Whether creating a wearable device for in-home use, or an advanced surgical tool for the operating room, good design starts with user insights. Through user insights, design firms learn how users become aware of the need for such a device, what features or functionality draw people to purchase the device, what environmental aspects need to be considered, and what aesthetic elements detract from or improve the overall user experience. These findings, discovered early in the product development process, guide designers and engineers toward informed decisions around function, form, material, and color. This helps set the product on a path for success in the marketplace and in the hands of users.

Fig. 1 – During ethnographic research we can observe the surgical workflow, including preparation, sterilization, and storage.
With today’s surge in self-monitoring wearables and robotic surgical technology, it’s as important as ever that products being introduced to the market have distinctive visual features. Not only does this help the product stand out from the growing crowd of competitors, but a visual design impacts user satisfaction. The visual components of a product have the power to influence acceptance, usability, and market success. So, what does it take to create an impactful design at the early stages of the product cycle before it gets released into the world?

Before any of the details of the visual design can be worked out, you first need to answer the tough question: What is the problem you are trying to solve? In answering this, it’s important to consider everything from current trends to competitive landscape to overall user needs. By addressing this overarching question and the supplemental objectives at the start of your product journey, you can better determine the appropriate tools needed to pave the way for product success.

The best approach to creating strong design is an iterative and collaborative process involving researchers, designers, and engineers at the beginning of concept creation. Designers can then better understand what features will and won’t work in the real world. This will also result in a smoother handoff between teams later in the product development process. It is during the concept stages that designers can fully explore what physical features will gain the most user acceptance—this is where research comes into play.

A Strong Visual Design Starts with Research

Research allows design firms to get into the minds of users and understand what will make them want to use the product. Through research, user preferences around everything from choice of color to subtleties in shape are uncovered. While product creators are attached to a certain look and feel, ultimately they aren’t designing for themselves; they are designing for a specific customer. Therefore, observing and communicating with a select group of sample customers at the start will ultimately yield the best results. Depending on the problem you are trying to solve, there are several research approaches for gathering valuable insights on the design, regardless of the product setting. While each research approach serves its own purpose, two of the most powerful qualitative tools are ethnographic research and in-depth interviews.

The Approach

In ethnographic research, designers have the opportunity to observe a user in their natural habitat, whether in the home, office, or other setting. This allows for “uncensored” insights, because the user is comfortable interacting with the device in their own environment. Designers can understand a lot by observing and listening to the user’s point of view on how they naturally use the device, and how they complete their current workflow. (See Figure 1) These insights gleaned can provide a new level of understanding of product use. For example, in the case of in-home patients, it’s important that devices blend in with the environment, rather than draw attention to the patient’s medical needs. By shadowing the user during their product routine the design research team can see any immediate physical or emotional reactions around the visuals of the device. Is the device too bulky? Does the color stand out too much? Does it look like a medical device?

Some of the best insights come from getting inside one person’s head. This is where in-depth interviews, whether over the phone or in person, are a powerful tool for getting honest feedback from the user without the influence of others. Unlike ethnographic research, which is largely based on observation, in-depth interviews are focused around getting to the meat of specific concerns or questions from the client. For example, in the development of surgical devices, in-depth interviews with medical practitioners give design firms a peek into the surgical workflow, while gathering real-time feedback from experts.

Here’s a real-world example in which research insights confirmed or refuted assumptions around the planned design of a product. And, along the way, the unexpected was discovered.

Insights in Action

Fig. 2 – Weighted ergonomic appearance model of a surgical drill used for design evaluation.
Despite evolving technologies making great strides in the world of orthopedics, innovation was still lacking in the common plate and screw placement procedures. McGinley Orthopedics, which develops innovative engineering solutions for surgical procedures, sought to change that. A typical plate and screw placement is a two-step process that involves the use of a bone drill and separate depth gauge to determine the correct screw length. However, this often results in inaccurate depth measurements and, thereby, incorrect screw lengths, ultimately leading to surgical complications. It may also require a surgeon to use intraoperative imaging, exposing patients and operating teams to unnecessary radiation to determine if a screw is in the correct location in the bone. Therefore, McGinley Orthopedics teamed up with a product design and innovation firm to create an intelligent surgical drill, which combines drilling and depth gauging into a single step procedure to potentially reduce surgical time and radiation exposure, as well as potential surgical complications caused by incorrect screw lengths or plunging past the bone into critical structures. (See Figure 2)

