If you’re going to build something, you have to make sure it works.
At this point in my Design Process series, we have empathized with our stakeholders, defined our problem, brainstormed, and prototyped. Now we’ve got a solid design that, we think, meets the needs of our end-users and their caregivers.
It’s time to take it out of the lab and get it into the hands of the people who will give us the feedback we need to make sure we’re on target.
What it Is
The design process is cyclical, going back and forth between steps. As we ideate, we make prototypes, reimagining our designs as we see flaws in our ideas and coming up with improvements.
This iterative process means that we are also testing them the entire time we work on our prototypes. We’re looking for an essential function, does this work as intended? Can I continue down this path and build off of this design? Is this a realistic addition to the everyday life of my user?
When we reach the ‘testing’ phase, that doesn’t mean we’ve designed and built up to this point with no reflection on our work. It means that we’re taking it a step further and getting into specific criteria to confirm that the design is ready to move forward.
During testing, we are establishing the usability of a product. Up to this point in the process, a design is tested for function, in the lab. We will have put the item on or used it the way the end-user will, ensuring that it is functional and practical.
Now, we are re-engaging our end-users and other stakeholders that have been involved since the beginning. We rely on the same people who helped us define the problem and shape our designs to provide the feedback we need to know that the product we’ve produced meets its intended user’s needs.
We’re looking to meet three standards before progressing.
A very typical problem that a designer runs into is where you have a design that functions beautifully in the lab, then when you take it out of the building and put it into real use, it fails.
When I say ‘fails,’ I don’t necessarily mean that the device’s mechanism doesn’t work, however, that does sometimes occur. It often means that the design presents additional challenges to the end-user, caregiver, or stakeholder.
Traditionally, this isn’t a design aspect that designers discuss. Usually, the core function of the product is what drives acceptance on the part of the designer or manufacturer. My process prioritizes empathy, and so it is absolutely vital that a design not only perform as intended in its mechanism but also fit seamlessly into the daily life of my users and stakeholders.
So, when we test for practicality, I want to know how the stakeholders integrate a device into their routines. Does it require significant disruption to their existing habits? Are there unintended consequences impacting other aspects of their lives?
If the answers to these questions are ‘yes,’ it may mean that the device wouldn’t be adopted if produced in its current state. That means we head back into prototyping to refine the product.
Ease of Use
There is always a gap in specialized knowledge between you, your end-users, and sometimes even your colleagues, in any profession.
A typical example would be the tech support professionals in an office: they can often speak using jargon the average employee doesn’t understand or assume a level of technical knowledge that an average employee wouldn’t have. Processes that may be obvious to them are complicated and confusing to others.
You need to be aware of, and test for, a similar phenomenon when creating wearable technology.
By being so deeply involved in the work, it is surprisingly easy to overlook the complexity or length of time it might take to learn how to use or care for a device.
Not only does a design need to work and not disrupt routines, but it needs to be easy to use and easy to learn to use.
If a caregiver says, during this phase, “The garment worked really well, but it is tough to put on and take off,” that means you have some more work to do. Creating solutions involves respecting the complete range of needs your stakeholders have, which includes simplicity and ease.
The final criteria are the item’s appeal, which we’ve discussed a lot in this series. I return to it repeatedly while designing because it is important to me that my work and my students’ work always emphasize this point.
People with disabilities, sickness, or other challenges are often treated as though they should have a lower set of expectations of the products that they use. For instance, an average product or garment is measured by its build quality, how useful that item is, and by its aesthetic appeal. In contrast, an item designed for a person with disabilities is usually measured only by how useful it is; it is judged very narrowly by how well it solves a problem or mitigates symptoms.
All garments and devices, medical or otherwise, need to serve several purposes for their user. A pair of jeans is a covering, keeps the wearer warm, and reflects their sense of style. While wearable technology might serve as a covering and will provide relief for a condition’s symptoms, there is no reason why it should not also reflect the wearer’s sense of style.
Medical or physical necessity may be the driver behind creating a device, but that should never mean that the aesthetic appeal and looking good wearing it is not essential.
Why it Works
There are many variables when designing wearable technology. A designer is free to take a project in any direction they want, but that opens up many opportunities for the scope to drift and your goals to become muddied.
With all the nuances in the design process, keeping empathy at the forefront of your mind helps direct your work. In the testing phase, we return to these concepts of practicality, ease of use, and appeal. These ideas have factored into ideation and prototyping already to ensure our designs solve the problems we have identified and meet our users’ needs.
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this post and found it useful. If you did, you can subscribe to my blog below, and you’ll be updated when the final installment of the Design Process series is complete!