Educating a New Generation of Human-Centered Designers for the Medical Device Industry

Futures, Bold & Curious at NCAD

In response to the growth in Ireland’s medical device industry, the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin, Ireland, developed a studio-based MSc program in Medical Device Design. The program is open to candidates from a range of fields, including design, healthcare, engineering and business, and prepares them to play a leading role in Ireland’s vibrant medical device industry.

The roots of the program date to the 1980s when U.S. multinationals like Baxter and CR Bard established European manufacturing bases in Ireland to take advantage of an educated workforce, cheap labor and incentives from the Irish Industrial Development Authority. Since then, Ireland’s economy has advanced. High levels of education have enabled a strong research sector and development in both industry and academia. Among the more than 300 companies with Irish facilities today are Boston Scientific, Abbott, Vistakon, Medtronic, Teleflex, Stryker, Cook Medical, Zimmer Biomet, DePuy Synthes, Hollister, and BD.

In 2009, NCAD’s head of industrial design realized that graduates were being hired in the medical device industry. He saw a need for designers in the medical device industry who married design’s human-focused approach with the rigor of science. Working with University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin, the MSc in Medical Device Design was created with classes that include medical science and bioengineering, alongside studio projects undertaken in collaboration with industry.

Bridging Design and Technology Students come to the program with either a technical background or a design background, and on occasion both. While designers can be too conceptual and emphasize aesthetics, engineers can be technology driven and fail to adequately consider users. The MSc program seeks to remedy these tendencies by teaching an iterative process of analysis and synthesis in an open studio environment. Students are encouraged to share ideas but also must confront the technically rigorous aspects of medical design.

The aim of the program is to produce medical designers who apply human-factor methods as an integral part of the design process. Designers need to be a voice of empathy for the user, clinician, patient and caregiver. Until recently, many engineers and designers were discouraged from visiting the clinical environment, which was thought to be the domain of market research or product managers. Conducting contextual inquiry and mapping tasks and user journeys are becoming vital skills for both designers and engineers. Many bigger design teams may have a human factors specialist who can diagnose errors and pain points in a device but may not be skilled in elaborating solutions. A designer with the right training can use the insights gained through contextual inquiry to inspire novel designs and improvements. The designer can use sketches and sketch models to facilitate conversation and collaboration among engineers, designers, clinicians and patient advocates in a multidisciplinary team.