We are now two weeks into the 2011 DiabetesMine Design Challenge — our annual diabetes/medical device design innovation competition that has sparked national attention — and it's time to get to know this year's Expert Judges. We've got a few new faces, along with some returning favorites.

From a design student at Northwestern University, to a winner of the 2009 DiabetesMine Design Challenge, to a product manager of insulin pumps at Medtronic, Samantha Katz has had quite a journey in medical device design. Although she doesn't have diabetes herself, she's quickly been immersed in the intricacies that we face on a day-to-day basis. We chatted with Sam about her thoughts on medical device design, how to make your bright idea successful, and how she sees design innovation in everything — including sewing machines.


DM) In this year's DiabetesMine contest video, you mentioned the iPad. What are some elements of current, non-diabetes technology that you love?

SK) One thing I always tend to pick up on, because I've been involved in packaging decisions at Medtronic, is the whole experience of the packaging when you buy a new product, and seeing if it's an intuitive experience. Are all of the components in the right place? Is the instruction manual easy to understand? Does it walk you through a step-by-step process of getting up and running?

I'm always looking to redesign clothes that I have, to change them up or make them look better, and I recently invested in my own sewing machine. When I took it out of the box, the instruction manual really bothered me. The first English page was followed by the first French page, so I had to keep flipping from page to page.

Sewing machines have not changed since the early 1900s. People really like the vintage machines. They've gone to electronic, but the needle movement and the dials are so antiquated. Meanwhile, I'm seeing different products that are really well-designed, like the iPad, that when you pop them out of the box you can start pressing buttons and using it right away. But the sewing machine has a very complicated set-up process and it's not at all intuitive. The whole product line of machines could use a refresh. I'm dying to redesign it!

I really wouldn't have thought of sewing machines as candidates for current redesign energy...

I wouldn't have thought of sewing machines either. It's not until you personally experience something, coming at it from a completely clean slate and being unbiased, that you truly have a pure opportunity to evaluate something. Otherwise you have a biased expectation for how it's supposed to work. This is probably true in medical device design as well.

Did you notice things about diabetes medical devices that people at Medtronic or people with diabetes didn't?

One thing always stuck me are the inserters for infusion sets. They seem a little... well, they seem very strange to me. I think it's because the first infusion sets were manual. People had to insert them themselves. The current inserters weren't created with users in mind; they were created with the best insertion in mind, not the best experience. You have to tilt your hand at an awkward angle if you want to insert in the side of your body. The devices are full of visible springs and they are not aesthetically designed, they are functionally designed.

For instance, with Omnipod, when you put in a pod, the needle is invisible. I think you'll see more things like that going forward. Users don't get that popping sound, or see the needle go in. Devices will become more ergonomic going forward too.

One thing I do think is great is the Medtronic mio. There isn't a separate inserter. That responsibility is out of the patient's hands. You just have to push the button. We launched it about a year ago. It's pretty easy to use.

How does Medtronic get input about their own designs? And have there been any recurring themes in what you hear from patients about what they wish existed?

We look at the types of outcomes or 'jobs' that patients are looking to complete rather than only thinking about features. If you're looking to have your blood sugar within a target range, we think of ways to achieve that outcome, rather than looking to improve our bolus calculator. We're constantly looking at new or better ways to achieve that outcome. Some of our efforts are similar to focus groups.  Sometimes we do one-on-one interviews. Sometimes we are just observing to see how people interact with their diabetes devices — seeing how people are treating their diabetes while living their lives. It's important to be a fly on the wall.

When did you realize that good design is important for people living with medical conditions? Was it before or after you participated in the Design Challenge?

It was before. I had enrolled in a dual degree program at Northwestern University, and one of two degrees was in design. I didn't know what industry I wanted to be in. My experience had been in the consumer industry, so I started looking at automotive and consumer electronics. I never thought of medical devices, even though my father is a doctor. I never really thought I would follow him in any way. I always thought I'd be too queasy for health care or medicine. But a friend suggested heath care design, and I got an internship at Becton-Dickinson in advanced concept development. I had a really great internship, and just knew that this is what I wanted to do.

Before grad school, I was in investment banking. I worked with a wide variety of consumer companies, which gave me a good understanding of what to do once you have your product: how to monetize it and create a business around it.  Design is great, but if you want to make it a lasting design, you have to be able to make money from it. You have to constantly improve your product and your business. A business background is important, otherwise good design is just really nice to look at.

As a past winner and also as someone who works for a medical device company, what advice do you have for budding inventors?

I think one piece of advice is that if people are truly serious about what they are designing, they should not ignore some of the big hurdles in the medical device industry. When I worked on my design for the design challenge, we thought about taking it forward. We met with attorneys and we realized Medtronic actually holds one of the key patents that we'd needed to commercialize our products. I think it's important to think about your design, but also think about the different business aspects in how you'd create your product — like legal and regulatory issues and how to manufacture a product on a larger scale. You should factor this stuff into your design if your serious about moving it forward. Design is awesome and essential, but there are a lot of other aspects to consider.

Thank you, Sam! No pressure on our contestants, of course, as part of our prize package will be help in working through these very issues. To learn more about how to enter the contest, click here.

Disclaimer: Content created by the Diabetes Mine team. For more details click here.


This content is created for Diabetes Mine, a consumer health blog focused on the diabetes community. The content is not medically reviewed and doesn't adhere to Healthline's editorial guidelines. For more information about Healthline's partnership with Diabetes Mine, please click here.