Designing Medical Wearables: Blumio Case Study
The term “wearables” was coined when the Nike FuelBand and Fitbit came to market a few years ago. Since then, wearables have continued to focus on fitness but new technology will soon give wearable devices many more capabilities. One of the more promising new features is the ability to read blood pressure.
A fresh medical application for wearable technology
Blood pressure is the single best indicator of one’s general health but unfortunately blood pressure monitors are cumbersome and uncomfortable. Furthermore blood pressure can vary greatly from one moment to another so infrequent monitoring can give users a false impression of their BP health. Individuals with hypertension especially would benefit from frequent testing throughout the day.
Blumio a medical startup in San Francisco, imagined a new type of monitor technology that incorporates a pair of small radar sensors to measure blood pressure without the conventional air-pump cuff. In their innovation, rapid radar signals detect minute arterial movement as the heart beats to provide an instant BP reading. This new technology hardware is paper-thin and energy efficient. It’s also safe and doesn’t squeeze the arm. It can take measurements all day long without you feeling a thing.
Blumio + Whipsaw
Whipsaw was introduced to Blumio through the hardware startup accelerator program at Highway1 in San Francisco, CA. “We really liked Whipsaw because they were experts at both consumer electronic and medical design, and we trusted that they would be able to balance aesthetics with function, which was critical for our success,” said Catherine Liao, CEO and cofounder of Blumio.
Whipsaw was asked to develop a complete user experience and device design with a friendly sporty appearance and comfort for all users. Ideally, it would be as small as possible and work flawlessly. Whipsaw’s user-centric design approach fit these objectives perfectly.
“A good wearable product experience is when the hardware just ‘goes away’ because it’s so comfortable that you forget it’s even on. It must also deliver useful real-time information that you can trust and act upon immediately. Wearables are fashion statements too so good design is crucial,” said Dan Harden, President/CEO and Principal Designer of Whipsaw.
The biggest challenge for the Industrial Design team was how to configure this new technology into a compact, comfortable form factor and usability model that end users would like instantly. We knew this would be key especially since the Blumio proposition was so different.
Our user research revealed deep behavioral biases around blood pressure monitoring, including a fair amount of operation anxiety. Most of the BP machines were clunky, unintuitive and even painful so migrating the technology into a wearable would be a welcome change. We also researched ergonomic data to ensure universal fit across a wide user demographic. A number of alternative solutions were eventually prototyped and tested. Not surprisingly, the thinnest and simplest design won out.
The design solution is a seamless fabric armband that has a pocket on one end that contains the thin, flexible electronic sensing unit (radars, circuit board, battery and USB charge port). To separate the electronic unit from the armband for cleaning, the armband strap grommet pulls apart like a snap to access and remove the electronic unit.
The design is the opposite of what one expects from a blood pressure monitor. It is impossibly thin, lightweight, stretchy, and comfortable to wear all day long. Pair it with the companion app and your smartphone shows blood pressure and pulse information in real time all day, while also graphing history. “The Blumio team fundamentally believes that creating a product like this that enables blood pressure information to be measured easily and conveniently will open a new window into our cardiovascular health,” said Catherine Liao.
Looking to the future
Sensor and processing technology continue to get smaller, more efficient and more integrated – which is especially benefiting the medical wearable market. The direct on-body location of these devices is ideal for real-time physiological measurement, drug administration, therapeutic treatment and more. Although these technological advancements are fascinating in their own right, even magical at times, designers consistently need to prioritize how the user feels about the overall experience. Everything else comes second. Blumio is a good example of that philosophy where every detail contributes to a positive user experience.
In the near future some wearable technology will evolve into “enterable” technology where it moves inside the body to aid one’s health…and that’s when things get really interesting. In the meantime good medical wearables like Blumio will make lives better by giving people immediate vital information about their body while promoting wellness through technology and design.