Effective Design Partnerships: Understanding the Critical Partnership Research Stage

Part 1 of this blog series addressed how to go about developing the best and most powerful partnership between a medical product manufacturer and an outside design firm. Here, Part 2 discusses what every medical manufacturer should bring to the research stage of any project.

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Every customer makes a decision to buy a product--or not--based on a holistic experience.  The “yes” or “no” comes from a partly conscious, partly subconscious evaluation of many things beyond price, or a certain feature, or its color.

  •  How sturdy does it feel?
  •  What did the packaging make me think?
  • Can I understand what I’m supposed to do with that button?
  • Does it have the right vibe for my aesthetic environment?
  • Do I like the person who first told me about it?
  • How comfortable is the material?
  • Does the name make sense?
  • How easily can I buy it?
  • How will my boss feel about it?
  • How difficult will it be to fit this product into our processes?

The eventual product’s sales will rise and fall on the net effect of a thousand inputs. This is why, once a manufacturer and design firm have established a partnership, the research phase is so critical. It’s in the research phase where we define the context and value of those inputs.

Smart manufacturers come to the partnership having already thought through the basic validity of the problem. According to Pragmatic Marketing, a company that trains professionals in effective product management, that means investing only in problems that are pervasive, that are urgent, and that the market is willing to pay to solve.

The manufacturer, however, often brings not only the problem the team is trying to solve, but also some assumptions about the method for solving the problem (“Here’s what the product should be…”).  The design firm brings more objectivity and holistic perspective to the research; in an effective partnership, it can both question the manufacturer’s assumptions and think beyond them.

When Cari Ugent, founder of Safepole LLC, began working with a design firm on what eventually became the Safepole IV pole, she had already interviewed nurses, doctors, and patients extensively about the difficulties of IV poles. But once in the design partnership, she learned that her own expectations and research didn’t necessarily account for the product’s full potential.

“There hadn’t been any major improvements in the IV pole since World War II,” she said.  “I wasn’t all that concerned about aesthetics at the start.  I just wanted to improve it from a functional perspective.”

But little by little, the design firm helped her see the larger potential.

“They brought to light the fact that the functionality could certainly be improved, but also the ergonomics and the aesthetics. I came to realize that all these factors were hugely important.”

Few markets rival the medical market for complexity.  Most product sales involve a long line of people who can influence the decision: doctors, patients, nurses, technicians, IT engineers, accountants, safety managers, regulators, administrators, auditors, and more. Each has a slightly--or radically--different calculation of the holistic value of the product. Each influences the potential sale in different ways, and at different times. Faced with such complexity, manufacturers attempting to accurately define the market opportunity need all the help they can get.

An Luo, co-president of TEAMS Shanghai, works with both local and international clients. He emphasizes that the manufacturer/designer partnership is never more critical than in the research phase.

“We should both look at the market,” he says. “They’re the experts (the manufacturers), but we evaluate how many different people view the problem and solution. We think more holistically… and the designer/manufacturer partnership is best as a complementary effort. We can understand better together how to satisfy the various customers and influencers.”

Luo points to an MRI development for a Chinese manufacturer where the partnership worked well. The manufacturer provided a design briefing. But the TEAMS research uncovered many more insights with important design implications. In some aspects of the product, the user experience and value proposition was identical for all MRI markets, whether in Germany, China, or elsewhere. But not all.

“In the Chinese MRI market,” says Luo, “there are so many doctors using the equipment that they don’t want to use extra seconds to adjust the bed, so they buy machines with the adjustment feature but never use it.”

This insight would not have been apparent without objective in-market research; the partners would have assumed that X percent of existing products are sold with the adjustment feature, so it must be valuable to X percent of the market. Instead, the partners eliminated the feature for the Chinese market and added a simple step stool, which reduced the cost and improved the product’s holistic value to the market.

But Luo has also seen clients that don’t understand the value of research, and suffer for it.

“One client didn’t have a clear target customer and end-use scenario in mind, but didn’t want to spend money on the research phase,” he says. “They said, ‘We know what we need.’”

In hindsight, they didn’t. The product either needed to fit the large Chinese professional medical market, or the large home medical market. But without solid research, the result was a very cool product with the right vibe for the home medical market, but a price tag appropriate only to the professional market. The predictable result: the product isn’t selling.

Contrast that with Ugent’s perspective several years after the launch of the Safe Pole IV pole. “We did a ton of research at the outset,” she says, “and our customers are really happy with the product.”


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This file type includes high resolution graphics and schematics when applicable.


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What's Contributors' Corner ?

Guest contributors submit their opinions and knowledge about the Medical Design space


Ruthann Browning

Ruthann Browning is a 28-year veteran of process equipment and automation. She currently handles Technical Sales in Automation in Comco’s western division and spearheads sales and marketing for...

Steve Schubert

Steve Schubert is VP, Business Development, for Advanced Machine & Engineering in Rockford, Ill. He has been with the company for more than 30 years.
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