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Designing medical devices

Of all the things in the world you could design, why choose medical devices? We spoke to one of our junior product design engineers, Nadeem Hussain to find out.

...design can have an emotional impact that is very powerful. Hopefully with new materials and technologies we can build people’s confidence around their stoma bags.
Nadeem Hussain, Junior Product Design Engineer

Nadeem joined our Research & Development team in 2019. Since then, he has learnt a lot about the medical device industry and how it can push you to develop your design and problem-solving skills. He has shared his experience for anyone wanting to understand where a career in industrial design/product design may lead them.

How did you get into product design?

“For my A-levels I was studying graphic design and I also wanted to work on product design challenges where people can interact with your ideas, even touch and feel them. I went to a school that had a focus on technology subjects and we studied a range of fields, one term it would be woodwork and then the next would be textiles. I really missed the process of creating physical objects and also using that process to solve real-world problems.

“So, I completed a BSc in Product Design and Management, which included a study abroad programme in Madrid. Here I learnt more about marketing and how consumer behaviour drives design. I soon realised that I wanted to design and make products that have a positive impact in the world in which we live and improve a person’s day-to-day life.”

What drew you to the medical device industry?

“When I worked in Germany, I worked as part of a team to design a smart glove. It was all about designing the best possible product for the user. Designing a wearable device was a good experience match for the product design role at Welland.

“I think that every type of product designer has an impact and contributes to society, but when you’re designing a medical product, you’re having a more direct and personal impact. And you get to see the impact when people gain more confidence through using a product you have contributed to, increasing their quality of life.”

What does your day-to-day role at Welland involve?

“I work in a team of design engineers and research scientists in the research and development department here at Welland. During the design process, we work alongside users and nurses, the engineering, manufacturing and marketing teams to bring new product ideas to reality.

“As part of a team, I research into the life of ostomates and think about how we could improve their quality of life. What are the issues that people are having? What issues are they having with their ostomy products? How can we solve them? We use our research to consistently improve our design process to deliver the best product for the end user.

“Initially, when you are working on new concept or design improvement, you need to move through the design cycles quickly. You use rapid-prototyping techniques including 3D printing to develop and test ideas. Materials are an important consideration when developing a product. Each person using the product will have a different set of requirements so when you are developing an idea, it’s very important to carry out usability testing every step of the way.

“We work with users and nurses to get initial feedback. We use their insight to make changes and improvements and work through an iterative process until we reach a design that the users and the team are both satisfied with.

“I am lucky to have the opportunity to work with users, and be empathetic to their situations. I use their experiences to drive better product design. Stoma care nurses and ostomates visited Welland before the pandemic, and I’ve been to the Netherlands to meet nurses and ostomates there too. It’s really interesting to see how there can be subtle differences in behaviour between cultures. It’s important to understand these nuances when you design a product for a global markets.”

What are the challenges and rewards of designing medical devices?

“I am not a typical user of the product and this can make designing a product harder. It’s like being tasked to design a shaver when you don’t have a beard. It can be hard to test and verify for yourself what you’ve made.

“However, I try my best to test our concepts and wear our stoma bags. I can do that, but I don’t have the pain or abdominal weakness that an ostomate might have for example. When carrying out tests, we think about real-world situations and try to make it as real as possible. This will drive better insights and enable us to produce accurate solutions. Depending on the circumstance, we have tools such as gloves that limit your dexterity, glasses to obscure your vision, different body shapes and related tools to make the feedback from in-house testing more rewarding. But I am not the user, so when I get feedback from real users I have to listen and observe very carefully.

“It’s great that people are now more willing to talk about their stomas because of social media. That’s helped ostomy a lot. Blogs have been a great resource of understanding for me and following discussions online. But it’s always better to test your designs directly and speak to the people who will use the product.

“I care about designing the best possible product for the user, that is my primary goal. You always face design challenges and technological constraints throughout projects, but this is where you can also be innovative. It can be frustrating, but it makes you a better designer. That’s where your creative thinking comes in. You have to come up with solutions for whatever the problem is, so that you can achieve manufacturing feasibility and produce the best possible product.

“With medical devices, product development and testing takes a lot more time and you have to be very thorough. Health and safety is extremely important. People who will be wearing these bags have been through a lot already, so you need the product to be of a high standard.

“You also have to remember that design can have an emotional impact that is very powerful. Hopefully with new materials and technologies we can build people’s confidence around their stoma bags.”

What personal traits do you think serve you well in your role?

“Being empathetic and understanding so that you can do your best for the user. Even more than in other design roles you have to use observation and conversation to understand the user and what they’re experiencing. I like to think that the users are also the designers, as they always give you ideas or point you in a direction and then it’s up to you to follow up and deliver.

“Listening and observing are critical to good product design. Of course, you need to have a dialogue, ask questions, and it’s really important to ask the right ones. You have to let the user be relaxed and open, try not to push them in a direction or get answers that you want to hear. You want the feedback to be accurate and precise, so you know exactly what needs to be done.

“One life lesson that I’ve learnt throughout my career so far is that you have to be open minded. Never limit yourself. An idea might be super crazy but it’s still good to express it. That could give someone else another idea. Being in a comfortable design environment is important, be open with your ideas, and make it a no-judge zone. Always listen and let people say what’s on their minds. That’s how the ideas come.

“I think everyone has something to bring to the table. You want different perspectives. You want to be challenged. That’s how you filter out the bad solutions. You probably have a million ideas, but only one will make it to market.”

Where should someone start if they’re interested in a career as a product design engineer?

“People may assume that they need to be ‘naturally creative’ to become a designer, but that isn’t really the case. I would say design at its core is all about critical thinking and problem solving. It’s all really logical, and it’s something that you can develop. I’m improving my design thinking skills all the time.

“When it comes to designing a product, it really does encompass everything. It’s where business, art and engineering all come together, and this mix will always keep you engaged. A lot of good designs have come from people who are not in a typical design career, but noticed a problem that people are facing, came up with a solution and understood how to commercialise it.

“There are a lot of great resources online that you can learn from, but formal education in design has really improved over the last few years and has closed the gap between academia and industry. A degree in industrial design or product design engineering is always a good route as it will ensure you build a strong foundation covering all the aspects to design.”

If you’re thinking of a career in industrial design, watch Nadeem’s video on YouTube: Is Industrial Product Design Right For You?

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