Stephanie Van Ness, Integrated Computer Solutions (ICS)
Today’s consumers have steep expectations. They want products that solve their immediate problems. But they also want new and innovative products that make their lives easier or better in some way, setting the bar ever-higher for manufacturers. As a result, product development is trickier than ever. And, if we’re talking product development in the medical device arena, where one poorly designed device can spell disaster for both user and manufacturer, the challenges (and risks) are off the charts.
One way manufacturers of consumer products or medical devices can cope is by assembling the right development team — professionals hand-picked for not just technical expertise but also “soft” attributes like work style and temperament.
Similar but not the same
Consumer electronics and medical devices are two different animals so product development approaches (and teams) that work for one likely don’t for the other. Sure, there’s some overlap, particularly in the ideation and early R&D phases. Consumers of all stripes desire innovation. People don’t want the same old, same old. They want new ideas, new thinking. But new thinking that satisfies a need, not pie-in-the-sky innovation for the mere sake of innovation.
Using research tools like ‘Voice of the Customer’ to get customer input upfront — to identify customer wants and needs at the outset and ensure the finished device is something that will actually be used — helps manufacturers on both sides of the fence follow the right path. In this phase, it doesn’t much matter whether we’re talking about a smart thermostat or a fetal monitoring system.
But there are differences. Fundamentally, developing consumer products is all about urgency. The window of opportunity is open only briefly so speed to market is paramount. Minor design or development glitches can be tolerated because the product life cycle is short and because consumers hungry for the latest tech prioritize innovation over perfection. They’re typically willing to overlook minor defects or deficits in order to get a hot new device — say the latest mobile phone or smart gadget — in their hands as quickly as possible. That’s why companies like Apple expect to release patches and updates almost as soon as they introduce a new device. Apple and its brethren know fixes are inevitable and so plans for them.
That’s definitely not the case on the medical side. Because medical devices are often lifesaving, there is no room for error. Manufacturers can’t put out a device knowing it has a few flaws, to be fixed later. So, perfection is the goal. That’s why speed to market — while still important — takes a back seat to testing, testing and more testing, as well as complying with a slew of stringent regulatory requirements. In other words, risk management takes on far greater importance in the medical device realm.
Defining your customer
Another difference between consumer products and medical device development relates to the term “customer.” When talking about a consumer product, the customer is typically the end user. You buy a toaster. You make yourself breakfast. Straightforward. It doesn’t usually work that way with medical devices. In the medical realm, the customer might be a patient receiving treatment. Or, it could be the doctor or nurse providing treatment. Or, the customer could be a clinical staffer at a nursing home or other non-hospital care facility, even an in-home caregiver.
And for some medical device makers that ‘white label’ there’s the added layer of customer understanding down the line. For instance, the outside manufacturer that purchases it then sells the device to a hospital, which then needs to convince a doctor to use it to treat her patient. Every stakeholder in this scenario is “the customer.”
Manufacturers must perfectly match the device’s design and user experience to the person using the product, so understanding and carefully refining the customer persona is imperative — more so than on the consumer side.
Urgency versus caution
Another difference between consumer product and medical device development concerns pace. On the consumer side, success demands lightning-quick decision making. Product designs are often influenced by fashion, pop culture or the latest trends — aesthetics matter greatly and consumer taste is fickle — so market opportunities are fleeting. As a result, development timelines are short and urgency is prized. That’s one reason Type A personalities — intense, driven, fast-moving — are often drawn to consumer product teams. They love the adrenaline rush.
For medical device teams, developing a new product is particularly arduous. Addressing thorny compliance issues and managing risk are difficult, not to mention deeply understanding your “customer,” which we’ve established can be a number of different people. In this environment, caution is more important than speed. In terms of a development team, stability, predictability and precision are valued. That’s why medical device development teams tend to be highly analytical and more cautious than other types of development teams. Their focus is safety first.
Skills and sensibilities
When choosing your product development team, stack the odds in your favor by ensuring the members of your team have not only relevant technical skills but the sensibilities suited to the task at hand. Individual personalities and character traits matter. A crack medical device team accustomed to long periods of meticulous product testing may fail miserably if asked to operate in the aggressive, go-go-go world of consumer electronics. Similarly, a top-performing consumer team may lose focus in the slower-moving but a higher-stakes medical environment, where extended timelines, heavier emphasis on QA and greater compliance burdens rule.
The takeaway: it’s worth the extra effort to painstakingly match your development team to your priorities. One size doesn’t fit all.
Stephanie Van Ness is a senior marketing communications manager and chief storyteller for ICS and Boston UX. An experienced copywriter with a Boston University J-school degree, Stephanie has spent her career helping businesses like Deloitte, FM Global, Blue Cross Blue Shield and FIS/Sungard shape their messages.
The opinions expressed in this blog post are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect those of MassDevice.com or its employees.
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