One might not think a floor-finish applicator and a surgical tool would have much in common, but to the team of innovators at the Madison-based Design Concepts, the approach to analyzing and innovating them is very much the same. It involves studying and understanding the interactions of people with the tool in the environment the tool is used and then applying theory, principles, data and methods in order to optimize health, safety and productivity. That approach is called “human factors.”
Craig Connor (MSME, ‘94) is director of human factors and a principal at Design Concepts. Curt Irwin (BSME, ’00, MSBME, ’01, PhDBME, ‘07) is the firm’s lead human factors engineer. Together, they bring a level of experience and an understanding of ergonomics to product design that is rare in the industry. Their approaches and work with the Design Concepts team are creating remarkable connections between award-winning product designs and the people who use the products.
The Diversey floor-finish applicator is a perfect example. It earned the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society’s 2009 User Centered Design Award.
The ProSpeed™ is a floor-finish applicator designed specifically for the tight spaces of schools, hospitals and retail environments. It dispenses finish from a 2.5-liter replaceable reservoir purposefully positioned on its contoured shaft that allows for greater balance and control.
It replaces a simple mop that required maintenance staff to be trained in application techniques. By analyzing workers in their environment, the Design Concepts team created an applicator that workers could use without training, while producing more consistent coverage, wasting less finish and taking less of a toll on the body.
“We tell our clients we look at ergonomics from the neck down and the neck up,” Conner says. “From the neck down, it’s all about understanding what the human body’s physical capabilities and limitations are; starting with an understanding of anatomy, physiology and health, and how the different systems work together. Biomechanics is applying engineering principles to physiology, understanding the limits and how the capabilities vary across the populations, so as we’re designing products we have that basis of understanding and can be sure that we are tailoring the function of the product to what people are capable of doing.”
From the neck up, Conner says it’s more about cognition and how people take in stimuli. Whether it’s information presented on a screen or contextual cues that are built into a product.
“A lot of times our brains are hard wired to respond to that stimuli,” Conner says. “We can use that to our advantage to make products more effective.”
Often, Conner and Irwin will begin their process with a sort of “fly on the wall” approach, whether it is observing someone in their home or a clinician in a hospital during surgery. They are careful not to influence the environment while looking at the tools as they currently are used. They analyze the tasks the tools are supposed to achieve and look for opportunities.
“We are observing the behavior in order to understand the underpinning,” says Irwin. “Is that something that is physically driven or is that something that is cognitively driven? And then we help to imagine and envision something that could be different and more beneficial. It’s interesting to see how sometimes designers and clients can make assumptions about how end users are going to interpret something or use something, and when you actually take it to the user, it can be completely different.
A group of people can have resident knowledge that, until you get in their environment, you could make assumptions based on good design that don’t work because they think differently than the rest of us do. So that’s something that’s been really fun and interesting and really sheds the light on why you need to go out early and talk to your end users.”