Usability is one of the most important aspects of medical device design. This paper from authors at the University of Cambridge cites a number of studies that have shown that a significant percentage of medical errors could be prevented if more attention had been paid in the design phase to the device’s usability.

How easy a device is to use is largely a matter of being aware of the cognitive processes that people employ when they interact with a device. Designers can provide visual (and auditory and tactile) cues that take advantage of or even trigger specific cognitive processes we use as shortcuts to understand our surroundings and how we should interact with the things in our environment.

For example, our attention is drawn to contrast. A bright color against an otherwise neutral background will attract our eye and our attention. Providing that cue on a medical device is a way of telling the user that that thing is important – probably the first thing they should interact with. Or something to be paid attention to in an emergency. There are a host of other cues designers can provide as well: common shapes that tell us how something should be held or whether to push, pull, turn, etc.; whether visual elements are grouped together or not; the location of various cues on the device as a whole; and so on. Providing these cues applies equally to the design of graphical user interfaces and display screens as well as to the physical devices themselves.

Understanding the cognitive processes we use to sense our surroundings and interact with our world is the foundation designers need in order to achieve good usability in medical device design. As evidenced by the number of medical errors that are attributed to poor design, those in the medical device design field need to pay more attention to this aspect of the practice.