Medical technology is a rapidly developing, yet at the same time mature industry. It started to flourish in the 19th and early 20th century when medical professionals with a creative engineering vein started to tinker in order to upgrade and broaden their limited set of tools that originated literally in the blacksmith's shop. Visionary surgeons like Theodor Kocher (the son of an engineer) and John Charnley (an avid science student as a youth) created medical devices and related schools of thinking that have resisted a significant redesign for decades.

Technological stagnation has no place in a competitive world. The ability to innovate products, processes and services has been identified as a key long-term factor for economic success and prosperity regardless of the branch of business. In few industries is this correlation as strong and fast paced as in the field of medical technology. Less than 50% of all technological products applied in medicine today have been on the market in their current form for more than three years. The long-term success of the medtech industry with its short product cycles therefore depends on active research and development and the creation of new products.

Is it possible for medical technology enterprises to consistently produce true innovation? In the absence of genuine technological breakthroughs many companies are forced to use existing components and hone their arrangement. I would call this a 'renovation', yet such an approach can lead to appealing and successful products. The match-winning factor is often not a new feature but an improvement of the quality of a product. Such improvements are the result of innovative design.

People skilled in pattern recognition

“Less than 50% of all technological products applied in medicine today have been on the market in their current form for more than three years.”

Until fairly recently many corporations only thought of design as a way to 'make things pretty'. It was up to engineers to come up with novelties and add functions. But this approach hides a dangerous pitfall: a new function is only as good as its acceptance by the customer. To avoid surprises in the market, product development needs to be started by a preliminary project, and it needs more than engineers at the table.

An abundance of technology and information have rendered the decision-making process difficult. Not just for individuals – even businesses are prone to information overload these days. To make sense of a sea of information and development options, people skilled in pattern recognition and visual communication are needed, and this is exactly what designers are really good at.

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Essential contributions to successful innovation and even corporate strategy are expected from designers, because they can help to visualise the world as it could be, even if what they envisage is a significant jump from the reality. The designer's ability to render new ideas tangible helps to drive rapid buy-in and improve the decision-making and iteration process.

A serendipitous approach

As in architecture, the conception and creation of a preliminary study, a mock-up, a model has become an important and typical step in the development of new medtech products. Its realisation has become easier, too: rapid prototyping technology makes it possible to quickly and rather cheaply 'print out an idea in three-dimensional form', just to see how it feels and handles. At this stage putting together new components, unusual ideas and fresh know-how can change the direction of a development project dramatically.

The serendipitous character of this approach may appear risky, even frivolously adventurous to companies that are rather used to solving engineering problems. However, it should not be forgotten that this kind of risk taking is not so different from other forms of investment. Design is an active redirection of resources to create benefits in the future. Especially for start-ups, a convincing product study is by all means a bankable asset.

Taking blame gladly

An essential question that defines design-driven product development is the characterisation of the market. By enabling an external partner to get early feedback about new product ideas from the end user, namely medical professionals and patients, medical technology companies that outsource design reduce the bias that is generated by existing buyer-seller relationships.

“Until fairly recently many corporations only thought of design as a way to ‘make things pretty’.”

In such an arrangement criticism is a welcome input,because it helps to detect flaws and weaknesses in order to eliminate them before they are part of a production run.

By outsourcing design, companies buy themselves the freedom to be wrong (for a little while), in order to find new and better ways to be right on target with the final product. 'It is too heavy.' 'It is too small,' Such may be the verdict of a first consumer analysis. But 'heavy' can also amount to 'more stable'. That an early mockup is 'too small' may signify that larger, cheaper components can be used for the final version. So, far from merely being a beautifying process, design holds the key to many aspects of production, marketing and even corporate identity:

Design as a corporate strategy. Leading businesses who wish to be competitive in the markets of tomorrow must be ready to innovate today. Design thinking is a new strategic approach that helps to streamline the innovation process. Solutions driven and value creating, it generally accelerates innovation by enabling different processes to be conducted in parallel. It harnesses the creative collaboration of all specialists involved, from medical technology experts, engineers and industrial designers to certification providers and financial controllers. Where know-how is scant, external experts are invited to the table.

