Designing to Help

Georgia Tech design grad Janna Kimel works as a design researcher at Intel

Janna Kimel graduated with a BA in theater from Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1988. She received a master's degree in industrial design from Georgia Institute of Technology in 2005 and now she works as a design researcher at the Digital Health Group at Intel in Portland, Ore. Here's her story.

I got a bachelor of arts in theater, focusing on costume design, from Indiana University in 1988. Then I spent seven years in theater after college. I also started a business called Accessible Threads in 1990 where I designed clothes for people with physical disabilities. So I started identifying problems in the health-care market pretty early.

One day a friend of mine asked me to come into the design consultancy IDEO, to help with prototyping. This opened my eyes to industrial design. My interest was piqued by this left-brain/right-brain combination. You get to be creative but you have to do it logically. But I realized I had to go back to school if I wanted to get a position at an established company.


  On my application to Georgia Tech I wrote that I wanted to learn more about medical product design. One class that I think back to a lot now at Intel was a great design studio class that walked us through the design research process, all the way from figuring out the holes in the research to what we needed to do to create products and services that would provide a viable solution to a problem. My thesis was a device to help people doing physical therapy, to turn it into a game.

I spent a lot of time looking into motivation and why people don't do their prescribed exercises. Then I designed a neoprene brace with electroluminescent strips. Depending on how much you moved, certain strips would be highlighted. It provided a visual gauge of your progress. Through Bluetooth, it would then load that information into a tracking device.

I also did conceptual research for a linked handheld device that looks like a flattened UFO which opened like a compact mirror. So if you were into the stock market and did your exercises it would highlight your progress and give you stock info. Or it could give you your horoscope.


  At Intel, I now work with ethnographers and engineers to help them decipher the cultural research found in the field and put it into research products. In order to do good research, the person has to believe what you're giving them is at least potentially a product or service. If you hand them a piece of paper and a pencil and say "pretend this is a computer," that's not going to work very well.

The project on which I have spent most of my time at Intel explores why people don't take their medication. A staggering amount of money—roughly $15.2 billion—is spent each year on general health care for people who forget their medication. An engineer and I each spent time living in an apartment at this retirement community. The space was outfitted with motion sensors, bed sensors, phone sensors, and a pill-box sensor, so you knew when people opened it.

The goal was to understand people's behavior so that we can prompt them at a convenient time to take their medication. We spent a lot of time creating the rules around the prompting. We did a lot of interviews to find out a person's habits and gave them cognitive tests to analyze memory loss. We learned how our technology worked and discovered clues about how to remind people without totally interrupting their lives. The ultimate goal was to reduce the social costs and to allow them to stay in their homes as long as possible.


  I draw on my experience at Georgia Tech every day, everything from the little piece of software that I use to gather the research literature to the larger questions of how you design a better system around a product.

I work with health researchers, social scientists, ethnographers, graphic designers, mechanical engineers, marketing and software and hardware people, and I have really learned that design is about learning to talk to people and asking the right questions. Then you need to know how to sift through the answers to find the useful patterns and create a product appropriate for that unmet need.

By Janna Kimel, as told to Aili McConnon

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