Industrial designer will help make wearable health-monitoring electronics comfortable, easy to use

University of Illinois researchers are taking the skin-mounted electronics developed on campus and making a wearable health-monitoring device that could measure a person’s vital signs and provide information to help his or her doctor better monitor the patient’s health.

(l to r) John Rogers, professor of materials science and engineering; Deana McDonagh, professor of industrial design; and Yonggang Huang, Northwestern University professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering.
(l to r) John Rogers, professor of materials science and engineering; Deana McDonagh, professor of industrial design; and Yonggang Huang, Northwestern University professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering.
But in order to be useful, the device must be something that people will actually wear. That is the role of industrial design, to consider the behavior of users, their needs and how the design of the device can help integrate it into their daily lives.

“I think that will lead to more well-received products in the marketplace,” said industrial design professor Deana McDonagh, part of the team developing the devices. “It doesn’t matter what the experts say (about a product). If users don’t like it, it’s going to collect dust.”

McDonagh is working with Swanlund professor of materials science and engineering John Rogers at Illinois, and Northwestern University mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering professor Yonggang Huang to develop a “skinlike” electronic platform for screening health information – vital signs and motion. The device will be based on Rogers’ work in making flexible electronics that are mounted on a thin sheet of plastic, like a temporary tattoo.

The project’s funding grant required the participation of an industrial designer. That is uncommon, but it is a critically important collaboration, particularly for any type of electronic device that will go on the body, the researchers said.

Huang said the project is unique for him in that it involves an industrial designer to consider the “lifestyle compatibility” factors – such as whether the device is waterproof, comfortable, durable, attractive, difficult to lose, has a long-lasting battery and easily syncs with a cell phone.

“Engineers design certain projects based on the engineering need, not considering the human side and whether the device is really suitable for people to use,” he said, noting that more than half of wearable devices are not used after six months.

The goal in creating the “epidermal electronics,” Rogers said, is to make the device “imperceptible. That’s the goal in terms of the user sensory experience.”

The skin is a wonderful window into the health of a person, Rogers said, and by putting the electronics directly on the skin, the device will be able to collect medically relevant information, as opposed to wrist-mounted electronics that can provide fitness data but can’t measure other health information accurately enough to be of use to a doctor.

For example, by placing a device in three locations on a person’s body, a doctor can gather more information about a person’s motion. A doctor who can detect the early onset of tremors in Parkinson’s patients, Rogers said, can determine if a patient’s medication is adequately addressing his condition.

“But the skin is sensitive too. We can’t do anything that irritates the skin, or the user won’t wear it,” he said.

The feeling of something unfamiliar on the body is disorienting, McDonagh said, and if users don’t like a product, it will be underused, misused or abandoned.

The appearance of the device matters as well. The prototype of the BioStamp, a flexible sensor developed by Rogers’ company MC10, has a built-in battery, Bluetooth communication, sensors and memory storage. The electronics are mounted on a backing of black, stretchy rubber fabric, and it looks like a large, black Band-Aid.

“The appearance of these things is really going to matter to the average user,” Rogers said.

Users don’t want to be stigmatized, McDonagh said. The design can help reduce the stigma of wearing a health-monitoring device by making it unobtrusive. The epidermal electronics will be radio frequency-powered rather than battery-powered, so they are thinner and softer than the BioStamp.

The design also can be decorative. One of Rogers’ prototype devices is printed with the University’s block “I” logo.

“We want to make them attractive so people want to wear them, and while they’re wearing them, they’re getting all this great information that clinicians can use,” Rogers said.

Other considerations include how the device is applied to the skin. One of Rogers’ prototypes is a small, round device backed with a plastic sheet. The user pulls a tab to remove the plastic sheet and sticks the device to his skin. But the small tab could be hard for an elderly person to grasp.

Once a device is developed, Huang said, a dermatologist from the Northwestern University medical school will test them with patients.

The research is being funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Deana McDonagh,
John Rogers,
Yonggang Huang,

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