Here we give an overview of our process which involves identifying a problem, understanding the need, researching existing options, considering solutions, pulling together a team, getting input from stakeholders, creating conceptual models and prototypes, testing design concepts, testing for strength and ease of use, designing for production, working out bugs and finally…releasing (and supporting) a great product!
Complex Problems Need Solving
Good products address real needs and solve important, unresolved problems. Understanding the needs requires interactions with people close to the problem—end users, people with disabilities, their families and therapists. The problem is best understood by observing people attempting tasks, using existing equipment and asking questions: how do they do it, why do they do it that way, what else have they tried, and how they would like to do it.
Too many people reinvent the wheel before looking at what’s already available. A thorough investigation of existing products and how people are currently addressing the need is an essential step before spending time and money on a great idea. A critique of existing products includes functional testing and identification of their strengths and limitations, in light of “the ideal” product.
You must know who you are designing for and seek to fully understand their needs, desires and preferences. People differ, so it is important to involve a variety of individuals.
End users are involved throughout the design process: ask questions and observe them to understand their needs and difficulties, ask for feedback on design concepts and user interface details, present different design options, and have them try prototypes through the development process—including use in their environments.
The people we design for are the end users AND their families and others they work with, such as care attendants, therapists, rehab engineers and rehab equipment suppliers. They do not live in a vacuum–they may live at home with their family, or in a group home or residential care facility. They work, go to school and participate in community or adaptive recreation programs.
People across environments are impacted by and interact with the products. Depending on the nature of the design project, different people are invited to provide input and feedback—further illuminating the needs and offering insightful feedback based on their experiences.
Everything can work well in a research lab, but get it in the hands of an end user or a clinician and you’ll see what will work or fail. Watch a person try to operate your product, and you’ll see that what was “obvious” to you is confusing to others. Let someone use it in the Real World environment to do real things, and you’ll find out what works, what doesn’t and what will break.
It is critical to get input from objective people, not just your coworkers or colleagues who like you. It’s very important to invite people to be frank—let them know that you know it’s far from perfect, and you want their honest feedback so you can make it the best product possible.
Product Development Process
Clearly specify the scope of the product—who it is for, what it should do, what it won’t do, how big it is, how much effort and reach is required to operate it, what loads it will see, how it will operate, how the end user will access it, can it be customized, what does it need to connect to, environmental considerations, is it portable, what are the safety considerations… and on and on.
Conceptual models are quick and easy ways to get an idea across so others can react to it—before you invest much time or money. Drawings, cardboard mockups, foam core models, paper clips, scissors, napkins and cord—these are the low cost, down and dirty materials we use to quickly “test” or communicate ideas. “Paper models” can demonstrate what a User Interface will be like.
A “Wizard of Oz” technique, illustrating “what will happen next” can get across how something may work, even before you have a working prototype. Making modifications to existing products can be cost-effective and allows a comparison to “what is”. Developing easily changed models using 3D software can be very effective, and it’s just a step away from “printing” a 3D model.
Designing for ALL, including those with disabilities, is central to our design process. Controls are designed for ease of use by everyone, even those with limited physical, and at times cognitive, abilities. Products are developed to accommodate different aspects of use—for the end user with impaired physical abilities, to therapists or family members, who might be setting it up for use.
We use many different design tools, but the two most essential are our 3D CAD program, SolidWorks, and our 3D printer, a Stratasys Dimension printer. We fabricate basic prototypes from plastic, wood and some metal in our workshop.
For precision-machined components, we use outside vendors, including quick-turn prototype houses for precision CNC-machined parts and a machine shop without any fancy electronics. Industrial Designers are contracted, and they use software tools such as Alias.
Electronics development tools used include an assortment of software development tools and development and test equipment. The BIG thing here is to have someone who can think very differently, understands the range of end users and access methods available, and is aware of how the technology needs to play together…all the while keeping an eye to the future in electronic device communication and interactivity.
Once the plastic printed parts pass the tests and we’re closing in on a design we want to test with end users, we use outside resources. We either use a local machine shop or upload files to a CNC prototype shop and have parts machined from durable materials to create a fully operational prototype to test the functionality and design with end users and key people.
Putting it to the Test
As concepts are developed, team members put forth 2-5 concepts using sketches, descriptions or simple prototypes and get feedback from one another. The broader team, not just engineers and designers, are asked to use and react to prototypes so confusing aspects and ease of use issues can be identified early. Key user interface elements are prototyped and tested by a number of staff members before going further.
Prior to putting it to a test by others, the strength and functionality of a part or an assembly is tested both virtually (via CosmosExpress in SolidWorks), and by team members. Assemblies are checked for interference in SolidWorks and in an actual 3D assembly. Reviews of the manufacturability and cost implications of design choices are part of the internal assessment.
Tests for ease of use typically take place with one or more prototypes—individuals are asked to try to do different tasks (ie, set up the tent or set lock positions). Task sets will be different for individuals with disabilities and the other Key people. Different levels of instruction may be provided, ranging from none, to verbal prompts to written instructions. They may be asked to talk aloud, telling us what they’re thinking or assuming. They are then asked to complete forms to rate the ease of use, intuitiveness, difficulty of the different setups. Results guide future development.
It’s very important to invite people to be frank—let them know that you know it’s far from perfect, and you want their honest feedback.
Accessibility and usability by individuals with disabilities and others are hallmarks of BlueSky Designs’ products. As products are developed, different people are in mind—those with dexterity, range of motion, and strength issue, such as people with CP, Muscular Dystrophy and ALS, MS, Strokes and different levels of Spinal Cord Injury.
