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For most of us, technology is infused in our everyday lives. Engineers and technologists plan and build laptops, PDAs, medical devices — you name it — and we learn to use the product as it’s designed. But what if product development was approached from the user side rather than the technology side? That’s exactly what an emerging field called Human Factors is beginning to look at, and one program at Massachusetts’ Tufts University has started researching design of medical devices fit for the elderly.
With baby boomers turning 65 next year and the elderly population expected to double in the next 20 years, focusing on how to increase patient health could ultimately decrease medical costs. And personal medical technology tailored to what these folks need could help them better manage their own health issues could be the answer.
But when it comes to baby boomers, technology doesn’t typically come as naturally. So these human factors students in Tufts Department of Mechanical Engineering have taken another step: They think about how the technology should look and work so the elderly population can use it easily, safely and comfortably—so that it actually fits the needs of those who must use it as opposed to the other way around.
“They learn through their various course work how to design or evaluate products or conduct research that allows us to understand human performance and the limitations for human performance,” said Dan Hannon, professor of the practice in Tufts School of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, “and how to take those measurements and turn them into the requirements for the design of a new product or system.”
Thanks to Tufts University’s partnership with Cambridge Consultants, an international product development company, students were connected with Brookhaven at Lexington, a retirement community in Lexington, Mass., and visited its facility two separate times. First they spoke with facility administrators and residents, asking them about their daily life, their activities and their thoughts about a device designed to connect them with their medical information, said Leslie Johnston, a graduate of Tufts University School of Engineering and a member of the project team.
This capstone course at Tufts University is offered every spring. In addition to partnering with Cambridge Consultants this past semester, Dan Hannon, professor of the practice in Tufts School of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, said the class was large enough to have a second group working on another project.
This second group focused on a design competition for the Federal Aviation Administration — an airport design competition, to be exact. Tufts University Human Factors program partnered with Connectic, the parent company of Foster-Miller, which is located in Waltham, Mass., and with Mass Port, which is the port authority for Boston Logan Airport.
“We were very pleased and proud of our students; they took second place this year,” Hannon said. “In this particular case, they designed a surveillance technology system that would be ultra low-cost and that was based on a fiber optic technology that Connectic has developed. We were working off of that to provide a low-cost surface surveillance system for airports.”
In years past, the program has done work for Eastman Kodak and Bowes, and several other industry partners.
The second time, they came back with a few prototypes for the residents to try out. “There’s an incredibly wide range of abilities and comfort with technology sort of regardless of age within that group,” she says. “Some people were on Skype with their grandchildren every day and some people didn’t even want to carry a cell phone.”
Because most Tufts University students are in their early 20s, Hannon said one of the dangers in engineering and design is that engineers are tempted to create products for themselves, albeit subconsciously.
“It’s kind of a natural reaction to think that everybody thinks the way that you do, or everyone sees things the way that you do, or everyone’s body size is roughly equivalent to your own,” he said, adding that in this particular case, they had to work with a population quite different than themselves in terms of less experiences, exposure to technology and physical limitations that come along with increasing age.
“The students had to get outside of themselves and learn what the people of Brookhaven needed and what was going to work for them,” he said. “So there were several of these areas that they had to really kind of let down their own expectations and set those aside and try to figure out what this particular population was going to need.”
On the whole Hannon said that this project, in a way, is perhaps a perfect opportunity in that it combined many elements of what it’s like to actually work as a Human Factors engineer. It’s a capstone course, so it was taken in the final semester of the students’ senior year, giving them three and a half years of coursework in various aspects of engineering, design and experimental research, and how to collect data and apply it to a specific design.
Through Cambridge Consultants, students also got to work with designers, engineers — including Human Factors engineers — and others interested in research and design of such a device at a professional level. “So they got a chance to see how people in industry actually go about attacking a problem and working it through to some level,” Hannon said. “That’s another aspect of this project that’s invaluable. We couldn’t teach that back in the university … it gave them as close to a real world design experience as we could create and yet still have it in the context of a university course.”
And Johnston echoed that sentiment, saying the experience was a lot like working for a real client in the real world, and provided business sense and experience.
“We were treating it as though Cambridge Consultants was our client — we had to respond to that, as well as make it our own project and sort of combine our vision with what Cambridge Consultants was looking for,” she said. “And then in the end, being able to have this physical prototype that we could demonstrate and show [what] we learned through our usability testing was just a very realistic situation.”
The result of these students’ work was a handheld device prototype for seniors on the go. The device was roughly the size of a CD and included a rotary mechanism with a divot that would act as the user’s action point.
“You would use that to move the rotary control, and that’s where you’re selecting the item,” Johnston said, referencing the device’s various functions. “We had this screen divided up into segments, like pie wedges, where you would use the dial to rotate around and select one of those wedges as your menu item, and then you would be able to change some things within that section.”
As part of the “diet and exercise” function, they could enter the number of miles walked; via the “medication” function, they could record and receive reminders on when to take their medication; and using the long-term in-home storage and viewing center, they could update vital sign readings using sensors, access an “interactive pillbox” for reference medical information, and quickly review overviews of current health data.
Whether this device prototype actually is created for those baby boomers is unknown, but Cambridge Consultants will conduct more work on the prototype internally, said Melanie Turieo, principal human factors engineer at Cambridge Consultants.
“We do intend to take the foundation of what they [the students] put together and do some more detailed development,” she said. “And we’ll see what we get from it.”
One thing Cambridge Consultants did do is acquire Johnston as a full-time employee — which is one of the reasons the company values the partnership with Tufts. It can work with and evaluate potential good talent coming out of the Human Factors program, Turieo said.
“If there are students who are top notch, who are well-suited for the kind of work we do,” she said, “we have the opportunity to get an early look at them and bring them on board if that’s appropriate.”
And as one of the few undergraduate Human Factors programs in the country, Tufts is making it easy to connect its students with careers. “This is the kind of thing where, by giving our students this opportunity to get out and actually do the work,” Hannon said, “it just makes them competitive and attractive to employers.”
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