Many people experience phobias of hospitals and medical environments due to the clinical nature of the surroundings and the devices in them, but this can be easily remedied with the use of human-centred and emotional design techniques at a product design level. In the 21st century our knowledge of how people interact with products is expansive, yet the medical industry has yet to implement many designs which take advantage of this expertise.

Current modern medical design prioritises function over user interaction, resulting in cheap products designed for a mainly functional purpose without much consideration for the patient-product interaction and the patient’s emotional experience. For instance, in a study of hearing aids conducted by Karten Design it was discovered that elderly users found small buttons fiddly which “drew attention to something that made [them] feel old” (Karten, 2015). Designers should create products that remove stigma and which “eliminate fear and embarrassment from the products we create” (Karten, 2015).

Un-familiar and threatening devices used in hospitals also lead to negative association with the environment, and in extreme cases patients avoid medical treatment out of fear. A 2006 study found that 15 million adults and 5 million children experience high discomfort or phobic behaviour when faced with needles, of which 25% of the adults actually refused a blood draw or recommended injection because of fear (Sine, 2008).

To address this, medical design must use emotional and human-centred design techniques, such as focus groups and ethnographic, observational research to create positive medical experiences in which staff and patients feel calm, in control and confident of the situation. Human-centred design is the development of products that are instinctively easy to use and make the person feel comfortable while using them. Does this sound like a description of a medical device you’ve come into contact with? Probably not.

A large barrier to innovation in medical design is cost. It is a common misconception that this is due to the increase in technological products, but this is not true! Vaishali Kamat from Cambridge Consultants stated that “connectivity – most of it wireless – is becoming mandatory for most medical devices as well as consumer health gadgets” (Kamat, 2014), thus proving that hospitals are implementing technological products; just not user-centred ones. Also, systems such as the NHS Personal Health Budget scheme are in place, providing financial aid to people “with long-term conditions and disabilities... [with the aim to give them]...greater choice and control over the healthcare and support they receive” (NHS Choices, 2015). This is however limited to products purchased for personal use, and excludes hospital devices.

This raises an important question: how much does cost really come into it? Emotional design techniques focus on the styling and feel of the product, the connection that a person has with the product and the experience the person feels while interacting with it. It does not have to be expensive. This highlights two possible problems – either designers are not developing products with users’ well-being in mind, or hospitals are not purchasing the new user-centred products.

Designers have a responsibility to create products that make people feel comfortable and at ease, yet in medical settings these designs are largely ignored. Products must be easy to use and make the person feel safe and in control of the situation. In the words of leading design expert Don Norman, “emotion is about interpreting [the world around us]” (Norman, 2003). There are designers in design consultancies all over the United Kingdom and the world designing for user experience within the medical field, and striving to improve the usability and user interaction. One of these is ‘Akendi’, creating “medical software and devices that play a role in the health of humans, saving and enhancing life” (Poll, 2016). Cambridge Consultants, DCA Design, PA Consulting and IDC are just a few more examples of companies in this field, creating products such as the user-centred Podhaler from Cambridge Consultants which was designed using human factors engineering techniques (Cambridge Consultants, 2015).

Designers aren’t stopping there, either. Nick de la Mare of ‘Big Tomorrow’ has discussed the interior design of medical environments and that “to avoid being overwhelmed, bored, annoyed, confused or frightened” (de la Mare, 2016) hospitals should take a ‘guest-first’ approach which provides an experience that feels “stress-free, intuitive, supportive and, most importantly, centred around you” (de la Mare, 2016).

So are the hospitals the culprit? Why aren’t these new designs making it into hospitals? It could be argued that hospitals would rather purchase cheap, disposable products rather than re-usable ones; for hygiene, cost and efficiency. In the USA sterilisation of re-usable items “can cost upwards of $1,500 [per year]” (McConnell, 2014). The time taken to re-sterilise parts also “slows down the process of caring for patients... [and they must]...consider risks of cross-contamination” (McConnell, 2014). The World Health Organisation recently studied the barriers of medical device innovation, and “limited staff training on how to use the device, hostility on the part of established practice and reluctance to admit the need for skill upgrade” (WHO, 2010) were some of the key issues. From this it seems to be that hospitals are unaware or under-informed of two key things.
Firstly they are not fully informed of the stress that patients are under and the negative emotions they feel, so they have no motivation to buy new devices. This stress includes patients’ families, who in some cases feel “disempowered and unable to assume parenting roles” (Uhl, Fisher, Docherty and Brandon, 2013). Secondly they falsely believe that new products take up too much time, effort and money to incorporate into their environment. This is especially relevant in the current state; the NHS is facing increased hours and lower funding so implementation of new devices is not a high priority.

It is clear that staff need to be better informed of the above issues, then they can begin to work with designers towards new and more positive medical experiences. As for myself, my most significant memory of a medical experience will always be going into an MRI machine with ‘Greased Lightning’ playing on the hospital headphones. Perhaps laughter is the best medicine after all!

For more information on a similar project by DCA Design, visit their website: