The Biggest Opportunity For Disruption Today: Health Care Products That Work

People are taking more responsibility for their wellness. Designers can help by developing health care tech that's fun to use, argues Smart Design's Allan Velzy.

The holiday season may be over, but the time spent with friends and family may still be fresh. In all the gatherings, I would bet you had at least one conversation about health—your diet for 2012, a friend’s pledge to exercise more, Mom’s rehab from her surgery, Dad’s long list of medications. It is impossible to escape that time of year without thinking about health; whether you are fortunate to have good health, or hoping this year will bring it.

The good news is 2012 will be the year of good health—at least in the world of design and technology. Where I live in Silicon Valley, many people believe home health will be the next big boom. The Rock Health incubator is churning out a slew of startups that will help you manage your health, the iPhone 5 is expected to launch with a built-in heart rate monitor, and sick people everywhere will begin to look at health care more as consumers than as patients.

There is reason to be skeptical here. In the past few decades, people have cared deeply about health yet have continued to take lousy care of themselves. Let’s face it: Healthy people have always taken it for granted, and unhealthy people are often terrible patients. So what’s changing, and why is now the time for a metamorphosis in home health?

The answer comes down to two significant factors: (1) People are expanding their definition of "health" to include proactive wellness and ownership of treatment, and (2) There is a huge opportunity for designers to inject desire into this category. By the end of 2012, I believe the lines will blur between the health care, technology, and home products industries.

Health Redefined

Health used to be something we worried about at home and solved at the hospital. The reality is more and more health care management is happening in the home, and that’s where many solutions actually belong. One of the biggest shifts in how we define "health" is our recognition that there are two distinct parts of the equation: wellness and medicine.

When it comes to wellness, or living a preventative lifestyle, Americans have been obsessed with losing weight since we started getting obese in 1990. But only in the last couple years have we actually started to care about full-body wellness. As an example, just look at the number of yoga studios and natural foods markets popping up throughout the Midwest and South. This movement is mainstream, not just for the hippies where I live. It represents a big shift: body weight to full-body wellness.

Compare that to medicine, or the treatment of a condition, where we used to think doctors were the only ones in control of our health. Now, with our health care system so messed up, we only go to the doctor when it is absolutely necessary—for procedures and prescriptions. And with that health care system incentivized to push patients out of the hospital as fast as possible, people are quickly learning to take recovery into their own hands. Access to medical information through resources like WebMD has forever changed the way we handle our health. This is another big cultural shift: responsible doctor to self-responsibility.

Opportunity for Design

There is a massive opportunity for design and technology to make the difference in this $100 billion+ home health market. That’s not to say that the health care industry does not already have excellent designers and technologists in the ranks. However, there is a big opportunity to shift what those talented people are able to focus on.

All truly great designs balance three distinct characteristics; they are useful, usable, and desirable. Sadly, the home health industry is often missing a third of the recipe—desire. That’s because the ingredients that make a product or experience desirable are the easiest to dismiss; they’re not rational or quantifiable. Because home health takes its roots in the medical industry, it is historically practical and lacks personality. The truth is that there is good reason for a surgical tool to be mostly useful and usable, because all you really desire is for the darn thing to save your life. But home health products are used by regular people, and most do not have the instant impact of immediately saving your life. Products like these need the element of desire to stand any chance in a competitive consumer landscape.

I’m not just talking about aesthetics—emotion is what drives desire. We are constantly challenged to make healthy decisions in our daily lives, and many times the unhealthy alternative is driven by an emotional desire. What if the healthy choice was also the most desirable? What if the home health industry emphasized the same psychology of desire as the consumer electronics, gaming, and food industries? Designers and technologists have the power to relieve the burden of managing one’s health by repositioning it in a different context.

Stay tuned for my next post focusing on several specific areas for expanding home health.

[Images: Vector Pro and Jirsak via Shutterstock]

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  • Kevin Reilly, MSN, RN

    Nicely written from an astute perspective. As a home health RN, nurse educator and now doctoral student in learning technologies, I can see many "potentials" that would improve health outcomes without a lot of investment. Looking forward to more on this...

    Kevin Reilly, MSN, RN
    Oakland, CA

  • Dolly Parikh

    Allan, will look forward to more on the topic. I am particularly interested in Health care for Elderly and Disabled.

  • Kshama Chhapkhanawalla

    The I-phone application really proves that preventive healthcare is on the rise. In India Nokia had launched a phone with a pedometer and money other such health related things. I think adding healthcare to entertainment and communication product design would be very interesting to explore!

  • ben

    Great Article. I completely agree that existing health products lack the desire factor. A challenge will be to overcome any social stigma associated with using these health products; Imagine if it was 'cool' to track what you eat. These products need to be designed for an empowering experience, in which the user can embrace their relationship with it - this is where I think many beautiful and initially desirable products falter.

  • Jacko

    I think prevention is the cure most overlooked these days.  

    Doctors will tell you that.  The solution to all problems lies in the diet and environment. 

  • Tim Anderson

    I think there is a huge opportunity for well designed patient-centered products in the medical environment. It seems as if the hospital environment itself has been neglected for a long time, although over the past few years several major institutions (e.g. Mayo & Cleveland Clinic) have made some major adjustments to the patient experience.

    My partners and I are working on a startup to design simple products to improve the patient experience. Our first one can be found here:

  • Lindsay

    Great points.  I currently work as a Marketing Associate at Cake Health where we're working to make the task of managing health care more fun.  Amazing how much design can impact that experience.  

  • Loren

    Loved this article!  As a manufacturer of a high performance orthotic,(Kendall GelThotics) we are constantly trying to recraft our message of the importance of proper foot care and foot pain prevention.  So much starts at the arch of your foot.

  • Curtis

    Mÿ cô-wôrkêr's stêp-âûnt mâkês $44 ân hôûr ôn thê lâptôp. Shê hâs bêên firêd fôr 6 mônths bût lâst mônth hêr pâÿ wâs $1760 jûst wôrking ôn thê lâptôp fôr â fêw hôûrs. Hêrê's thê sitê tô rêâd môrê.... Lazy­Cash10.c­o­m

  • nississima

    I think this is fascinating. As a new mother with an infant who had some health challenges early on, I was struck by the dearth of useful tools for tracking and analyzing someone's health.  Looking forward to your next articles.

  • Panoptika Partners

    Allan, this makes perfect sense. People are taking more responsibility for other aspects of their lives such as career, education, spiritual development - so health and wellness are a logical extension. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Greg Voisen

    Allen this is a wonderful article.  I work with a company in Seattle called Mindbloom that is using gaming software to change the way we look at health and wellness.  You are so right about the in-home healthcare industry needing a boost.  

  • Kris

    Not only that but some medical professionals don't even take care of themselves. It is a huge "do as I say, not as I do" mentality.

  • Suzi

    Very cool article, very strange old-school illustrations - ? Where's the design element? The desire element?