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Why design research feels like playing scientist in a lab

When you dive into the world of design research and usability engineering, especially in fields like healthcare and life sciences, it sometimes feels like you're slipping on a lab coat and looking through a microscope.

As a Design Researcher and Usability Engineer I've spent a lot of time in laboratories for different projects, and I've noticed how much our work in design research resembles the careful scrutiny of a scientist examining samples under a lens.
It's all about exploration, discovery, and analysis. Whether we're looking at cells or user interactions, the goal is the same: To come up with effective solutions, whether they're physical products, digital interfaces, or cutting-edge scientific environments.Let me break down why the work we do as design researchers at FLUID feels so much like examining samples through a microscope:

Validation through evidence - Testing ideas just like in science

In a lab, scientists validate their hypotheses with evidence gathered from experiments and observations. Similarly, in design research, we test our ideas through user feedback, prototyping, and testing. Real user insights are crucial - whether we're assessing initial reactions or ensuring our final product is user-friendly.

This ensures our ideas match with what users actually need and want, right from the start. By testing early and often, we give our clients confidence that their ideas are on the right track before they invest too much in development.

  • In a service design project for a manufacturer of lab equipment, we conceptually tested business ideas and value propositions with lab managers and lab technicians. This gave our client the assurance that the initial ideas were desirable to purchase decisions makers and users, even before the development started.

Making users the priority - A methodical approach

We employ a systematic approach to design research, similar to the accurate process scientists follow in the laboratory. From conducting user interviews and contextual inquiries, to creating personas and user journey maps, to prototyping and usability testing - every step of our process is guided by user-centric principles. Designers, like scientists, often work in controlled environments, such as usability testing sessions or prototyping stages, to refine their ideas.

By integrating different design research methodologies throughout the development process, we help our healthcare and life science clients to create innovative, user-centered solutions that address complex challenges and enhance the experiences of patients, healthcare professionals, and scientists alike.

  • When designing the ABL9, a blood gas analyser for Radiometer, our designers traveled with prototypes to China. Onsite, we conducted extensive user testing in hospital test environments with nurses, hospital laboratory professionals and even upcoming users in universities throughout the country to ensure ease of use and avoid any miscommunication of the device.

Zooming in on details - Focusing on specific details within a larger context

Just like a scientist zooms in on tiny details within a sample, we zoom in on the details of how users interact with our designs. We pay close attention to things like user behavior and preferences to find ways to improve/ elevate designs. By zooming in on each touchpoint, we identify pain points and areas for improvement that inform our design decisions.

  • This attention to detail was crucial in our collaboration with the German Government when designing the mykyds digital platform. It offers equal access to healthcare information for children regardless of their background, streamlining health monitoring for parents while allowing pediatric practices more time for urgent cases. Extensive research involving pediatricians, healthcare professionals, and representatives from health insurance companies generated input and expertise for the platform's development.

Revealing the unseen - Uncovering hidden gems

Design research is all about uncovering insights that might not be obvious at first glance. By really getting to know our users and how they think and feel, we can find opportunities for innovation that others might miss. It's those "aha" moments that drive us towards creating better solutions.

Being an external design agency, allows us to offer a fresh perspective. Not being healthcare professionals ourselves allows us to approach projects from a unique viewpoint. This fresh perspective helps us come up with new ideas that can change industries and improve lives.

  • When designing the TCM5 Flex, a transcutaneous blood gas monitor, our mission was to develop a smart device that simplifies everyday work of healthcare professionals, supports hospital workflows and avoids life-threatening mistakes in day-to-day use. Our in-depth research revealed that medical professionals’ needs vary depending on who they care for – whether it’s premature babies and neonates, people in intensive care or sleep lab patients. We translated these insights by creating different modes that the TCM5 Flex can be set to, displaying only the information needed for that specific patient group.

Analyzing patterns and anomalies - Interpreting what we see

Just as scientists analyze patterns and anomalies in their samples, we comb through data to refine our designs. Whether it's spotting recurring issues in user feedback or unexpected behaviors during testing, these insights help us fine-tune and enhance our designs as we go.

  • For instance, while conducting research for a point of care analysis device, we uncovered a pattern of confusion among users regarding the setup process. By addressing this anomaly through intuitive design changes, we enhanced user satisfaction and streamlined the onboarding experience.

Failing early and often to learn faster - Embracing iteration

Looking through a microscope and conducting design research both share the quality of following an iterative process. Scientists may need to adjust their focus, change magnification levels, or try different techniques to gain a better understanding of their samples. Similarly, designers iterate on their research methods, prototypes, and designs based on ongoing feedback and insights, refining their approach until they find viable solutions or opportunities.

In both the laboratory and the design studio, failure is not only inevitable but also invaluable. By embracing a culture of experimentation and iteration, we view failure not as a setback but as an opportunity to learn and grow. Whether it's testing a prototype with real users or exploring new design concepts, we iterate rapidly to uncover insights and refine our solutions.

The faster we fail the more we can learn early on. This creates confidence for bolder decisions which is the key to innovating solutions! However, without learning from it, a failure is worth nothing. Therefore, we use structured methods that ensure we get the most out of every failure or feedback.

  • For instance, while designing Aspivix, an innovative and women-friendly cervical tenaculum device that causes neither pain nor bleeding, we embraced a lean approach, testing early prototypes to gather feedback from gynaecologist. Through this iterative process, we identified usability issues and refined the design until it met the needs of our target audience.

So, whether we're developing a new medical device or crafting a user-friendly app, our mission remains the same: To leverage the full spectrum of design research methods as powerful tools to foster positive change in healthcare and life sciences. Just like scientists push the boundaries of knowledge, we're pushing the boundaries of design to create solutions that truly make a difference. Through careful research and thoughtful design, we're shaping the future of healthcare.

Words by Carolin Frontzek, visuals by Thiemo Luhmann

Carolin Frontzek
Senior Design Strategist and UX Researcher
Carolin, design strategist and industrial designer with a Master of Science in Industrial Design from the Technical University Munich. With her strong interest in the medical and healthcare field she supports clients in user-centered innovation programs translating insights into meaningful and engaging product experiences.