Magnetic fasteners that remove the challenge of fiddly buttons on shirts for people with arthritis is just one of many potentially life-enhancing design solutions for people with the condition. However, as the team behind Handy-Fasteners discovered, it is also a design solution that potentially works for everyone. 

Finalists in Design Council Spark 2016 and recipients of the Arthritis Research UK award, undergraduates Matthew, Natalie and Thomas are following an entirely new career path based on one inspirational idea that they submitted into Spark. This is their story.

In 2015 Matt Barrett and his now business partners Thomas Fantham and Natalie English were in their final year at Sheffield University studying Aerospace Engineering and Psychology. In one of their lectures Matt and Thomas were set the task of designing a product for people living with arthritis. They devised the idea of using magnets to replace regular buttons making them easier to fasten for people with arthritis.

Soon this embryonic business team had made an empathetic leap into the world of someone living with arthritis whilst also creating an inclusive idea that could work for a much larger market. Within months the idea for Handy-Fasteners was born. In the months that followed the team began to validate their idea by forming a simple prototype which glued magnets onto a shirt in order to test with people at local arthritis groups. They also consulted with a range of potential users more broadly to capture responses and feedback to the basic idea. During a demo at the end of their University module, they were surprised at the positive reception to their idea. Encouraged by the response and urged on by one of their tutors they subsequently applied for the Spark programme.

“Our application to Spark was almost whimsical, I mean when do you ever get through in competitions like that!” Matt’s surprise at being accepted onto the Spark programme is palpable more than a year later and he has an important message for anyone thinking about it. “Apply. Don’t be intimidated,” he insists. “As long as you have a great idea that you have tested out, people will respond. We were completely shocked that we got on, but it has made such a massive difference to us. Life would be completely different if we hadn’t done the programme.”

“Handy-Fasteners was definitely one of those things where we came up with the idea first and afterwards realised what a potentially big market there was for it, rather than the other way round,” says Matt. “The Spark mentors really identified the potential. As far as we were concerned we just had a shirt with some magnets glued on.”

It certainly turned out to be more than that. The Handy-Fasteners team emerged from the 16-week Spark programme as one of the four Spark awardees and recipients of the money that Arthritis Research UK invested into the programme.  

The beauty of good inclusive design is that it helps individuals, but also has real usability and desirability for anyone.

Helen Hurman, Head of Research Operations, Arthritis Research UK

“Handy-Fasteners impressed us because they had gone beyond their product and also thought about it as a service. It had an immediacy in terms of commercialising it that was very appealing. We also loved their energy and enthusiasm,” explains Helen Hurman, Head of Research Operations at Arthritis Research UK. “The beauty of good inclusive design is that it helps individuals, but also has real usability and desirability for anyone. We were looking for ideas that have that kind of scalable market potential.”

Like Arthritis Research UK, the Spark investment panel were impressed by the team’s ability to extend their empathetic approach beyond just the design of the product to a service. They have made it as easy as possible for people to get hold of the Handy-Fasteners without having to embark on any fiddly installations themselves. Customers visiting their website can specify the number of garments they want to be retrofitted with the magnetic fasteners. The team sends them a postage paid envelope, which they can pop their clothes into and put into the post back to the Handy-Fasteners team. The magnets are installed - they work a bit like pop rivets - and the clothes are sent back to the customer.

The Spark programme has been instrumental in helping the Handy-Fasteners team to explore new markets. “Just because Handy-Fasteners will suit people with specific needs such as arthritis, doesn’t mean we want to market it purely as such,” says Natalie, “The product has a much bigger audience of potential users - it could benefit a lot of people regardless of whether they have a condition like arthritis or not.”

“We have been working with arthritis groups, but also Parkinson’s and more recently dementia groups,” says Matt. “These will be our core audience and the people who will test and use the product first. Everyone who sees the prototype really responds to it, particularly the way all the fasteners click together in turn as soon as you connect the fasteners at the top. It’s very satisfying as well as easy to use. Ideally in the long term we want to take the product in an even broader retail direction.”

Balancing ease of use, technical functionality and desirability are key elements that underpin robust product innovation and are at the core of Design Council Spark.

For the Handy-Fasteners team the programme coincided with their final year at university so for the first few weeks they were juggling demands of both the programme and their studies.  “The support from the Design Council Spark team was vital to keep us motivated and point us in the right direction,” says Natalie. “And the workshops were a mine of information and contacts for a team like us, with no background in design or business.”

“Spark,” she continued,  “gave us the tools and skills we needed to get the business off the ground.” “It taught us how to handle opportunities and handle ourselves in business situations,” says Matt. “Learning how to pitch was probably the single most helpful aspect, because it is vital if you are going to communicate your idea to people in a way they understand.”

We hadn't heard the term 'inclusive design' before Spark. But now it's a natural assumption that we would want that kind of ethos in any business we run.

Matt Barrett, Handy-Fasteners

Spark has also placed inclusive design at the heart of their business proposition. “We hadn’t really heard the term ‘inclusive design’, before Spark” says Matt. “But now it’s a natural assumption that we would want that kind of ethos in any business we run.”

For the team, learning about human-centred design has been truly life changing – in terms of their career plans at least. “The skills we learned were all so transferable,” says Matt, “and without this, there is no way we would be setting up in business now. We probably would have saved up and gone travelling before settling into something. It’s amazing to think that now we are completely committed to our own business and are expecting to start selling products in the next few months. None of it would have been possible without Spark.”

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