I like mixing up my project meetings so that I’m not always interviewing people in offices, and one fun way to do that is to go to expos (trade shows) to get a broad sense of what companies are currently doing in the field and what’s popular. My time in Tokyo has luckily coincided with two healthcare expos at the big exhibition hall Tokyo Big Sight, and I was able to attend both for free by pre-registering online (and, for the second one, by getting those business cards). There was a lot of technology for healthcare at these events – I was happy to see loads of “care robots”! – so I wanted to post about my experience.
I’ll use two posts to share some thoughts and photos from these expos. This post is about the first trade show I attended, which focused mainly on “retail technology” and technology design in general. Along with retail, this expo had subsections such as health, transportation, and home living.
Appropriately, then, I stumbled upon the “Good Design Award” area, which showcased various winners of the 2016 Good Design Award in Japan. There were nine award categories, each of which had a few winning products. The competition committee had outlined these “essential Good Design Award perspectives on design trends” to demonstrate that the winning products were not only well-designed, but also that they addressed a relevant social concern. The nine “focused issues” were: the environment, urban infrastructure, community, medicine and health, security, education, business models, culture, and technology (IT). Of course, I was on the lookout for well-designed technology in medicine and health, so I made a beeline for that part of the room.
In the Medicine & Health area, there was a big block of Japanese text printed on the wall. Luckily I found a small booklet with an English translation, and I read this text, which was an introduction to the topic and a discussion of the winning products by a man named Takahiro Uchida. I learned that he is a cardiologist who has consulted for medical device startups in Silicon Valley, and now he is the CEO of a Tokyo-based incubator for medical innovations.
A lot of what he wrote really resonated with me; Uchida stated that, when it comes to well-designed medical products, simply adding bells and whistles isn’t enough and can even undermine the goal. Health should be a basic right for all people. “Safe, effective diagnosis and treatment remains the goal of medical care, yet superficial design such as appealing drug packaging increases development costs and makes drugs or devices more expensive,” he wrote. “This undermines the social mission to expand medical care.” (Full text here).
But, of course, it is important to consider what will be most satisfying and comfortable for the patient, even if that means making cosmetic changes (though ideally without raising the cost). This is where I think co-design is most important – if you start by designing with the user, and generally making the design choices that will make them happy, you won’t lose money changing those choices down the road.
Uchida was thus impressed by the devices that walked the line of satisfying users’ wants and needs while not getting bogged down by expensive or excessive additions. 2016 seemed to be a good year for well-designed patient monitoring systems and digital imaging systems, the latter of which Uchida said respond “to patient needs for smaller, quieter, and more visually appealing devices.” Also, any products submitted to the Medicine & Health category needed to be medically approved – Uchida wrote that there were many medical- or health-related devices that were designed very well, but which were removed from consideration for the award because they did not pass the stringent regulations necessary to qualify as a “medical device” in Japan (for a general example, the Fitbit is a type of health/fitness technology that cannot legally be called a medical device).
Other winners of the Good Design Award 2016 for Medicine & Health included a wheelchair and an assistive device. There was the COGY wheelchair, which can be pedaled forward with minimal effort so that the user feels more self-sufficient and independent. It adds haptic feedback to the wheelchair experience, enhancing the limited pedaling power of the users so that they can engage with the wheelchair and have the sense of mobility, as though they are pedaling a bike.
There was also the Ontenna, a bone-conduction device for people with hearing impairments or full hearing loss. According to Uchida, the Ontenna follows a general trend of new medical devices products that support minority and disabled populations to help change perceptions surrounding disabilities. As described by IT entrepreneur Dominique Chen in the IT section, the Ontenna is “worn like a hairpin…[and] conveys ambient sound in the form of vibration and light to hearing-impaired users. The thinking behind this product turns the tables on an unfair but common bias that those with disabilities trail healthy people in perception and cognition.”
I noticed that many of these products (as well as health-oriented devices that didn’t go through the extensive regulation process) were also mentioned in the introduction text for the Information Technology section of the Good Design Award. In the intro text for IT, written by the previously-mentioned Dominique Chen, both the Ontenna and COGY come up again. Chen writes about them in the context of human-centric IT with glowing reviews. He seems to be hugely optimistic about the power of such products to change perception of bias towards disabled people: “It seems inevitable that, as some have already discussed in the context of sporting events, disabled individuals will be the first to venture into the realm of cybernetic existence as cyborgs, or cybernetic organisms. As the reality of physical and mental issues faced routinely by many with disabilities becomes more openly revealed, as shared knowledge in society, it will be easier to dismantle the binary division between healthy and disabled. Such openness shows the possibility of a middle ground in a dichotomy that has remained unequal, encouraging us to redefine the social image of reality and join a social movement not yet seen.”
I suppose it’s already telling that the Medicine & Health entry overlapped with the Information Technology entry. So many of the best, new medical devices designs are in fact technology designs. Still, it’s clear that there is an issue with stigma against disabilities in Japan. Both Chen and Uchida mentioned it, and the success of the Ontenna is a sign – it is designed to disguise the disability and the need for assistive technology (though pretty much everyone around the world seems to appreciate small, subtle devices).
That’s all for now. I’ll cover the next week’s expo in a follow-up post. (Edit: part 2 is here).