Design × Health

Frédéric Lintz and Pierre Garner from Eliumstudio: “Designing medical devices is tricky. People don’t want to be reminded of their health problems”

How to create a medical tracking device that is stylish, accessible and appealing.

As the world keeps changing and the trend to become ever-more active in our own healthcare continues, new tech gadgets and tracking devices are popping up every day. And although many are popular for a while when first on the scene, most of them quickly lose their appeal – they become unattractive, too high maintenance or just a little bit too “techy”. So how do you create a device that will not become boring and bothersome? 

French company Withings found the answer in collaboration with the designers from Eliumstudio. They created an analog watch, Move ECG, that helps people keep track of their heartbeat at any moment and which reveals potential problems with atrial fibrillation – an irregular heartbeat that can be a sign of serious health complications. 

We talked to Frédéric Lintz and Pierre Garner from Eliumstudio about just how big a role design can play within the medical industry, and why it is about much more than just creating something that looks “smart”.

Frédéric Lintz & Pierre Garner
The reason you decided to create an analog watch that is still smart – or maybe it’s better to say, connected – is your partial dislike for chunky tech gadgets. How did you manage to avoid this typical style of tracking devices?

Frédéric Lintz: When we take on a new project, we always start with a few questions: Is it useful? What is the goal here? How can we help with this product? If we can’t find valuable answers, it means that there’s already a problem. It is very important for us not to create just another gadget. 

The problem with creating connected products and gadgets – and we have worked on things like that – is that although they seem interesting at first glance, at the second glance you often realise that you just don’t need it. It’s just one more product. 

We want the user to live with it as easily and simply as possible. If there are more constraints in using it than there are benefits that you can get from it, it’s a no-go. 

“There are some customers that are fond of technology, but we don’t want to address them directly. We prefer to address the people that have a specific problem that we can solve using technology.”

Isn’t the “tech” part of the product something that might actually be attractive to some people? 

Frédéric Lintz: If you think about the first activity tracker on the market a couple of years ago, it had many challenges. You needed to charge it every day or two, and after a few weeks of using it you knew, more or less, what results to expect from the tracking. After a few months, you lose the excitement of its novelty, and you know exactly what you will read each day… yet you still have to charge it every day. So, what happens? You become tired of it and eventually, you stop using it. And that is something we try to avoid.

Pierre Garner: Technology is not a goal – we use it, and we need it to achieve our goals, but nobody really cares about it. Well, there are some customers that are fond of technology, but we don’t want to address them directly. We prefer to address the people that have a specific problem that we can solve using technology.

Frédéric Lintz: The problem with a gadget is that, in the end, you almost always see it as something that is very visually intrusive – something that doesn’t suit you, your image, your style. So we needed to be careful with that and make sure we were aware of that relationship with the user.

Is this image and style aspect of design the reason you created an analog watch?

Frédéric Lintz: Yes, it’s one of the reasons. The goal was to provide a simple product that you can insert into your daily life, exactly like a normal watch. For more than a hundred years, the wrist watch has been something that most people enjoy wearing. In all this time, nobody has found anything better. So that in itself is a demonstration that the wrist is a good place to put such a device.  

For many men, a watch is one of maybe two jewellery pieces that they will wear. So, both technical and fashion aspects show us that the watch is the best place to “hide” the tracker. 

Pierre Garner: The watch has a genuine historical aspect, so we didn’t want to have a big screen. We wanted something more traditional. For us, Move ECG is a connected watch, not a smartwatch. And also, there is the battery time and charging aspect that we’ve mentioned – it lasts around 12 months. Because if you need to take the device off all the time to recharge it, it means you will stop using it pretty soon.  

Frédéric Lintz: We wanted something neutral, something universal. Something that means you can appeal to a teenager, you can appeal to a woman, you can appeal to a man. The scope is large. It is not easy to create something that is accepted by everyone. We need to think about shapes, sizes, thickness, proportions – that is the hard part. Also, we didn’t want to have a watch with 20 buttons that does everything. We always go for something very pure and simple. 

With Move ECG, we are talking about merging two things that are seemingly unrelated: design and cardiovascular disease. How did you approach it?

Frédéric Lintz: We work closely with Withings, because there are a lot of things in the healthcare domain that need to be validated and evaluated both technically and scientifically. Withings takes care of the R&D part – they need to make sure the product matches all the requirements. We are talking about medical grade products, so it is quite a strict environment to work in. But if this was not the case, Move ECG would just fall into the same category of other products with lesser quality.

“If you have a heart condition, just having a medical device that looks like a medical device is a constant reminder of your problem.”

What did it mean for you, as designers, to work in such a strictly regulated field?

Frédéric Lintz: It means that we need to be cautious, and very precise, in what we do. We need to double check everything very closely with technicians, to be sure that everything works properly. In order to be certified, the product needs to be trustworthy. And also, Withings wanted to make something that is easy and affordable for everyone, whilst also guaranteeing a good result. If it’s not, it’s not okay. 

Pierre Garner: The main issue – especially regarding the ECG and atrial fibrillation – is that one measurement doesn’t reflect your condition. You need frequent measurements, which is why this condition is often forgotten, or unseen during a medical appointment. You’re not always having some kind of tachycardia, or rapid heartbeat. So, you need to take measurements quite regularly; whenever you need it, for example, if you don’t feel well. With our watch, you can keep track of all your measurements through an app, and have a full history that you can share with your doctor. 

It means that for the watch to work properly, you need to keep people interested in it.  

Frédéric Lintz: Exactly. And to make it even more effortless, we wanted to make the measurements as simple as possible to take, induced by a simple gesture. That is why they are taken from the wrist, and by just touching the coat of the watch with your fingers. The ring around the coat has electrodes that take measurements and that way, we have been able to hide anything that would look too medical in the watch itself.  

So that people don’t have the feeling that there is a medical device attached to them. 

Frédéric Lintz: Yes. We don’t want people to feel like that. Even if you have a heart condition, just having a medical device that looks like a medical device is a constant reminder of your problem. It’s very important that, even when we speak about something very accurate and efficient, we do not induce the feeling of a medical environment. Nobody would like to wear that. 

“Our daily job is to really go to the core of the project. To go to the core of the design, and to erase everything that is not necessary. Everything in the design needs to have meaning.”

Then the goal is to make people feel as normal as possible, while taking care of their health?

Pierre Garner: Yes, yes. And especially because we are not only speaking about people who have a pre-existing condition. Either way, you don’t want to take the subway with something on your wrist that looks like a medical device. If you want people to wear it daily, and to be proud of it, you need to hide the medical aspect. 

You would never buy a €1,000 Euro watch if it looked like a medical product – this is the same story. The watch remains a fashion accessory, which is why the design is so important. 

Are there any designing principles that you find useful when designing healthcare products? You’ve already mentioned that you always go for pure and simple.

Frédéric Lintz: We always work in this direction. We are going for simplifications rather than complexity. The idea, again, is to create something very pure. We don’t want to make something complicated, just so it looks complicated. 

It’s always easier to make something look like it does everything, rather than actually managing to go to the core of your idea; your purpose. So, for us, our daily job is to really go to the core of the project. To go to the core of the design, and to erase everything that is not necessary. Everything in the design needs to have meaning. 

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Image credits: Elium Studio, Withings, Vincent Arassus, Masaki Okamura