Device by design: A product designer's journey with scientists

An interview with Lisa deBettencourt, Vice President of Design at Confer Health.

Image: Arun Richard Chandrasekaran

Image: Arun Richard Chandrasekaran

Scientists invent and develop new scientific methods with a purpose in mind. Techniques developed in a lab are accomplished through rigorous research, followed by clinical trials to validate the method. But how is lab-based research translated into a device that can be used by anyone at home? Scientists do that in collaboration with teams of engineers, software professionals, and product designers. These product designers include user experience (UX) designers who take science done in the lab and make it into a product that provides meaningful and personally relevant experiences. Scientists benefit from knowing what exactly product design involves, what designers do, and how scientists can collaborate with the design team.

With this in mind, I sat down with our Vice President of Design at Confer Health, Lisa deBettencourt, discussing design and product development. The following is an excerpt of my interview with Lisa where we talk about the design process, thoughts that go into making a device usable, bringing scientific advances to the masses, and how to make the collaborative effort of scientists and designers better. Given that I'm a huge movie buff, we also chat about how Hollywood inspires scientific design and futuristic devices.

   
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     Arun : "I'm good at drawing, making art, do you think I can be a good designer?"   Lisa : "You do know we do more than making pretty pictures, right?"

Arun: "I'm good at drawing, making art, do you think I can be a good designer?"

Lisa: "You do know we do more than making pretty pictures, right?"

Designing products and moving boulders

So, VP of design, can you tell me what that means?

It's a very short title. What it covers is all of the components that go into designing and creating the overall experience of the product for our customers. We have hardware, industrial design, software interface, purchasing workflow, and the web interface. [Our work is to] make sure that the experience our customers have is both seamless and consistent from beginning to end.

This job is in a biotech start-up. Have you worked in bigger companies before? Do you see any difference in the way things work in a start-up, from a design perspective?

I have. What's really nice about being in a startup is that you have a lot of influence in the generation of a product as opposed to the improvement or extension of a product. And a lot more influence on high level decisions over where the business goes long term. When you are in a larger company, you have less impact overall. You end up having to move larger boulders to have that impact. So it's really rewarding to be in a startup. You have a lot of work to do, but it's very rewarding.

 

On science and collaborating with scientists

Lisa at her workstation at Confer Health.

Lisa at her workstation at Confer Health.

The company you work at is based on home diagnostics that involves a lot of science and research. Do you think the role of a designer is different in a scientific setting? Is there anything different that the product/design team does for a science-based product?

I don’t think so. No matter who you work with as a designer, you have to spend a lot of time understanding the technology. You try to balance the technology with the need of people… to try to bridge that gap.

When I was working with professional products, our customers were professionals, so we had more of the ability to bring that level of complexity straight to the customers. When you are dealing with customers that are consumer-based, you don’t have that luxury. You have to talk in laymen's terms and translate the science and technology down to something they can understand. If you are too heavy-handed in bringing the science to people, they'll just be overwhelmed and really confused. We give them the value without making them feel incompetent.

Does your work at all overlap or intersect with the science being done day-to-day?

It does. You guys [scientists at Confer] are doing some amazing things. We have science-product meetings to discuss how we can bring these lab results to a product. At a high level, we also try to understand what you [scientists] are currently doing and whether it aligns with what we do on the product side. Scientists look for the ideal result, and sometimes that makes the product more complex. We discuss with the science team on how to make the product simple to use and what we need to do to meet them.

In general, do you think scientists understand what your role is? Do you sometimes feel that they don’t understand what you do or what you are trying to say?

The most amazing design is obvious.

I don’t think many people understand what designers do. It's pretty nuanced and, when you say the word design, everyone thinks you are a graphic/visual designer, because that’s the result that you "see". It is especially difficult when you are in a larger organization, and the C-level suite just has no idea what you do. So yeah, I would say that not a lot of people really understand what we do.

In the end when the experience is amazing, and we've done our jobs, our work is invisible. Because the most amazing design is just obvious. If we do our jobs really well, no one knows. But when you have a really shitty experience, people recognize it.

Is there a feedback or a thought process you would recommend for scientists to be more comfortable discussing design?

The only thing I keep coming back to in my head is that we design how the product works and not just how it looks. The scientists obviously make it work; we take all of the pieces of the product and stitch it together so that it works for humans. You're not going to have a bench in every single person's home and pipetting on their kitchen table. We look at all of the problems that might arise when the product is used and try to make it simple for the end user. Sometimes the ultimate design is too expensive to build, sometimes it's just not technically feasible. We have to balance all those pieces together, and that’s what we do.

So what scientists need to understand is that it's all invisible. You might see the work as we have [the final design on] Adobe Illustrator up, but all the work that we do to get there is invisible.

 

Technology in Tinseltown

Have you ever been inspired by a movie or a show where they have a great product or a design for science-based ideas?

Hollywood has a major impact on the design world, and often in a negative way.

Hollywood has a major impact on the design world, and often in a negative way. The movie Minority Report is an example. [In the movie] they are touching and moving things on invisible screens everywhere. The interfaces they show in the Minority Report, and a lot of other ones that are coming out, are incredibly forward thinking. From a human factors perspective, we would never have a system where you are standing all day long, or using these weak muscles in your shoulders to be moving and touching things on the screen hanging in the air. Hollywood is all about augmented reality. And all these heavy, thick data displays, all this interactive stuff, that’s very sexy but not very feasible in many cases. And also how all the technology works all the time, it's pretty amazing, but that’s totally not true.

 

Product design as an alternate career for scientists

Do you think scientists can become designers?

Of course. Absolutely.

If scientists want to take something and work with you, or work like you, to translate a research into a product, do you think their scientific background is an advantage?

A healthy company that truly believes in the benefits that the design brings to them gives you the opportunity to perform a significant amount of research.

Yes. One, the research aspect of it. When you are at a good company, a healthy company that truly believes in the benefits that the design brings to them, they give you the opportunity to perform a significant amount of research. It’s a different kind of research, still important research; understanding how people work or live in certain contexts and certain environments. That’s one reason why I think scientists would be great, or have a good foundation on becoming these kinds of designers. The second one is problem solving. Scientists are very methodical. I think having a scientific background, looking at things very critically, is beneficial.

You mentioned that you learn other things to design a product. Can you elaborate? When you are designing a product, what other things should one think of?

It's so 3-dimensional, the space that we work in. I would start with understanding what that process looks like. There are some high level things we do -- cognitive science aspects and how we interact with the world, from a biological perspective. That’s a good foundation, then you can start to understand why the design works so well. There is a list of principles that we base all of our work on. For when you are dealing with physical spaces or physical devices, there are books of human factors, for mechanical design that you can refer to to understand what is required for a good product.

 

Scientists produce new knowledge and designers create new experiences for people. With new scientific advancements being made every day, collaboration between variety of fields offers new avenues to taking these advancements to people for simple use. And with ever increasing number of PhDs in the sciences every year, working outside a university is no longer an "alternate" career option. Science-based design could be one of them.


Lisa deBettencourt is the Vice President of Design at Confer Health Inc, which develops clinical-grade diagnostics for home use. Lisa also teaches the course “Information Technology and Creative Practice”, part of the Master of Professional Studies in Digital Media program at Northeastern University. You can follow her work and outreach on Twitter or LinkedIn.