Today, our second close-up look at one of our three 2010 DiabetesMine Design Challenge Grand Prize winners.  Samantha Gustafson, a 21-year-old industrial design student at the University of Cincinnati, was honored for her design of a bright and appealing glucose meter for small children called Finn the Glucose Fish:

Finn may look simple, but creating that simplicity was hard work.  Some of the homework Samantha did for this project might really surprise you. Read on...

DM) First off Samantha, do you have diabetes yourself, or what got you interested in this competition?

SG) No I don't have diabetes, but my cousin has it. We're a pretty close family, so I grew up seeing how she tests her blood and all; I've been around her for that whole process. She was diagnosed when she was 4, and she's now 16.

The idea came about because I remember what it was like for her using different meters.

So you think Finn is something she would have enjoyed?

Yes, I definitely think my cousin would have enjoyed it, and my aunt in particular would have liked to have something like this to help her daughter transition from someone who didn't need medical tools and supplies to someone who uses them all the time.

I put a lot of research into this — it was actually a school project. I found that parents in particular find the diabetes devices too boring and too medical for young kids. Parents are actually more bothered by the appearance than kids are. It's the connotation that bothers them; something that looks "medical" points out that their kid has something making them different. It feels negative.

Can you tell us about the research that went into creating Finn?

I did a lot of looking at other products on the market. I was actually given 5 or 6 meters to play with. I took 3 or 4 of them apart to see what was inside and how they worked. I looked a lot at the JDRF website and blog to see what parents were saying. I also found a site with diabetes product reviews, where I could see what people said about each meter model.

Some of the problems with current meters were, again, that parents thought they looked too medical, they didn't look like something a child should own. There was one that had super-complicated code for controls that kids can't understand.

In our program, we use human factors design book "The Measure of Man and Woman" by Henry Dreyfuss quite a lot. It records the average measurements of hands and bodies at certain ages.  I was designing for children ages 3 to 6 or 7, and found that most glucose meters are too big for children's hands.

I built Finn to be larger, to fit easily into a child's hands — so it wouldn't be so hard to handle and dropped so often.

I also researched children's cognitive skills and saw that they wouldn't be able to understand certain icons, what they meant.

For example, one model used an "S" and "M" for time and settings. My professor asked me what those icons meant, and I couldn't figure it out. I had to look it up in the product manual. I figured if it didn't make sense to me, how could kids understand it? Kids don't know that "S" is settings and "M" is memory — many don't even know those words yet.

So I changed to the icons to a simple clock and arrow.

The carry case is also fun. Is there any special functionality behind it?

It has quite a bit of function. It's made of vinyl, because I looked at how does a parent clean the case?  Most cases are made of fabric and collect dirt and even blood from the test strips. The vinyl is something you can easily wipe off.

The 'water' is actually a pouch, with two sides — allowing you to separate used supplies from clean ones.  And I designed a pocket on the back to hold a little cardboard piece explaining the functions of the meter. When you take that out, you can also use the additional pocket to carry something else, like maybe glucose tabs or a tube of icing for when you get low.

What about the lancet and test strips?

I designed the lancing device to look like the front fin of the fish. I've seen a couple of models where the lancet slides into the meter, but this is too complicated for a 3-year-old. I wanted something you just push in. The mechanics aren't totally solid on that yet, but I'm envisioning it will hook into the front of the meter to create one single unit — like when you open a camera and push the drum down into it and shut the hatch.  I'm also envisioning a drum of test strips inside it.

How did you get from a school project to the DiabetesMine contest?

I had created this design as part of our curriculum, for a project to design something hand-held and electronic. Later a friend saw a notice about the competition at a design website, Core77 I think. She  said I should look into it. Then I did some adjustments on the project before I submitted it.

What kind of 'adjustments?'

I think the biggest change was the interface. I wanted to find a way to incorporate an incentive for kids to want to have good readings, but I hadn't decided on that during school. Later I came up with idea that Finn grows each time when you get a good reading — 'Finn's doing well, it's good for him and it's also good for me.'  It's kind of the GigaPets idea — those little digital pets that were out when I was a kid. You had to take care of them.  I had quite a few. I loved them.

The judges saw potential for a full platform of products here. Would you consider other animal characters?

When I first started ideation I looked at a lot of animals. My professor and I decided a fish was best for the initial design. But it would be really exciting to explore what other animals to use, and what would they be housed in — what's their carry case?

What about adding an online aspect?

Funny, I didn't use the internet so much when I was young, but kids go online younger and younger now.  I could see that they would want a website with this.  I'm open to the idea, but I want to encourage kids to still be active and not just play online, and I don't want to distract them from the purpose of the meter.

Congratulations again on winning. How do you think you'll use your consulting session with IDEO to forward your idea?

I'm really excited about winning!

I have a model of the product that I made and also of the packaging. My cousin took the meter and case to Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis, to their pediatric endocrinology unit, and she got great feedback from the nurses and doctors. They all said this is something they would want in the hospital to use with patients, especially at the point of diagnosis when it's all new and scary.

I want to explore what's realistic and what's not? Because I know things in the medical field sometimes take a long time.

I've really enjoyed working on this, and I do feel like there's a lot of room to improve these medical devices — to make them more user-friendly. I'd just really like to know what I can do to make Finn a real product.  It's very exciting!

Samantha is currently working as an intern for a company called RockTenn Merchandising and Display.  They make corrugated displays for grocery stores, etc. and their main client is Procter & Gamble.  We hope to see you designing more in the medical world soon, Samantha. Kudos on your work.

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