Designing Wearable Medical Devices for People with Disabilities

Designing Wearable Medical Devices for People with Disabilities

What do reading glasses, adjustable office chairs, touchscreens, your computer keyboard, email, and bendy straws all have in common? They all evolved from solutions meant to aid those with disabilities, and yet turned out to improve the lives of everyone. We call this Universal Design; the idea that designing something to accommodate those who have needs “outside the box” ultimately creates a better experience for all.


It is with these Universal Design principles in mind that we designed a wearable medical device for patients with movement disorders and neurological disabilities. While this product was only intended for use by these disabled patients, each person’s experience with this disorder was different and varying in symptoms and severity. By designing with the most severe patients in mind, we would in turn create something suitable for them all. Following the Principles of Universal Design1 the product had to meet seven standard principles:

  • Equitable Use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  • Flexibility in Use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Simple and Intuitive Use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  • Perceptible Information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  • Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  • Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Additionally, when designing a wearable medical device it is important to involve the user early and often. There is no other way that we can fully understand their experience.

It is important to challenge our assumptions – they may be wrong. For example, we all believed that donning a garment that opened in the front would be easiest for our user. However, when speaking with and observing a patient, I noticed that he preferred over-the-head garments due to the fact that patients with this disease had balance issues and were constrained to getting dressed in a chair.

Physical prototyping early in the design allows us to rule out problems and identify areas of opportunity.


This garment, which holds a wearable medical device, needed to be donned daily and accurately by a patient with severe neurological symptoms, so usability was everything. We had to factor into the development of the device the fact that patients using it would have tremors, balance problems, stiffness, and stooped posture, slowness of movement, and involuntary movements, as well as possible mental disabilities.


We started with a brainstorm, welcoming crazy and outlandish ideas. This is how unconventional solutions come forward.

Recognizing we know nothing of the experience of our user, we involved them early and often. Initially this meant comprehensive research into challenges faced by those with disabilities when getting dressed through reading journal articles, message boards, watching videos of people speaking about their experience, videos instructing caregivers on how to help their loved one’s dress, etc. This allowed us to gain empathy for their experience.

With the initial understanding gained from our secondary research, I went to a patient’s home for an interview. There, through asking him about challenges he faced every day, home-made solutions to those obstacles, and asking him to share clothing items that were easiest for him to don and which were the hardest, we began to identify areas of opportunity for making our garment simple and easy to use.

Through the ideation process, we started prototyping very early on. This way, we were able to identify solutions that we thought would be ineffective and which components showed promise to move forward. Thomas Edison was famous for saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. This type of iterative attitude is important in product design.

In order to evaluate each prototype, we ran in-house and patient user studies with early prototypes, asking them to walk through certain steps that helped us notice positives and negatives about each iteration. Finally, continued improvement and the production of a higher fidelity prototype led to a more structured user study with patients. In these studies, it was key to pay attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues from the participants.

The Solution

In the end, we were able to come up with a solution that differed from what we had envisioned at the beginning. This solution was simple yet clever, intuitive, optimized with Velcro and minimal steps, and easier for a compromised patient to don. It had clear visual cues for how to use it as well as a straightforward ‘Instructions for Use’, and fulfilled its medical duty accurately without compromising patient comfort.

We did this successfully by following the guidelines of Universal Design. When we optimized the garment to be easy for the most severely compromised patient, we created a solution that was better for all users. By employing frequent contact with users, listening and observing, creating rough prototypes early, and plenty of trial and error, we developed our successful solution.

Contact us to solve your tough tech challenge. Get started on your wearable medical device today!

1 Defined by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University


Post written by Celeste Greenbaum, 2018 Industrial Design Intern

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