A number of medical products have come out in the past year that provide their functionality by coupling to smart phones. One device enables remote dermatology diagnosis. Another provides an add-on that can diagnose an ear infection. Still another turns an iphone into a microscope.

We will undoubtedly see more such devices. For medical device design, what this portends is a world in which devices will be extremely flexible. Basic functionality will be housed in one device to which specialty extensions can be added.

Some companies are actively preparing for this future. Per Don Jones, VP of Qualcomm Life, “rather than a proprietary black box that somebody spent thousands of dollars on, you can imagine the future of medical devices looking more like an iPad with some disposable sensors on it and access to the Internet.”

Indeed, the winner of  NASA TechBrief’s 2012 Create the Future contest is a multi-purpose, configurable sensor  inside a housing the size of a key fob that can be easily integrated with a smart phone.

Such modular, configurable systems will offer significant challenges in designing for usablilty.