Early testing, fast prototyping. The interdisciplinary approach of design thinking ensures that innovation is fast-tracked. During the initial phase of market research, engineers and designers are already developing ergonomic prototypes. Early testing optimises further product development. Problems are discovered and solved faster. In design thinking networking and interaction are standard procedure between teams. Open and frequent communication prevents a segregation of competences and generates different perspectives. Designers play a key exploratory role. Their goal is the development of a convincing, smart product which accentuates a positive user experience through innovative design.

Generating strategy and value. As a method design thinking generates and enhances corporate strategy. It focuses on delivering competitive products and creates value through an integrated approach. Thus it ensures that innovation is fast-tracked and solutions driven. The success of businesses who have built design thinking cultures has begun to be noticed. It will strengthen a business' identity.

Responsibility can't be outsourced

The realisation that design will give them an edge has come to many companies. Small and medium enterprises in particular have no choice but to seek external help when it comes to innovating or renovating their products. But when management outsources design to industrial design labs or full service agencies it remains the instigator of the requested development process. Design questions not only profit from but need an involvement by management.

“An essential question that defines design-driven product development is the characterisation of the market.”

To fully understand a company's aim in a new product development, the design partner has to be deeply integrated into the corporate culture. This is a complex and time-consuming process. Development always takes longer than anticipated, so patience is required from both partners.

Companies have to learn that innovation is about generating lots of ideas. If management demands to know the answer too soon, they kill innovation. Yet the collaboration adds more than just new ideas, a fresh perspective and visualisation skills to the process. Industrial designers in general are intensely networked and dispose of a large pool of resources that in turn may speed up a project. The use of these assets needs to be monitored and steered by the corporate client.

Teaming up to innovate

In a vibrant field like medical technology, innovation often requires new partnerships between forward-looking companies, visionary researchers and medical design experts who have not yet worked together. "Innovation is dependent on having participants who don't know all the answers," says Raimund Erdmann, CEO of the award-winning Swiss design firm Erdmann Design.

Development can be further accelerated if the participating companies are used to working together. Together with partner companies in engineering and production Erdmann has created the Expertgroup™, a one-stop partner for medtech development projects. The well-practised team specialises in product innovation for larger manufacturers.

"A design driven development process should always be recorded," says Erdmann, who often documents customer feedback (even in the operation room) with his camera. The making of mistakes and the creation of ideas generate documentation, which in turn can be analysed to learn even more about a new product. Such stories are very convincing when used as marketing tools.

Leaving the door open

Even large corporations who can afford their own research and development can sometimes profit from an outsourcing of their product design. At Oticon, a large Danish manufacturer of hearing aids and part of the William Demant Holding, design thinking is so well embedded in the corporate culture that the company headquarters and development house occupy the same futuristic building just outside Copenhagen. The high-tech facility features cutting edge functionality and design in order to inspire the creation and exchange of new ideas and enable flexible project development across corporate departments.

“Innovation often requires new partnerships between forward-looking companies, researchers and medical design experts.”

It could be argued that all the design needs of the William Demant Holding could be easily met by Oticon's award-winning development facility. Yet, the small Swiss William Demant subsidiary Bernafon was allowed to partner with the local design firm Creaholix to radically rejuvenate their line of hearing aids. The success of the colourful device in the market proved that the holding's decision to leave a door open for an impulse from outside was right on target.

This example also holds another important point: the bottom line of design is not a Red Dot Award but the corporate balance sheet. From the beginning of a development project the goal and its necessary budget need to be defined by the principal not the agent.

Outsourced design is a service, and its provider needs to be guided through and by budget decisions. It has been argued that design is mostly for the number one player in any given market as well as for number two, three, four and so on, for very young companies and for the nearly bankrupt. Personally, I don't buy into this.

Design is not for everybody – not even in the vividly changing field of medical technology. Design has to be a strategic decision. It is employed to create new scenarios for the future of a company. The outsourcing of design is a temporary alliance that ends when the new course is adopted – until another change of direction becomes necessary.