Design for people, not medical conditions: Motivo reimagines the walker


about-tour-life-in-reach-largeMotivo Tour is like no walker you’ve ever seen. It is not a cage of connected metal tubes. Instead, it is a lightweight unibody design that comes with customizable paneling, polychromatic colors and some important design features that make life easier for both users and caregivers.

“No one really seemed interested in redesigning the walker,” says Jennifer Harris, who in 2014, along with co-creator Jeremy Knopow, founded Motivo in New Berlin, Wis., and began designing the company’s flagship product, the Tour. “But both Jeremy and I had personal experience with walkers used in our families and we felt we could do better.”

The history of the walker is similar to many home medical devices. It was born of necessity during the First World War. Originally created for veterans during rehabilitation, the basic design was never intended to leave the hospital. But not much about the design has changed since then and patients are often forced to find work-arounds to adapt to new and long-term uses. That’s why so many versions have tennis balls – so that users can move better on various surfaces such as carpet and provide greater wear resistance.

champange_flower_large“Even additions, such as pouches and sling seats added to new versions of the walker, end up making the device more troublesome,” says Knopow. For example, canvas sling seats interfere with the user’s walking gait, forcing the patient to hunch over to reach the handles. Storage pouches must be emptied before the walker can be folded up for transport.

So Harris and Knopow set out to rethink the walker. “We were motivated to look at the walker because of the needs of our families. We both have first-hand experience,” says Harris. In addition, both had more than 20 years of experience as product designers. Harris has worked developing global brands such as Higher Ground, Windex, Shout, and Pledge. Knopow has worked at companies such as Kohler, SC Johnson, Fiskars, and Procter & Gamble.

To start the team interviewed hundreds of potential customers, caregivers and physical therapists. What they found was the number one reason to redesign walkers: Lack of compliance. “We found that most falls were caused by patients not using the walkers when they should, because users felt embarrassed,” notes Knopow. “So we decided that our ultimate goal was to reestablish pride and dignity, while also improving mobility – we want to design for a person, not a medical condition.”

In addition, the team set out to solve some of the daily problems and integrate comforts in a way that would enhance health and mobility. The seat integration is a singular example of that. “Interviewees told us the seat was an important aspect of the product, so we didn’t want to take it away, and they also told us they wished the seats were a little sturdier,” says Harris. To meet those needs, instead of a canvas sling seat, the team developed a rigid seat that stays in place when needed, but folds into the walker when not in use to avoid interfering with movement. The stow-away seat is an ergonomic insight that allows the user to walk upright and inside the Tour’s body.

Other features include a storage compartment behind the folding seat that does not need to be emptied when the walker is folded up to fit in a car. The team developed a shallow cup holder and a flip down tray to provide added convenience.

The real revolution, however, is how the walker looks. Tour is a structural walker that looks more like a classic car, something the designers say was absolutely deliberate. “We asked our potential clients what signified luxury. Our audience identified classic cars, and so our design and color palates reflect the luxurious cars of the 1950s,” says Knopow.

The unibody design, in which the shell is the support structure, was inspired not only by automobiles, but also by aerospace designs. The body is a multilayer panel that includes adhesives, foams and aerospace-grade aluminum.

Walker development

Once the basic design end points were established and the ethnographic research was completed, the team began experimenting with design ideas. “We bought molds and presses, and did a lot of the prototype work ourselves,” says Knopow. Motivo also began working with various contract-manufacturing houses to help them design for manufacturing.

In the early days, funding came from close sources. “Mostly our friends and family,” says Harris. “We also did an Indiegogo campaign and got some small business loans from local state and county startup funds.”

The team did experience some challenges and missteps. One design dead end that the team tried was what they call Apple White. “The test group said they thought it would be too difficult to keep clean,” says Harris. Testers also objected to the device in white because it “looked larger” than other color choices. Even more important, they said it looked “too clinical.”

“That was a surprise for us,” laughs Harris. Knopow agrees: “Yeah, you would think the most successful status-symbol product in the world would translate, but it didn’t.”

One big disappointment for the team was with a close partner. “We first worked with a manufacturer and they did a lot of good work for us,” says Harris. “But when it came time to go into the production, we found that the contract house could not meet the quality standards we needed.” Harris says it was a hard business lesson, but that changing manufacturers was the right thing to do.

Because walkers are Class I exempt products, the team did not have to go through a rigorous regulatory process. “It is more like designing a consumer product,” says Knopow. “We had to register the product, but it’s not the same as having to go through the 510(k) or PMA process.”

Motivo is set to launch Tour within the next month. It is the only walker manufactured in the United States.

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