Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Public service and self-promotion meet on the adaptive path

While doing some research on the use of concept designs, I encountered this video from San Francisco design consulting firm Adaptive Path...

Basically, they set about redesigning the daily treatment system for diabetics, and this design concept called the "Charmr" was the result. Says the blurb accompanying the video:

Blogger Amy Tenderich posted her "Open Letter to Steve Jobs" in April [link], pleading with the Apple CEO to apply some of that company's design expertise to improving the lives of the 20 million American diabetics who rely on technology to manage their condition every day. Amy asked for better products for diabetics, but we recognized that those products had to add up to an experience that would satisfy their emotional and psychological needs. So we set out to develop an experience design concept that addressed user behavior and psychology as well as current technological trends to project how insulin pumps and glucose meters might work five years from now.

The company blog contains has a pretty comprehensive rundown of the whole design process, the driving motivation of which was "to generate enthusiasm for human-centered thinking and thus inspire broader change throughout the medical device and design industry". And, says Adaptive Path Interaction Designer Alexa Andrzejewski, reflecting on the process:

The result of this project was not a polished product, but a vision — a vision of what the diabetic experience could look like in a few years if considered from a user-centered perspective.

Now, a few possible points of interest:

1. The video uses a combination of documentary and TV commercial codes, lending it (what I've heard my political science colleague Ashley Lukens describe as) a "texture of truth". It has a number of the qualities of an artifact from the future, presenting vividly imagined piece on a plausible future world (albeit one whose social dimension is limited by dint of its gadget focus).

2. Apart from the opening title cards, the video content presents itself in-scenario; that is, it's not set in the present day talking "about" the hypothetical future in which the product is available, but comes to us "from" that future, so to speak. The former could be called the "inside-out" approach to presenting a scenario; the latter "outside-in".

3. This research and development project was done on spec, i.e., on nine weeks of the company's own time (and money). This makes it an interesting combination of self-promotion -- showcasing the design talents of the team -- and public service. There's an important lesson in that hybridity, of which we recently saw a more commercial, but no less interesting, variation in the Nokia Morph video.

4. I'm reminded of an earlier t.s.f. post which dealt with the contrast between marketing tangible products, versus marketing ways of thinking. This virtual product, particularly insofar as it represented a project of passion for the Adaptive Path design team, plays interestingly with the line between those two categories. Their efforts embody and enact an extension of their type of design thinking to a genre of medical products that typically lack it; products that are poorly designed from a user experience standpoint. By envisioning and demonstrating an improvement in the experience of treatment for sufferers of diabetes, there emerges a synergy of selling the way of thinking (design), and selling the thought (changing that aspect of life for that particular group of disease sufferers) -- to the tune of 17,573 views at YouTube to date. Which is quite admirable, really.

This is part of a broader trend in design thinking, according to IDEO's Allison Arieff, who blogged on the Charmr at NY Times on 14 January 02008:

Could a refrigerator be designed to last longer? Could fewer materials or a smaller carbon footprint be used in manufacturing it?

These are the sorts of questions that smart companies (and the designers, engineers and marketers who work for them) are beginning to address.
The recently launched Designers Accord was founded by my IDEO colleague Valerie Casey as a sort of voluntary Kyoto Treaty for design and innovation firms focused on working together to create positive environmental and social impact. [...] By collectively agreeing to initiate a dialog about environmental impact and sustainable alternatives with each and every client, designers will be able to change the way things are designed, and that will change the way business works.
Consumers are also getting into the act, pushing companies to tackle the products, improvements and functions that we truly need as opposed to those they think we’ll desire. I recently came across the writer Amy Tenderich’s open letter to Steve Jobs on Tenderich’s blog for people with diabetes.
The sort of design innovation that Tenderich is after is about much more than aesthetics or styling; it is really about improving quality of life. No one needs much convincing that this is a huge potential growth area for the health and medical care industries. Certainly Adaptive Path didn’t. The San Francisco-based design consultancy contacted Tenderich and agreed to accept her challenge; their prototype, called the Charmr, is not in production but may help guide future design improvements...
The list of products for such reimaginings is infinite.

Encouragingly, it seems, companies prepared to share their "reimaginings" with the wider world -- preferred futures , in the form of ideal design concepts -- stand to do well, and also to do good, at the same time.

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