During the testing, people encompassing the full range of those you feel will be end users should be involved in different stages of development. Oftentimes, their feedback and preferences will be different than the therapists or families. Initial testing will take place in a controlled setting, but eventually it should take place in the environment in which it will be used.
The second critical aspect is that it is easy for those who assist in the setup or use of the device. For example, a family member or therapist may attach a Mount’n Mover to a wheelchair. The person using a speech device attached to it may be moving or adjusting it. These two aspects are different, but both are designed to be as easy as possible.
The advantage of working with therapists is they will be able to assess it with a broad range of individuals in mind. Family members will anticipate issues and situations critical to the success or failure in everyday use. Tests include both equipment design and adequacy of instructions.
It’s difficult to anticipate the forces, stresses and use a product will be put to—especially if it is flexible in its design and will be used by a wide range of end users. The intended use and actual use are always a bit different. As you design a product, you must think about “worst case scenarios”, possible forces or environmental factors the person and product may encounter. In addition, a reasonable calculation of usage is made in order to put the device through cycle testing.
Some physical tests can be conducted with prototypes, but others cannot be conducted until you have one or more prototypes or the real product in hand. The tests will vary significantly based on the product. For example, the tents developed were tested on actual camping trips—first by our staff, and then on a group camping trips with mixed groups of people with and without disabilities and also by families on their vacations. Nothing “tests” a tent like a thunderstorm! Not even a hose or sprinkler… And a Mount’n Mover can be fully loaded, but we didn’t anticipate a person using it as a pushup bar, for transferring. Expect the unexpected! Be ready to redesign it after it’s released… and put to Real World testing.
Design for Production
You need only watch a few episodes of “How It’s Made” to understand there are countless materials and manufacturing options. Every design decision, including the desired shape, material and manufacturing method has cost implications.
The BlueSky Designs team is acutely aware of how product and part design impacts manufacturability. It not only broadens or narrows manufacturing options it affects the ease of assembly. Material, processes and finishes are selected based on many factors: function, touch and feel, aesthetic considerations, strength and durability, lubricity and friction, visibility, weather and wear characteristics. The shape of a component, whether it is 2D or 3D is a key determinant of which manufacturing options are used, and has significant cost implications.
We have experience with plastic injection molding of ABS, Delrin and Zytel; magnesium die-casting; stamped and laser cut metal-formed parts; aluminum extrusions; investment casting; custom screws; die-cut and vacu-formed plastics; and CNC machining. Each has their benefits and limitations, tooling and piece part costs and tolerance implications.
For specifics on the BlueSky products, look on the individual Product Pages.
Accessible products must be priced so that people can afford them or insurance will pay for them, otherwise they are NOT truly accessible. Many factors affect costs, including estimated quantities, minimum quantities for a specific manufacturing method, set up costs, tooling costs, part costs, finishing and packaging. Part design drastically affects your costs. Tooling costs for 3D parts involving die-casting or injection molding are far more expensive than tooling for 2D parts (extrusions, stampings).
Materials and processes impact the unit costs: plastic injection-molded parts will cost pennies on the dollar relative to metal parts. Quantities impact the cost as well because set-up costs are spread across the number run.
Patents and/or a Patent-pending status can serve as a barrier to competition. If you are planning on licensing your design to others to produce, a patented product will command a higher royalty rate.
Each company needs to decide whether to pursue a patent or not. There can be significant costs and time associated with the filing, writing and drawing preparation. Depending on the market potential and whether or not you would defend the patent if someone infringes on it, you may decide not to pursue it.
A Utility patent holds more weight than a Design patent. A Utility patent demonstrates you have a truly novel idea that provides a benefit, and the idea was not obvious to others in the field of practice.
BlueSky Designs currently has 8 patents (4 utility; 4 design) for products ranging from its tent design to a wheelchair mount with locking joints, to a stool with a rocker base, primarily used for gardening.
Do no harm. Safety is as important as function, and is always considered in our design process.
Design for Safety: We design the product to be safe. Smooth edges, remove sharps, and design in safety features. Do what you can to make the use obvious and intuitive. When necessary, add a label to illustrate proper use or to alert them to a hazard. Make sure it will handle all the loads specified.
Conduct a Risk Analysis: During the design development process, we consider what could go wrong, and how people could use or misuse the product. We explore and experiment to determine what will happen if they use it in different, even unintended ways. We test it to the breaking point, and make certain that this does not pose a threat to the end user or others.
Test it with end users: In testing your device with end users and others, pay attention to how people use the product, what may confuse them about how it operates, mistakes they make, and the consequences. Consider—can the design be changed to eliminate the problem? Could a label be added as a reminder? Did we provide adequate instructions?
Ongoing review: Once it is in the field, listen to customers’ questions and examine repairs. Continually improve the product and inform your customers and Resellers if critical issues arise.
BlueSky Designs started as a design and consulting firm, specializing in universal design, ergonomics, rehab engineering and assistive technology. In the early days, we licensed our designs to others. We didn’t have a Sales and Marketing presence, nor did we have Production and Customer Service staff. Both the Garden Rocker and Freedom Tent were universal designs, and fit in mainstream companies.
As we developed the Mount’n Mover, we opted to manufacture it ourselves for a number of reasons. Royalties alone were not sustaining us, and we wanted to move from a grant revenue-based company to a self-sustaining one, based on product revenues. Other factors in deciding to take the plunge were that we had a product we really believed in, and wanted to see on the market; we wanted to ensure its quality; and we wanted to make sure our customers were supported.
We took the plunge. At this point, we’ve got a growing business, are employing people and seeing the impact our product has on the lives of our customers firsthand. It’s a decision we’re happy with.
Both approaches have merit, and we will consider both as we develop new products.