Healthcare Product Design: The Chemistry of Applying the Human Element

by Michael Paloian, President, Integrated Design Systems

This brief article highlights the importance of human factors and their effect on healthcare product design. The broad term “healthcare products” embraces everything from disposable syringes to multimillion-dollar MRI machines. Some products are microscopic in size while others can fill a room. Despite the wide range of cost, size, shape or complexity, all of these products have one thing in common: the human element.

Human Factors – designing healthcare products for people

These are people products. People interact with healthcare products as clinicians or patients. It’s essential that these devices be designed for their intended purpose: the end users. This field of study is referred to as human factors, which focuses on the interrelationships between man and machine.

Human factor considerations in healthcare product design are as essential as every other engineering, marketing and manufacturing parameter. Healthcare products must be designed with a user-focused foundation to be safely operated by a medical professional or applied to a patient. Some of the essential human factors considerations affecting healthcare product design are also described in this article.

Human factors include a broad range of statistically based information related to the physical and sensory limitations of human beings. Optimized product design should be derived from a comprehensive understanding of how the user will interact with the product on many levels. These factors often include product features that are directly affected by human anatomy. Thousands of studies have been conducted to establish reliable statistical data defining dimensions for virtually every human anatomical feature. In addition, critical information pertaining to limitations of movement, strength, fatigue, coordination and dexterity have also been documented.

This data is essential for a healthcare product designer in determining embodiment, size, and locations for critical controls for the optimized user interface. In addition to physical considerations, human factors also include a keen understanding of sensory limitations that include vision, sound, touch, smell and taste.

Visual perception will affect choices of colors that could be critical for safe operation of a complicated device. Awareness of color blindness, perceptual reaction of humans to certain colors and how color combinations can be interpreted could also be critical to product use.

Understanding amplitudes, frequencies and harmonics related to human hearing will influence the pitch and volume of sound emitted from an audible safety alarm. The other senses of touch, smell and taste could affect choices of plastics based on specifications for textures and surface hardness as well as chemical additives that could affect taste or smell.

Another significant human factors consideration affecting healthcare product design is the human brain. Cerebral activities that influence human perception, reaction time, comprehension and fatigue, comprise a complex set of activities that have a profound effect on all healthcare products. Graphical User Interface—often referred to as GUI—is a rapidly growing field focusing on logical structure, operation flow and graphic layout for menus associated with medical devices.

GUI design requires a comprehensive understanding of the product, its function and all the procedures affected by its use. Design of icons, their location and sequence of events in menus constituent a few of the numerous parameters associated with GUI.

Human factors are absolutely essential considerations to the design of healthcare products. Omission or incorrect integration of this would be a negligence that could lead to patient harm or legal action. Never underestimate the importance of human factors in healthcare product design.




Michael PaloianMichael Paloian, President, Integrated Design Systems, Inc.

Mike Paloian, an authority in healthcare and medical product design, is an inventor, lecturer and educator. Integrated Design Systems Inc. (IDS), is an award-winning industrial design firm with practical expertise in medical, analytical and testing, and plastic display and plastic product design. Mr. Paloian is a faculty member, Plastics Engineering, University of Massachusetts Lowell, and a Contributing Design Editor for industry publications.