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Why Design Matters?

Why design matters?Industrial design is a fairly recent academic discipline whose emergence is closely linked to the rapid expansion, since the beginning of the twentieth century, of the capacity to transform natural resources into manufactured goods. The entries we solicited for our blog this month will help you understand the criteria and processes by which designers envisage health care innovations, as well as the usability problems that can be reduced or avoided through improved design.


When compared with engineering, training in industrial design is less focused on mastering of technical skills and more interested in drawing from aesthetics, ergonomics, and the study of human–machine interfaces and human factors.


The design of a new technology involves both problem-setting and problem-solving; therefore, the standpoint from which one defines the nature of a problem —its scope, roots, and importance to various individuals and groups— is a key departure point in any creative endeavor. How is knowledge about a problem constituted? Whose views about a problem are considered? How can new solutions meet users’ needs? Not surprisingly, the technological solution that will be realized is not the only solution that could have been selected.


“A refrigerator designed for use in a traditional setting may, for example, be radically different from one designed for use in a home with its own independent renewable electric power supplies. […]. The design of machinery to slaughter and prepare chickens for market is likely to be radically different in the small-farm context of “community supported agriculture” than it is in the mass production plans more common today. And the design of a vehicle for local grocery shopping by low-income single parents may not resemble the highway-capable “car” that now is almost the only option available” (Tatum, 2004, 70).


In other words, just because most of the objects now surrounding us are familiar and because they seem to fit our environments and habits fairly logically, does not mean they must be the way they are.


What design challenges are specific to health technology?

According to Norman (1989, 156), “there is a big difference between the expertise required to be a designer and that required to be a user. In their work, designers often become expert with the device they are designing. Users are often expert at the task they are trying to perform with the device.”


Complicated tasks of health care providersIn health care, this key difference often adds to the complexity of designers’ work because they are unfamiliar with the complicated tasks performed by health care providers and patients. Box 1 lists some of the goals that designers may consider. One striking feature is the wide variability of users (clinical care providers, children, elderly people, disabled people, etc.) and contexts (hospital, home, work place, shopping mall, etc.) in which health technology may be used.




  • Knowing about the absence or presence of a disease and its evolution (e.g., screening and diagnostic tests, imaging devices)


  • Surveillance of health behaviors and states (e.g., monitoring systems)


  • Intervening in the body or in pathological processes while coping with risks and side effects (e.g., implants, surgery, therapeutic devices, drugs)


  • Extension of life duration in the context of possible diminished quality of life (e.g., palliative technologies)


  • Risk reduction and protection (e.g., health promotion and prevention, occupational health technologies)


  • Autonomy and mobility (e.g., technical aids, home care)


  • Access and use of administrative and clinical information; efficiency, and quality assurance (e.g., information technology)



Box 1. Goals and values that health technology helps reach
(Lehoux, 2006)


Dealing with design challenges of the future

The uncertainty of design“In every design task there is an opportunity for creative work, for venturing into the unknown with a variation untried before, and for challenging a constraint or assumption, pushing to see if it really matters. Uncertainty in one sense allows participants to exercise their creativity. But uncertainty in another sense ensures that there will always be unforeseen outcomes” (Bucciarelli 1994, 123). This implies that the consequences of innovation be systematically assessed and monitored over time.


Furthermore, designers change society through technology. Due to growing concerns about pollution, the excessive consumption of fossil fuels, the spread of consumerist culture, and the deskilling of workers by machines since the late 1970s, designers of all stripes have had to revisit their ethics and core mission. One recurrent criticism continues to be that technology designers are blinded by their quest for “technical fixes.” In fact, important reflections about design’s socio-political implications have been advanced and several “alternative design” communities are currently active, including universal design, participatory design, ecological design, feminist design and socially responsible design (Nieusma, 2004).


The other entries in our blog will help you understand how designers envisage health care innovations and seek to improve their performance and usability.

Author : Pascale Lehoux, Ph.D.



  • Bucciarelli, L.L. (1994). Designing engineers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Lehoux, P. (2006). The problem of health technology. Policy implications for modern health care systems. New York : Routledge.

  • Nieusma, D. (2004). Alternative design scholarship: Working toward appropriate design. Design Issues, 20(3): 13–24.

  • Norman, D. (1989). The design of everyday things. Toronto: Doubleday.

  • Tatum, J.S. (2004). The challenge of responsible design. Design Issues, 20(3): 66–80.


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