In order to create a drill that was both functional and aesthetically pleasing, the design team sought to dig into the unmet needs, workflow, habits, and behavior of users. To do so, they conducted a series of in-depth interviews with orthopedic surgeons (the users) and went on several onsite visits to observe the surgical workflow from storage to preparation to sterilization. By immersing themselves in the orthopedic surgical process, they were able to explore the surgeon’s perceptions around aesthetics in the context of other medical devices.

From the research, they discovered that the visual features they expected to cause concern for the users proved not to be an issue. This included the use of black sheet metal and the integration of a long cord that attached to a separate user interface system. While their findings from the interviews and observations refuted their original assumptions around color and cords, they also arrived at insights they did not expect to find. They observed that the existing drilling workflow required the assistance of a scrub nurse to indicate to the surgeon when they reached the correct depth.

Therefore, the final design included a trigger mechanism with forward and reverse settings that allowed the surgeon to conduct the drilling and measuring without additional assistance, so that the nurse could focus on other aspects of the surgery. (See Figure 3)

Fig. 3 – The surgical drill being used in a surgical setting.
Another significant insight was the discovery of the need for an integrated light to illuminate the drill bit target. This allows for a clearer visual path to drilling and inserting the screws, eliminating shadows that the surgeons would otherwise need to navigate.

Actionable Insights

After lifting the first layer of the product development process, the design firm can translate the insights into actionable tasks. Whether working with raw data or rough sketches, journey maps, stories, and moodboards are among the most useful tools for visually displaying high level research findings in a digestible form. These tools help generate conversations among various teams, garner feedback from clients and stakeholders, and serve as a springboard for the creation of tangible concepts. Through these tools, designers can easily and clearly see a single format representation of the visual features that resonate most with users, as well as what features to omit.

Concept Validation

From the research findings, designers can start to explore or reevaluate physical product concepts. Ultimately, with research they aren’t just executing on design, they are providing advice on the wisdom of proceeding, and what it takes to proceed. With the research findings serving as the starting point from which to craft or rethink a concept, designers integrate the key learnings into various models, starting with rough sketches that get translated into foam models and eventually solid prototypes.

These models are an important part of the design process because they allow the design firm to physically interact with potential concepts and further determine whether the desired user features will visually and functionally work.

For example, in the creation of the surgical drill mentioned above, the design firm fabricated hand-shaped foam models to evaluate potential designs. By interacting with the models, they arrived at a small, well-balanced, and lightweight device that comfortably rests in the surgeon’s hand. It was during the later stages of design exploration with prototypes that they discovered that the use of black sheet metal allowed for the drill to be entirely autoclavable. It was also a unique color choice that stood out in an otherwise blue, white, and gray color palette in the world of medical drills.

From the form exploration, designers can dig deeper into the details and start to tweak and add certain components to improve the design from an aesthetic and mechanical standpoint. Whether looking at the overall form or design details, prototypes created early in the design process also serve an important role in testing and refining the functional features of the product.

This is where engineering helps tie the various elements together by integrating the design features and research insights into a functioning model. Through engineering, the design firm can learn what components are easily manufacturable, cost effective, long-lasting, and will still maintain the overall look and feel of the product. From there, they can make necessary technical adjustments to ultimately bring the product through to the last stage—the marketplace.


Great consumer products don’t happen accidentally, and the same is true for medical devices. They are the result of a combination of user research, mindful design, and clever engineering. This can also be applied to the creation of medical devices that resonate with customers and stand out from the crowd. In the end, whatever industry you are designing for, keep in mind the power that research and user feedback can have to transform a concept into a product that is beautiful, functional, and successful.

This article was written by Andrea Pyka, Communications Specialist; Gretchen McNeely, Director of Research and Strategy; Lawson Fisher, Director of Engineering; and Martin Leugers, Senior Industrial Designer, Speck Design, Inc., Palo Alto, CA. For more information, Click Here .