditional waterfall approach. User research is completed, requirements are set, the detailed design is locked in and handed over to the production team. Too often this approach results in products being developed without sufficient insight into user needs, and the potential effects on sales may not be felt until launch, when investments have already been sunk.

One large medical device company wanted to get its new product to market ahead of the competition but without compromising on user input, and decided to not limit the window for user insights. The development team adopted a rapid prototyping approach throughout the process. Multiple design concepts were tested, iterated, and improved at the same time. This approach enabled the company to move from its historic track record of producing one prototype per month, to produce three to five prototypes every day and squeeze 170 hours of user testing into every week. Three concepts were prioritized based on user feedback, and the best elements of each were combined. Thanks to this intensive user testing (one of the most efficient examples we are aware of to date in medical devices), the final product not only met but exceeded its physician satisfaction scores and sales were 15 percent above forecast.

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Another medical device company decided to redefine its interpretation of “a launch.” Designers continued to observe patients once the product was in-market using its diabetes injection device and companion app. They also collected real world data from the app itself. Several hardware improvement ideas were generated, decreasing the cost and time of the design of the next generation product by 15 percent compared to a traditional development approach. Even more exciting, the designers were able to optimize the companion app post-launch. They made changes that were acceptable to regulatory bodies, but increased physician likelihood to prescribe by 10 percent, given the improved ease-of-use for less digitally savvy patients.

Make design more than a feeling

Measure and incentivize design as rigorously as you would revenue, quality, or cost. For many years consumer goods and retail industries have led the way in measuring customer satisfaction, using metrics like Net Promoter Scores or average customer reviews on sites such as Amazon. Some of these companies have gone a step further, by tying executives’ bonuses to these customer-driven metrics (in addition to financial performance measures) to ensure a focus on long-term customer loyalty.

Some leading medical device companies have begun to follow suit. One company was recently developing advanced surgical equipment. It measured system usability scores of competitor products, and then set its own target score far higher, to ensure that the equipment could be marketed as having the lowest user-driven error statistics in the industry. It incentivized the team working on the product to hit these usability scores through a combination of financial rewards and non-financial recognition.

The old saying of “what gets measured, gets done” proved itself true, as the usability scores soon progressed above the originally set targets. They were able to demonstrate to healthcare providers that the lower user-driven error rate led to fewer readmissions and unplanned lengthened stays. As a result, the product became the market leader.

The changing face of medical-device design

The changing face of medical-device design

Not willing to rest on its laurels, the company is now using data collected from every time the equipment is in use to better understand how surgeons interact with it, so that the next generation product will have even higher usability scores.

How to get started

Design starts at the top. Leaders who want to understand whether their company is harnessing the power of design can take our quick self-diagnostic survey to highlight areas for improvement. Based on this, leaders can draw up a more informed target state for how the company will design products and services better in the future.

A company’s future vision for design can risk being too theoretical, so leaders should swiftly choose a real upcoming product on which to pilot, iterate, and refine the concepts. Three hallmarks of a good choice of product to pilot are:

  1. It is planned to drive substantial value for the business (greater than 5 percent revenue), and therefore has senior management attention—ideally including the CEO. Otherwise it risks being too incremental.
  2. It is facing competition, potentially including innovative offerings by “new” competitors, creating a real reason to do things differently.
  3. It is complex, potentially combining hardware and software, and requiring multiple functions around the world to be involved.

The medtech sector has been slower than other industries to harness the business value of design. Medtech leaders now have the opportunity to use user-centric design methods honed in those other industries to drive higher returns, increase growth, and most importantly, to improve patient outcomes.

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