There are cheap and fun ways to use design to answer some basic questions about user wants and needs which will help to work out a number of essential product development questions. Dr Rachel Wakefield, Technology Transfer Officer, University of Aberdeen
Attracting investment by using design at the University of Aberdeen
An exercise machine, that uses vibration to optimise patient fitness, has been developed by medical science and engineering researchers led by Dr Marco Cardinale and Dr Richard Neilson at the University of Aberdeen. The unique feature of the technology is its ability to respond to a patient’s muscle strength, so it tailors exercise to a patient’s needs and physical capability as part of a managed rehabilitation schedule.
To help develop this technology for market, and to help the University of Aberdeen’s technology transfer office devise a competitive market strategy, the team has been working with Design Associate Jonathan Ball on the Design Council’s Innovate for Universities support programme.
Jonathan says: ‘The patent covering the technology had been granted and the team had proof of concept funding for its development. They had already embarked on testing the market for a licensee but it wasn’t taking off.’
‘Companies were showing interest but not committing,’ says Dr Rachael Wakefield, Technology Transfer Officer, University of Aberdeen who worked with Jonathan and the team to analyse the opportunities for the vibration exercise technology and to understand the mindset of the marketplace. ‘Since our last assessment the competitor market has grown considerably. However over the same time, by using new enabling technologies, the project team has maintained the technology’s competitive edge. We wanted to make sure that our next approach is pitched at exactly the right level and has the right message’.
‘We still had 12 months of project funding to go so we revisited the plan with Jonathan, looking first at the new developments to our technology, then at what the competitor market was telling us. We revised the project schedule and extended what was originally planned for the demonstrator devices. We also concluded that we needed to make our bench top demonstrator look like it could be the kind of product the market would want over what was currently available,’ says Rachael.
Next Jonathan helped the team identify how design could help them develop their strategy: ‘Our bench top demonstrator could show the scale of the machine and the technology’s unique features, but was not a recognisable, competitive product.’ Jonathan recommended the team consult a design agency that could help them visualise and explain the technology as a marketable product. ‘Budget limitation was a concern to transforming our demo,’ admits Rachael, ‘but the review process meant we could reallocate some funds to enable us to commission a design agency. We were looking for some product design that would demonstrate how our technology could fulfil the needs of the health care market but would also be able to compete in the home fitness market.’
Defining a design project
‘For home fitness, we are going to have to attract a licensing partner in a very crowded me-too market which likes portability and good looking products.’ says Rachael. ‘But for the clinical market, the key focus is usability. All of this was beyond what our bench demo could illustrate. We had to think how to we could show a competitive edge in both markets.’
The team drafted a design brief for an agency to create a set of visualisations to show how the technology would be used, and how it could look, without the expense of creating working models. This brief, Rachael explains, clearly describes the market niches they want to target and what they expect customers in this market would be looking for: ‘Although the technology is the same, we have two different potential markets. The idea is to communicate a product that shows uses in rehabilitation, leisure or fitness. The design concepts will become core to our communication. These considerations were identified when we worked through Jonathan’s design process.’
Design project management
After help from Jonathan with writing a design brief, the team worked together to tender the project to appropriate design agencies: ‘Jonathan helped us identify several Scotland-based design companies we should visit. We found that their approach to our design challenge was similar but we chose the design team based on the added value it would bring through the processes it uses, its experience and its interest in the technology,’ says Rachael.
‘In the tender, we asked designers to quote for the whole A to Z of what they could do,’ says Rachael. Most broke their response in to three stages:
- Delivery of conceptual drawings to be used in a presentation, with supporting materials.
- Creating a looks like, feels like model.
- Inserting the working technology into the look and feel model.
The team selected Glasgow based Fearsomengine to undertake the design of the device and compilation of presentation visuals, demonstrating the USPs of the vibration exercise technology. Fearsomengine’s ethos is to design concepts that are in principle within the limits of relevant manufacturing processes and materials. So although the concepts are virtual, the basic dimensions and aesthetics are feasible and transferable into production units.
With design work from Fearsomengine soon to be completed Rachael says she is looking forward trying out the designed collateral when promoting it to interested parties: ‘We hope to start pitches in August or September, so we’ll soon find out if our approach is successful.’
Rachael says she expects to be able to start evaluating the impact of commissioning designers this year: ‘Jonathan has worked with us at the Aberdeen TTO on four projects and we have commissioned design agencies on two. For the exercise device, we’ll define success as not only finding a licensee for this technology, but also finding someone who could keep working with the team to continue developing the product. The project team are committed to the project and to exploring designs for more products further down the pipeline.’
The support from Innovate for Universities and Design Associate Jonathan Ball has also had an impact on her everyday project development work says Rachael: ‘Through this process we now have a better idea of how design can help steer a development project, and of likely budget requirements for future projects that require design agency input.’ She also feels more confident explaining the value of implementing design tools and in commissioning designers: ‘In the past I have used basic CAD illustrations on specification sheets. I never considered the added value of going beyond this stage.’
Rachel expects to continue using design in technology development projects.
I think for funding opportunities where the project is expected to have a commercial outcome we will implement the analytical approaches Jonathan used to have an early look at how end-users could use and benefit from the technology and to identify what types of design input would benefit the project. Dr Rachel Wakefield
In the meantime, Rachael shares some advice for other technology transfer project managers: ‘When project teams are applying to funding bodies then design can seem quite a substantial proposition. However there are cheap and fun ways to use design to answer some basic questions about user wants and needs which will help to work out a number of essential product development questions.’