Design Council this week met with Spark programme finalist Geoff Rolandsen, and spoke to him about his ingenious product ‘Workey’ and how he came about designing a product that he hopes will help people affected by Arthritis and dexterity issues across the United Kingdom.  

Getting in front of the right audience can be one of the most difficult aspects of designing a new product as Geoff, a design manager in the built environment sector, knows. Geoff  had designed an assistive device to help those with arthritis use keys easily, but without the support to test it, the prototype was languishing in a drawer. Design Council’s Spark programme would provide that support.

“One of the nicest things about designing a product like this,” says Geoff, “is the feedback you get from people for whom it has made a difference. It’s seeing people actually using it and gaining benefit from it. Knowing that this small product you designed is making a genuine improvement in people’s lives.”

It seems like a small thing, but an inability to use keys properly is a significant problem.

Geoff Rolandsen, Workey Products

Geoff was originally inspired to try to make this kind of difference when he discovered that his father, who lives with arthritis, struggled to use certain door keys. One day, whilst spending some time at his father’s house, he noticed a strange looking contraption. “It was this big, plastic, clunky thing,” Geoff says. “I asked my father what on earth it was and he told me it was to help him use keys. I had no idea that he had trouble with that, but it turned out that he’d had a bad experience trying to unlock his garden store. Since that incident, he was worrying about unlocking and locking doors all the time.”

Geoff recalls, “I looked at this great big, blue plastic thing, and just knew that no one would carry it around with them all the time. I knew it could be improved.”

Geoff started sketching some ideas, and the original Workey assistive device was born. Crucially Workey is small and light. Keys slide into it and it creates a larger and more ergonomic surface area for the user to turn. It can be kept attached to a keyring or even just left on a key without becoming too big to slip into a pocket or a bag.

Workey sketch

Because it is easy for the user to keep about their person, Workey can provide huge peace of mind. “It seems like a small thing, but an inability to use keys properly is a real problem,” explains Geoff. “One awkward situation because of it, and people can lose confidence for months or even years. It can mean a loss of independence.”

But despite the potential he knew the product had, Geoff was unable to progress further than the initial design stage. He made a prototype, and tested it with a few people close to him. “Everyone liked it,” he says, “but I knew that wasn’t proper market research, and compounding that was my lack of knowledge and experience of marketing. The relevant background and expertise I had was in design and manufacturing, so it was difficult to motivate myself to think about commercialising and marketing a product.” Essentially, Workey was sitting dormant.

That feedback from people who would be my eventual end-users enabled me to re-imagine the product.

Geoff Rolandsen, Workey

But then a friend sent Geoff a link to Design Council Spark. He entered and got through the first stage. Knowing that other people saw the value in it was a real confidence boost,” he says. And that validation continued once Geoff was on the programme, “it gave me the chance to properly test it,” he says, “to make sure that people actually wanted this thing.”

Workey prototype

A key strength of the Spark programme is the partnership with Arthritis Research UK and Geoff took full advantage of it. “I was able to take part in a round table with Arthritis Research UK and some of their audience,” he says. “That feedback from people who would be my eventual end-users enabled me to re-imagine the product. I really went right back to the drawing board with it.”

Geoff successfully navigated the initial two-day ‘design camp’ workshop for all shortlisted applicants. Of the 30 ideas that were refined and presented there, Workey was one of the 10 finalists chosen by the investment panel this year to proceed to the full 16-week Spark programme. Geoff’s success in becoming a finalist also provided him with an initial £15,000 investment to further develop his product.

From then on development of Workey really accelerated. “The monthly workshops and regular meetings with various mentors make the whole thing much easier to tackle,” says Geoff. You have that reassurance, when you are doing something that you know nothing about, that there is somebody who can help you. For me that was the marketing and commercialisation side of things. It made me much more inclined to do it and it cuts out so much of the risk. It also keeps you on track through the tricky bits like manufacturing, where you have to draw a line in the sand and commit”.

Geoff also got a lot out of the camaraderie of the group. “One of the best things about it was meeting other people going through the same process,” he says. “Sharing knowledge and contacts, and sometimes the pain!”

Workey final product

Four months on from completion of the programme the Workey is very close to being re-released as a fully-fledged commercial product after going through a re-design process. Thanks to Geoff’s success at the final investment panel pitch day, in which all finalists get the chance to pitch to industry experts for an additional investment of up to £200,000, Workey Products progresses with a £40,000 boost awarded by Arthritis Research UK. “I’m currently finalising the design,” says Geoff, “refining all those details like hinges and clips that seem so insignificant, but are so difficult to get exactly right. That will be done in the next month. I’ve been looking into market routes and there’s the possibility of further partnering with Arthritis Research UK to connect with their community.”

And Workey is not the only thing Geoff has up his sleeve. “At the moment Workey is something I do in my spare time,” he says, “but really I would like to spend more time on this kind of thing – I started work on another product during the course of Spark  which is also close to production. Ultimately I would like to spend my time developing products like this, that have the potential to help people and make a real difference to their lives and independence.”

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Design Council Spark: An opportunity for all Our core belief at Design Council Spark is that anybody can have a life changing idea that will benefit the public. Our core belief at Design Council Spark is that anybody can have a life changing idea that will benefit the public.

Feature — 25/10/2017