Over the years, technological innovation has allowed the medical equipment sector to become a mission-critical part of the healthcare industry, delivering such benefits as lower operating costs and improved patient outcomes. But competitive pressures are driving the need for device developers to provide a richer experience for users, incorporating broader capabilities and features and more options.

This creates new demands for user-friendly products and intuitive user interfaces (UIs) that can be accessed quickly and accurately, and it brings new challenges for equipment developers who are already under pressure to meet nimble product development plans and rapid time-to-market delivery expectations. As a result, embedded UI software engineers are playing an increasingly important role. They have the potential to save time, reduce costs, and improve patient care from the early stages of the product-development process.

Disconnect Between UI and Device Development

One of the issues for many companies is the disconnect between UI development and device development. More devices require screens to display information, provide feedback, and control the device and its options. In the past, user interaction was developed by the engineers, since they were most familiar with the device’s capabilities. But developing an intuitive UI for onscreen usability requires a different set of capabilities in terms of understanding the needs and proficiencies of a wide range of end users. Engineers may end up moving ahead to develop a product and manually writing code that has to be changed after usability testing. That causes expensive delays and redevelopment.

Poor interface on a surgical lighting product wasn’t intuitive for users and was labor-intensive for programmers to make even minor changes such as moving a button or adding an icon. (Credit: Crank Software)

This was the case for a Fortune 500, multinational medical device company based in the United States. The company produces a long, successful list of surgical and patient-handling equipment, endoscopic solutions, and neurovascular and spinal devices. For products that include graphical user interfaces (GUIs), the company often looks to outside consultants for expertise. This approach gets the job done but bringing consultants up to speed on different projects takes valuable time. Some of the company’s divisions have dedicated GUI professionals, but their conventional approach involves mocking up static screens using a design tool and then creating an actual interface using a programming language. This, too, is a drain on limited resources and budgets.

Both approaches result in poor design-to-development workflows and long iteration cycles that can impact time to market and competitive success. In contrast, a development framework lets developers incorporate valuable usability feedback into the application quickly and easily, which can accelerate development and lead to faster time to market and greater customer satisfaction.

Labor-Intensive Upgrade Requires New Approach

In this case, the company needed to upgrade a clunky interface on a five-year-old surgical lighting product. It wasn’t intuitive for users, and it was labor-intensive for programmers to make even minor changes such as moving a button or adding an icon. Additionally, tech support for the GUI framework was nonexistent, which created another challenge since there was only one in-house software engineer assigned to the project.

The engineer knew of another division within the company that had a software team working on user interface (UI) design and development, so he reached out to see what they were using. The group had just completed a thorough investigation into a number of products, and their number one choice was Crank Storyboard with its significant capabilities, ease of use, and exceptional technical support.

At the same time, another product ran into GUI issues with a number of workflow and usability flaws uncovered during user testing. The same engineer was pulled in to help out and was given one month to replace the GUI that had taken the group almost a year to develop. After a product demo, the engineer got to work with the new tool. Within two weeks he had designed all the UI screens and graphics, and within a month had developed a fully functional GUI prototype. “Storyboard provided an extremely rapid way to develop code,” says the engineer. “Because it could create executables for Windows as well as for our target hardware, I was able to do the majority of the development on my laptop without having to mess with Ethernet cables, SD cards, and prototyping boards.”

Storyboard from Crank Software makes it easy to get UI prototypes up and running to show stakeholders and to test hardware early in the development cycle. It also supports quick iterations and bug fixes. (Credit: Crank Software)

Quick Iterations, Better Products

The newly revised product was soon back in usability testing with nurses, technicians, and other medical personnel. While it was a major improvement from the previous version, user feedback indicated areas where the design could be further improved. The team was surprised to learn that it could turn around a new version of the GUI the same day using Storyboard and its services.

The ability to gain user input and perform usability testing early in the product design — on a UI that is as close as possible to the final design — is key to efficient, fast development and customer satisfaction. Fully coding the UI and iterating on that is expensive and time-consuming, but UI developers can use a development framework that lets them quickly design the UI based on user input and make it look and act exactly like it will in the final product. From this early stage and throughout development, UI developers can get user feedback on everything from color saturation to size and placement of touch buttons, dropdown menus, responsiveness. Iteration happens in parallel with product development so the UI can be stable even before the rest of the system, making testing and validation smoother and more effective.

“Because it’s so easy to get prototypes up and running in Storyboard, you can show your GUI to numerous stakeholders early in the process to get buy-in and still have lots of time to revise the entire design,” the software engineer explains. “This includes the ability to test hardware early in the development cycle before you get locked into component selection.” He also found that quick iterations made it much easier to find and fix bugs. He adds, “The end result is a much better GUI and a superior product.”

The software engineer also appreciated the support he received whenever he encountered a problem. “With previous vendors, we could easily wait a month before getting help and that would put everything on hold,” he says. “With Crank, we got an immediate response and a custom solution to more complicated challenges within a week.”

Time and Cost Savings Drive Future Plans

The engineer was familiar with other graphical libraries and frameworks and was impressed with Storyboard’s intuitive design and ease of development. He estimates that it took roughly one tenth of the time to build a Storyboard GUI than it would have taken using the company’s existing tools. Given the average annual salary for a software engineer in the United States, the company saved over $80K in development costs on this one project alone.

The company is ready to use Storyboard on another project and anticipate using it for the foreseeable future. “Labor is very expensive,” the engineer says. “A big advantage with Crank is that we can do design and development at once, which preserves a tremendous amount of effort and gets us to market significantly quicker.”

This article was written by Jason Clarke, Co-founder and VP Marketing & Sales, Crank Software, Ottawa, ON, Canada. For more information, visit here .


Medical Design Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the August, 2020 issue of Medical Design Briefs Magazine.

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