Industrial design bridges the gap between the technology and the user

Every product is created to meet a need. Industrial design attempts to identify these needs in any given industry and answer them with a product that meets them. But how do you get from good industrial design to great industrial design?

Industrial design bridges the gap between the technology and the user

Article Aug 24, 2021

Planmeca’s long-time Industrial Design Manager Kari Malmén has the answer. He is joined at the company by Senior Industrial Designer Timo Silvonen, Industrial Designer Toni Leinvuo and Planmed’s Industrial & UI Design Manager Tapio Laukkanen as well as Usability Specialists Tero Pihlajamäki and Veli Rundelin and UX/UI Designer Henni Palomäki. With more than 33 years at the company, Malmén has seen a fair share of its product development over time and knows well what can make or break a product.

At the core of user needs

According to Malmén, great design comes from bringing in industrial designers into the development process from Day One. “That’s when you get the absolute best result, when the designer gets to work on, with and around the concept from the outset,” Malmén says. “An industrial designer is an idea man, and this is the time when you both can and should vent your wildest ideas.”

In developing high-tech medical devices, such as Planmeca’s dental equipment, maintaining the all-important user perspective is critical. This where the industrial designer plays a key role in bridging the gap between the technology and the user. At Planmeca, this means, among other things, a good deal of legwork as the designers visit partner clinics to interview dental professionals, hear their thoughts and concerns and see them in action.

"We try to go quite deep into the user role,” Malmén explains, “to get at the core of what the user needs from the device: what does the user do, what’s the workflow, what’s the currently available technology. Then there’s the patient angle: how does the device look and feel to the patient and what can we do to make them more comfortable. Because, as we know, the calmer the patient, the better the result.”

Designing for the Big Four

Dental technology has made gigantic strides forward in recent years in a way that has transformed the practice of dentistry. Interestingly, however, the major design principles in the industry have stayed largely the same. The driving engines remain the Big Four: ergonomics – usability – safety – aesthetics.

“Something I’ve always said is that one design element is the seam, and that remains true to this day. You can’t put a seam just anywhere, you have to look at the bigger picture – what’s behind the seam, who needs to access that for e.g. maintenance and how often. You have to understand the environment the product is for.”

That said, one thing Malmén says has changed is customer expectations, especially of the user experience (UX) and user interface (UI). “In the early days, the UI of a dental unit was basically just buttons and a membrane keypad, but since then we’ve entered this whole new visual world of graphic UIs, touchscreens and whatnot."

“People now demand the same kind of usability and intuitiveness of a dental unit UI that they would expect of a smartphone. That’s something that we industrial designers need to carry over to the product.”

Planmeca’s Industrial Design Manager Kari Malmén knows what it takes to design world-class medical devices.

Function and form

According to Malmén, a great industrial designer has a good visual eye and knowledge of manufacturing techniques, is co-operative and “can put their thoughts and ideas down on paper.”

Everything starts from defining the product requirements, which is followed by brainstorming and ideation. The mechanics designers then determine the construction and dimensions, while the usability specialists work on the user interface. Finally, the product is tested and refined in co-operation with partner end-users.

But although many types of industrial design follow a similar trajectory, designing health technology comes with a unique human factor which sets it apart from other products.

Take a dental unit for example. One dentist may be looking for easy access to essential instruments, another for left-handed operation. Larger clinics and dental schools are likely to need customisation options, such as personalised settings that are easy to enable in any unit. Then there is the patient, who is probably hoping to feel as comfortable and safe as possible during a potentially uncomfortable treatment. And everyone is looking for reliability that can be counted on for years to come.

A cleverly designed dental unit can respond to all these needs – all the while conforming to today’s ever-increasing medical device regulation. How do we get there? Through great design that respects and reflects user needs in both function and form.

Copy: Aleksandra Nyholm
Images: Dino Azinur

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