How product development outsourcing can make your medtech amazing


In today’s medical device market, more and more companies are using outsourcing as a product development strategy. 

Stuart Karten, Karten Design

teamwork medical device designers product development

[Image from Unsplash]

There has been a fundamental shift in the way companies develop medtech products because of advances in digital technology, medical industry economics and public policy – such as the Affordable Care Act’s withholding of 1% of a hospitals’ total Medicare reimbursements, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.  Hospitals must earn the money back each year with high patient satisfaction scores. Medtech products play a significant role in patient satisfaction, for example, so product satisfaction—from clinic to home—plays a large role in a medical device company’s success or failure.  In today’s world, creating an incredible medtech device takes a smart and efficient outsourcing strategy.

My design company works with device, as well as other medical and consumer, companies to help them turn their innovative technology into products that people love. Or, in the case of startups, that VCs want to invest in, or larger conglomerates want to take over. We have been working in the medical device field for more than 33 years, and have created iconic, award-winning products, some of which are even featured in museums.  In the last several years, as medical products have become more consumerized – and a new generation of empowered patients expect products that have awesome design –  device companies have been hiring us as an “outsourced” firm.  We work intimately to tie all of the product development together so the end result becomes something of incredible value.

(See Stuart Karten on Dec. 12 at DeviceTalks West in Orange County, where he will be on a panel, “Tools for Succeeding with Outsourced Product Development.”)

But product development outsourcing is not easy.  Everyone struggles with it.

Every project is unique. We realize bringing disparate teams with different expertise, different time frames, and different end goals can be difficult.

As a design firm that has been a leader in enabling product development, we have four guidelines that we always follow as we prepare and go forth on a project.

1. Tribal knowledge

When establishing a team, make it a multi-disciplinary one. It’s important to establish a “tribal knowledge” of the product, and how it fits into peoples’ lives. Before we lay out a product development schedule, we provide a process in which key members of the device company team, as well as behavioral researchers, designers and other experts, participate in a holistic evaluation of the product and its place in the entire ecosystem. We interview doctors, caregivers, hospital administrators, CIOs and patients. We want to make their lives better. In some cases, device engineers haven’t talked with patients who might use the device they are creating, so we want to create a dialogue between all of the parties. It often leads to exciting innovation, and it can be inspiring for the whole team when you can envision how the product will make a positive impact.

2. The voice of the ecosystem

After working in our multidisciplinary teams, our firm goes out and creates comprehensive “experience maps”, which map out the entire product and how it fits into the ecosystem. Our experience maps are eventually shared with every member of the product development team.  We call it the “voice of the ecosystem”—we want to hear every voice—from physician to caregiver—and integrate their needs into the product.

We have many examples of how this led to innovation.  Recently, our work on Axonics Modulation Technologies’s Neuromodulation System involved in-depth design research, interviewing opinion leaders, surgeons, technicians and patients to understand the current sacral neuromodulation (SNM) treatment for overactive bladder. Armed with insights that revealed opportunities to improve on the efficacy, acceptance and usability of SNM treatment, we produced strategic product development opportunities to begin defining Axonics’s new system and the user experience around it.

3. Lean innovation

For those who have been through outsourcing product development cycles, getting everyone to row in the same direction can seem nearly impossible, and as each team wants to contribute positively, they often go beyond reasonable time allowances.  We believe in “lean innovation.”  We encourage teams to shorten their deadlines.  Why?  If a device company can create and test prototypes with customers, they can gain valuable insights.  We find that device companies, and the teams they are outsourcing with, can get bogged down as they worry about minor imperfections when they should be focusing on the insights they may gain from consumer reactions and feedback.  So, when a device company is creating its outsourcing team, it should hire people who can execute and understand how to fail forward fast.  They also need to make sure and educate their own teams about its importance in the eventual success of the product.

4. Create an experience

So what is the barometer of success when outsourcing product development?  You can answer that question in a variety of ways: efficiency, cost-savings, multi-tiered product development.  All those are valid answers, and our firm holds them in high regard.  But our ultimate goal is to create an experience, not just a product.  We want everyone to love it out of the box.  It should work flawlessly in the procedure.  The patient should love using it at home.  In medicine, people think more about the experience, not the product, and so the ultimate goal is to create something that brings joy.  (Yes, joy.)

Outsourcing product development has its obstacles, but it also has significant advantages.  At Karten Design, we have serial medtech clients because they know our involvement helps turn products into positive and extraordinary experiences that solve tough problems.  Outsiders can bring immense value – such as an unbiased, empathetic and intellectually curious viewpoint – which can turn a good medical device concept into a great medical device product.

Stuart Karten is the principal at Karten Design (Marina del Rey, Calif.).  He has been featured in many publications, including FastCompany Magazine, and he has also been a speaker at SXSW and CES.

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