Dr Kathryn Cormican writes that if engineers want to create innovative new products, perhaps it is time for them to get out of the office and consult with their potential customers


 Dr Kathryn Cormican, lecturer, College of Engineering & Informatics, National University of Ireland, Galway

Organisations must design innovative products using breakthrough technologies to gain competitive advantage in turbulent and dynamic environments. An innovative product has the potential to change the nature of the marketplace by satisfying a new (or latent) need or by satisfying customer needs in a significantly new way. If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.

Clearly, the ability to successfully identify and define customers’ needs is essential to the design and development of innovative products. However, the identification of customers’ needs, wants and expectations is not easy. Customers have difficulty articulating needs and find it really hard to define the intangible aspects of products that please them.

Steve Jobs is famous for saying, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Sometimes it is true – customers do not know what they really want; they only know what they have experienced. People find it particularly hard to generate a clear vision of the future that comprises emergent technologies, new materials with functions and features that are not yet developed.

Consequently, many organisations do not listen to the voice of the customer too closely. Engineers often think that the information customers can provide is vague, inaccurate and incomplete. As a result, we find that essential predevelopment activities are rarely done. It seems that the early stages of the new product development process are ignored, as this space lacks defined processes and structure.

However, organisations that neglect this phase of the new product development process can end up an adopters, rather than innovators. Ultimately, they will lag behind the market because they fail to identify winning, next-generation ideas that delight the customer, provide a ‘wow factor’ and differentiate their products in the market place.

[login type=”readmore”]


In recent years, many researchers have written about the ‘fuzzy front-end’ of the product innovation process. Whilst some researchers have focused on analysing models and processes to capture the voice of the customer, others have attempted to understand effective methods and tools to identify and evaluate customer needs. Many of these researchers advocate that organisations adopt a user-centred perspective to the design and development of their products.

There is also a growing recognition by some researchers that the physical environment plays a significant role in this process. Consequently, some researchers have emphasised the need to engage with customers in their own environment. Advocates of this customer-orientation philosophy state that a desk is a dangerous place from which to do business. Designers and, more importantly, engineers should be encouraged to leave the office and observe customers in their own environment.

In other words, engineers need to get out of the conference room and move closer to the action. Perhaps we should try to ‘camp out’ with the customer in order to understand user needs and wants.

User-centred design is an approach that has received some attention in recent years. It is lauded to effectively capture the voice of the customer so that specific and latent needs can be defined and infused into the product development process. Our research focuses on optimising the front end of the product-development process, in order to design and develop innovative products that meet the needs and expectations of customers and end users.

Therefore, we are studying the area of user-centred design as a means of improving this space. We have noticed a dearth of real-world studies that focus on the application of user-centred design in specific industrial sectors. Our research attempts to bridge this gap.

Our work focuses on understanding innovation processes in the medical technology industry. This sector is thriving at the moment. Ireland is now the second-largest exporter of medical technology in Europe, second only to Germany. The industry boasts a talented, highly educated and skilled workforce. It has good regulatory bodies, as well as a proven track record in manufacturing excellence.

Furthermore, the industry is in an enviable position to encourage early-stage businesses from other countries (such as the US) that have to deal with very long, complex and expensive certification processes. In recent years, the clinical research infrastructure has improved dramatically and this is matched with an increased commercialisation focus in Irish universities. It seems that the time is ripe to tap into the innovative spirit and design innovative new products that meet the specific needs of the industry.

However, engineers and designers must adhere to key criteria for success. They must focus their attention on designing the right product. We learned that engineers must seek to design new products that are less invasive and less expensive that their competitors. They must increase the convenience, comfort, safety and security of the patients. These products should also be less complex and easier to use and ultimately enable patients to live longer and better lives.


We also know that for a product to be commercially viable, engineers must consider a host of key business criteria such as the size of the market (in terms of numbers and value); the clinical and regulatory pathways; whether there is a reimbursement strategy in place if there is clinical evidence that the product works; and also the competitive landscape.

We have uncovered many challenges to adopting a user-centred approach to product design in the medical device industry. First, we found that it is not so easy to identify and find the right user. For example, should we aim to target the doctor, nurse, patient, carer, administrator or purchaser? We find that there is never a single user and we are obliged to talk to many different people from many functions and disciplines.

Second, it is not so easy to gain access to hospitals. Clinicians are busy people and they may not have the time or enthusiasm to work on product design. We also learned that engineers find it hard to implement of best practices such as user engagement, needs identification and procedure mapping. Finally. other issues that are also important and so much be considered include health and safety in clinical environment and cost-benefit trade-off, as well as the thorny issue of ownership of intellectual property.

We are working hard to understand the challenges that our engineers experience in this domain. We will then be better placed to develop practical and useful guidelines; methods and tools to help designers and engineers navigate this space. We know that the processes we create should guide us, but not define our approach. We are also working hard to ensure that the tools we develop will help us to understand and communicate, but never limit us.

Frank Lloyd Wright famously stated, “You can use an eraser on a drafting table or a sledgehammer on a construction site.” Is it not time we spent a bit more time getting the picture right? If you are interested in participating in our research, please contact Kathryn.Cormican@nuigalway.ie.

Kathryn Cormican PhD lectures in the College of Engineering & Informatics at the National University of Ireland Galway. She leads research in the area of new product development systems. She has published widely at international conferences and in peer reviewed journals. Dr Cormican also works closely with many organisations helping them to design, develop and deploy new processes and systems.

http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Innovation-1024x764.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Innovation-300x300.jpgDavid O'RiordanMechinnovation,medical devices,NUI Galway
   Dr Kathryn Cormican, lecturer, College of Engineering & Informatics, National University of Ireland, Galway Organisations must design innovative products using breakthrough technologies to gain competitive advantage in turbulent and dynamic environments. An innovative product has the potential to change the nature of the marketplace by satisfying a new (or latent)...