Blog Post

May 28, 2019 Krista Donaldson

The future of design: Can virtual reality expand designers’ reach in collecting user feedback?

I was spectacularly skeptical [of VR]. I was pleasantly surprised. — Robin Parrish, Lead Engineer, D-Rev

A community health clinic visited by D-Rev staff in Bunyangabu District, Uganda. Photo credit: Sara Severns

Our small team visits hospitals and clinics across the world to solicit feedback on concepts and prototypes of the medical devices we are developing—but they can only be in so many places. As a result, we are exploring faster—and more affordable—ways to collect feedback from a greater range of health practitioners.

One approach we piloted recently—thanks to the San Francisco design firm 219 Design—is testing prototypes in a virtual NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). Using virtual reality (VR), we solicited feedback from doctors on different embodiments of our CPAP prototype.

A screenshot of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in virtual reality. Doctors navigated two rooms (in-born and out-born) plus a lab setting.

How it worked: 219 Design modeled a virtual NICU from images and sound recordings we provided of NICUs in India. In it they placed our prototypes, easily converted from CAD renderings, in different parts of the virtual NICU. Doctors, wearing a virtual reality headset, received some brief instructions then entered the virtual NICU, observing and interacting with our virtual prototypes. Each session with a clinician was approximately 45 minutes.

A neonatologist providing feedback on D-Rev’s virtual prototypes. The 219 Design and D-Rev teams watch a screen that shows her navigating the virtual NICU and interacting with the prototypes.

Our team was surprised by how successful the pilot was—we captured several insights that we could not have learned without building devices, and even then—may not have caught. Two examples:

  • Size matters. Not just of products, but users. We learned quickly that the user interface of one of our designs was not readily visible by a user—a nurse or doctor—under 5 ft 4 in (165 cm) in height. Also the overall embodiment of our prototype was too big.

“It’s enormous to me. Takes up a lot of real-estate for a lot of important dials.” — Dr. Janene Fuerch, Neonatal and Developmental Medicine at Stanford Children’s Hospital

  • Safely in situ. The type of feedback from doctors in the virtual NICU was different from the doctors in a real NICU. And this made sense as most feedback we get from talking to users in hospitals does not actually happen in the busy NICUs that are treating children. Feedback most often happens in a doctor’s office, the nurses lounge, or an empty examination room—wherever our expert chooses. Evaluating a prototype while sitting at a desk or standing together in a cramped space is very different than evaluating a prototype in context.

Soliciting product feedback in the records room of a large hospital in East Africa.

Virtual reality obviously does not replace reality. Designers must understand the context of their users. D-Rev will always be in hospitals and clinics around the world. But virtual reality is augmenting our ability as designers to test and iterate. As a design tool, it improved representation in feedback, as well as the quality of feedback. Our hope is that as VR hardware and software becomes more affordable – we designers will be able to develop better products faster to save lives.

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