On Product Design

Inventor Dean Kamen on product design: “I try to understand the basic laws of nature. Beyond this, I do very little research as to what the product should be. You would never get the iBOT by doing research on wheelchairs. If you do “product research,” the product that you end up with will be similar […]

Inventor Dean Kamen on product design:

“I try to understand the basic laws of nature. Beyond this, I do very little research as to what the product should be. You would never get the iBOT by doing research on wheelchairs. If you do “product research,” the product that you end up with will be similar to what already exists. For example, if you went out to people who make wheelchairs and said, “I want to make the next great improvement,” they would typically conduct focus groups with people who use wheelchairs. And these wheelchair users, operating within the context of their existing wheelchairs, might ask for things like a new cup holder. They saw a great cup holder in a minivan and realized that their wheelchair didn’t have one. So they ask for a cup holder, or some other incremental improvement. You have to start with basic question: if this person is now missing this amount of functionality, is there some alternative to a wheelchar that is both dramatically better and not prohibited by the laws of physics and the current state of engineering and technology?

“Focusing on the problem in this fundamental way allowed us to understand that wheelchair users need to have the same small footprint on the ground as you and I so they can navigate around areas and obstacles as we do. They need to have their eyes and hands at the same level as a standing person, so they can see over counters and get things down from shelves. They need to be able to get water out of a faucet. And so on. In order to achieve any of these things, we looked a how fully functioning humans do it. They do it by being dynamically stable – by constantly adjusting themselves to maintain balance. Balance is a preprequisite condition to living in a world that is architected by people who walk around balancing themselves. So we decided to forget about wheelchairs and focus on the real problem. The real problem isn’t locomotion – wheels solve that problem fine. The real problem is that these people typically lost their ability to move around while also physically elevating themselves within a small footprint, which requires dynamic stability. Solving this problem would dramatically improve their lives.”

( I already posted about it in a different context here: The Moment of Innovation, but I’m so fond of it I’m going to post it on Bokardo, too. )

Excerpted from: Make Magazine, Volume 4

Published: February 28th, 2006

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