The most commercially successful products are typically designed to be useful, usable and desirable for people with a wide range of needs. This is why Arthritis Research UK became a funding partner of Spark in 2016, with the aim of accelerating to market well designed solutions and products for people living with arthritis. We spoke to Helen Hurman, Head of Research Operations at Arthritis Research UK to discuss the benefits of truly empathetic design practice.  

For anyone considering applying for Spark, the Arthritis Research UK challenge represents not only a huge market, but also an opportunity to design with true empathy and respect. It is the chance to produce something that has a real and positive impact on the lives of people living every day with arthritis.

Over 10 million adults in the UK are affected by some form of Arthritis. The term describes many different conditions of the musculoskeletal system and presents in a myriad of different ways. However, products designed for this market are often treated as supports and aids and their design is frequently not prioritised.  

They want products that look and feel good, and crucially, that don’t make them feel labelled as disabled or different.

Helen Hurman, Arthritis Research UK

Arthritis Research UK’s Helen Hurman has many examples, to illustrate the issue, “The frameworks that fit over toilets to help people get on and off are bolted on, not designed-in. Although important to everyday living they are very unattractive - basically metal pipes and PVC. People often hide them because they don’t want visitors to know they have them. They want products that look and feel good, and crucially, that don’t make them feel labelled as disabled or different. We know from our social research amongst people living with arthritis that our audience wants more immediate solutions to everyday living. That spurred us on to find a partnership with an organisation like the Design Council that could help increase the momentum of products that will benefit this audience.” 

For Arthritis Research UK, this approach is an opportunity to push innovators and entrepreneurs to think harder about their audience.

The Framework for Innovation that the Spark programme is built around has been developed and used by the Design Council with thousands of start-ups, small, medium and large businesses for the last 15 years. It enables a robust product development process, one that will support the shaping of commercially viable products that are centred on the needs of both their users and the environment in which they will exist.

For Arthritis Research UK, this approach is an opportunity to push innovators and entrepreneurs to think harder about their audience. “We sit on the investment panel and help to choose the ideas that get through to the programme and eventually the ones that will be awarded our share of the Spark fund” says Helen. “We involve people with Arthritis in that process and to be honest their opinions are far more important than mine or any of my colleagues.”

In their first year on Spark, Arthitis Research UK awarded funding to Handy Fasteners, the brainchild of three undergraduates studying aeroscience and psychology. Their product consisted of a simple magnetic button system retrofitted into regular garments to make them easier to fasten.  It also encapsulated three things that an empathetic product idea, geared towards those with arthritis, needs to demonstrate, which are:

1.Thinking Around Your Product

“Handy Fasteners impressed us for a couple of reasons,” says Helen. “First, they had gone beyond just the product and actually thought about the service that could be offered around it.”

The magnetic buttons are not just something you buy. They are part of a bigger service. Customers order online and then send the garments they would like retrofitted to a Freepost address. The fasteners are fitted and their clothes sent back to them. An empathetic service that recognises that someone who cannot use buttons easily is also unlikely to be able to perform a fiddly installation. But also a service that makes the product very marketable.

2.Observation

“The second reason they impressed us was they had gone out and talked to people,” continues Helen. “A lot of people think that in order to do market research you have to do some very involved work like statistical surveys or focus groups. But just getting out there and chatting to people, your friends and family is often as valuable.”

Arthritis is a complicated and diverse condition, which makes this kind of observation essential. The stereotype of the arthritic hands unable to open a jar is only a part of the challenge. The condition can affect any of the body’s joints and the knock-on effects include loss of strength, flexibility and stability. Sufferers have depleted muscle tone so weight is an important consideration, as is the way things open and close. “Something as simple as opening a door can be a problem, depending on the handle,” says Helen. “I’ve seen designers put on great big gloves to test things like that – to get a feel of how an arthritis sufferer might experience a product.”


The Uchello kettle - designed by someone with arthritis

3.Understanding your product’s market potential

If you can make a product work well for someone with a condition like arthritis, it will probably work better for the general population as well. “The beauty of good inclusive design is that it helps individuals, but also has real usability and desirability for anyone” says Helen. “We are looking for ideas that have that kind of market potential. Creators that recognise the broader utility of their product in a wider market.”

My advice to anyone thinking about entering is to really consider and listen to your end user.

Helen Hurman, Arthritis Research UK

The Uchello kettle, designed by someone with arthritis is a good example of something on the market at the moment that achieves this. Helen is a fan. “Heavy kettles are a problem for obvious reasons,” she says. “The Uchello is a kettle with a built in tipping mechanism. It is a design that tackles all the key problems associated with arthritis - strength, mobility, stability and pain. It looks attractive and it is useful well beyond its intended market. An awful lot of individuals would find it beneficial and desirable, and you can see how it might also be an integral part of a corporate setting where health and safety is an issue.”

For Helen and Arthritis Research UK, Spark is an integral part of their strategy to help people living with arthritis to go about their daily lives as easily as possible:

“Spark is a fabulous thing”, says Helen. “Seeing the enthusiasm from designers for an audience like this was fantastic. And by being part of it we were able to identify products that had potential in this market, which sometimes the designers themselves hadn’t recognised. My advice to anyone thinking about entering is to really consider and listen to your end user, your product may have an application in this bigger market of very specific users.” 

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