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Studying How We Use Gadgets Makes For Better Designs

Possibly no one knows more about how and why we use gadgets than the folks who design them. Studying the behaviors and attitudes of potential users before designing a product is often the best practice, said Andrew Macey, chief operating officer of Herbst LaZar Bell Inc., a product-design firm better known as HLB, with offices in Chicago, Los Angeles and Waltham, Mass.

Integrating knowledge and design thinking are critical to a product’s sales success, Macey said, but customers often are too impatient for that. “Too many customers want to jump to concepts, to get pretty pictures too soon,” he said.

When given the chance, HLB’s designers work with anthropologists to see how products are used, seeking insights to make future versions more useful. One of HLB’s latest projects involves working with Israeli-based biotechnology firm Medgenics Inc., which is preparing an innovative therapy for anemia and other chronic diseases for clinical trials.

Medgenics’ regimen involves removing small amounts of a patient’s tissue from beneath the skin and turning that tissue into tiny biopumps by adding genes to produce desired proteins. The biopumps are then inserted into the patient’s body, hopefully allowing anemic patients to produce enough erythropoietin, a hormone produced by the kidney that promotes formation of red blood cells, to sustain patients for four months or longer. The goal is to cut down the frequency of treatments that today’s therapies require.

The regimen has been demonstrated in a laboratory using cumbersome, labor-intensive apparatus and techniques. HLB is designing equipment to deliver the treatments in human tests and, if the therapy receives regulatory approval, hopes to create compact, automated devices for use by clinicians.

Designing something as advanced and complex as a system to extract and process human tissue and then return it to the patient might seem daunting, but HLB’s team has plenty of tricks to help.

When broken down, it seems that any mechanical operation has a good deal in common with other machine workings.

“All the bits and pieces are the same, whether it’s an ink-jet printer, a beverage dispenser or a drywall formulator,” said Howard Dittmer, HLB’s executive vice president.

He recalled working on a design for a slushy machine that dispensed frothy ice. He later sat in on a planning session for a surgical-waste-management system, a vacuum-like device that cleans up tissue and blood during surgery.

“There was so much commonality between the two, slushies and surgery, that I just had to laugh,” he said.

The 44-year-old private company specializes in medical products and consumer goods, with a client list that consists of both small start-ups and large, established companies.

Building with molecules: Molecules assemble themselves in useful ways all the time in nature, which is how roses, goldfish and people are put together.
 Getting molecules to build structures under human direction is being pursued by scientists around the globe, including a group of researchers at Northwestern University’s nanotechnology center that has had some spectacular success.
 They found ways to combine large molecules with smaller ones to build membranes and small sacs that may be used in the body. The sacs potentially could enable stem cells or other useful materials to be protected from the body’s immune system.

“The membrane is a fascinating and unusual structure with a high degree of hierarchical order,” said Samuel Stupp, an NU chemistry professor who led the research.

Discovering this assembly mode could be useful beyond medical applications to help construct electronic devices such as solar cells, Stupp said.