Close and personal

Wearable health technology that measures and monitors your health offers all new possibilities for health care and elderly care.

A PhD project explores the relationship between accessory design, welfare technology and the users.

”Objects that we wear on our body automatically appeal to our senses and our identity. This goes for accessories as well as the new possibilities entailed in wearable health technology,” explains Trine Møller. She is currently conducting a PhD study with the title ’Intimacy, Accessory Design and Wearable Health Technology’ at Design School Kolding. With the project, Trine Møller specifically looks into the motivations and barriers connected to the use of wearable health technology among women over the age of 65. She selected her target group for specific reasons:

”There are very specific issues linked to the process of ageing. What happens to a person’s mental health when the body ages and no longer works as it used to? At the same time, there is massive political focus on wearable technology for the elderly. The current agenda states that elderly must stay in their own home for as long as possible – and this opens up to all new perspectives for designing welfare technology and aids. However, product developers often fail to consider the context,” says researcher Trine Møller.

Let me just put some tape on my hand
Trine Møller holds a Master’s degree in Design, Health & Wellbeing from Kingston University in London. However, she has also worked for six months as a healthcare assistant for people with delayed brain injury at a Danish group home and worked as an innovation consultant for the Region of Southern Denmark. Both jobs have provided her with practical and theoretical knowledge to draw on:

”I apply many different design methods, yet I am particularly drawn to empathic design. When I studied in England, I used to make designs for people who were partially paralysed due to apoplexy. The condition often affects the limbs in your upper body like for instance one hand. I wanted to understand the physical, social and psychological perspectives of the condition. So I developed a garden glove with velcro that prevented me from opening or using one of my hands. One of the things I experienced was standing in a busy supermarket line and not being able to get the small change out of my purse. This was highly stressful. Integrating the emotional dimension in your work opens up to all new insights and triggers new design ideas.”

Big, clumsy measurers
The emotional dimension is also very much at play when it comes to wearable health technology. When objects get very close to the body, they enter a person’s intimate space and this adds new requirements to the design. The PhD student can list a number of examples not worth repeating:

”For instance you can get a blood pressure monitors that you attach to your wrist. The monitor is very big and clumsy and clearly designed based on its function. Yet, there is plenty of research to show that if these wearable objects make us look ill or abnormal, we do not use them. Elderly people do not want to feel stigmatised by wearing a large box on their arm. In other words, the clinical and medical look represents a huge contrast to the personal connection that we as users feel with objects that we wear on our body – jewellery, shoes, scarfs, etc. in case of elderly women. It is here that accessory design might offer new and better solutions,” says Trine Møller.

Not just for show
A little more than one year into the three-year research project, it is still too soon to present any conclusions. Yet, the direction is set for investigating how fashion theory and anthropology combined can create a new understanding for the design of wearable health technology. Specifically, Trine Møller has involved seven students from Design School Kolding’s Accessory Design programme in her preliminary basic research:

”First phase was a pilot project where students interviewed women over the age of 65 in their own home about the accessories they own and wear – and why. Now we are working closely with a Danish manufacturer of health measurers to learn more about how to design for the future. Because we do not just design for show,” the researcher says. At one point, she also invited a philosopher to talk about ethics and the theory of science in relation to welfare technology. Currently, a knowledge network is being set up comprising researchers and designers from Nottingham Trent University and Northumbria University. These kinds of initiatives ensure that the project is continuously challenged and tested:

”We have a process that forces us to make choices all the time. Our primary objective is to create great designs that make lives easier for citizens. Therefore, it is very important to me that the result becomes as solution-oriented as possible. The end result should not just be letters on white paper; it should be something tangible that can trigger a dialogue about how we create wearable health technology that matches how people see themselves,” Trine Møller says.

In 2017, Design School Kolding and the international Cumulus Association will be hosting a large, international conference with the title REDO. The purpose of the conference is to zoom in on design’s role in creating a sustainable future and achieve impact on political decision-making processes. As a prelude to the conference, we will be bringing a series of articles to show Design School Kolding’s research and how we work to bridge the gap between design thinking and design practice.