User-centered medical designs

Features - Design

Smart, connected prosthetic systems incorporate IoT technology to improve the experiences.

October 5, 2015

User-centered design is becoming increasingly common in medical devices, with prosthetics being a specific area where user input can really increase the comfort and function. A well-designed prosthesis eliminates poor fit and painful socket issues, and the ability to adjust the gait for a prosthetic leg is now so advanced that observers may not even notice an individual walking on prosthetic legs.

Advancements in medical design come from tapping into the connection between the user and the device. This approach enables the amputee to get the most out of today’s technology – delivering proper fit ergonomics, and function.

In efforts to continue making prostheses more usable, functional, and comfortable, Reggie Showers, a double amputee (see sidebar), joined a group of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers at PTC’s headquarters in Boston. Jordan Cox, director of Global K12 Academic Program, Strategy Organization at PTC, discusses the company’s STEM program, user-oriented design, listening to prosthetic patients, and the potential of connected devices.

TMD: What is PTC’s STEM Certificate Program?

Cox: The program provides K-12 teachers with graduate-level, high quality, professional development activities focused on product development education, curriculum design, and technology integration. Teachers learn about product development applications and practices in industry, and how to translate those into classroom practice to help their students make real-world connections.

TMD: What types of projects do teachers undertake?

Cox: Recently, as part of PTC’s STEM Certificate Program, 40 STEM teachers took part in a challenge to design a smart, connected prosthetic system incorporating Internet of Things (IoT) technology that would help improve user experience during alpine sports activities. Smart, connected prosthetics consider the user experience and what types of information the device should collect, as well as the sensors that can be used and the benefits of connecting to the Internet to enable feedback loops and remote control.

TMD: How is PTC working with prosthetic users?

Cox: The most important step in designing prostheses is listening to users and understanding their needs, wants, and limitations. User-centered design focuses on this step. PTC works with prosthesis users, such as Showers, who joined the STEM Smart, Connected Prosthetics Challenge, to recognize these design needs and provide technology that will aid in the development and engineering of smart, connected prostheses.

TMD: What is the benefit of user-centered designs?

Cox: User-centered designs consider the user experience and incorporate this type of information into the design. This could include what types of information the smart, connected prostheses should collect, the type of sensors that can be used, and the benefits of connecting to the Internet to enable feedback loops and remote control.

As with most products, there is an opportunity to incorporate IoT applications with prosthetics to allow for greater product control, monitoring, and optimization by collecting and analyzing data from the prosthesis.

TMD: What is PTC’s software role?

Cox: PTC’s software allows for greater customization of the prosthetic devices, as each user is unique in terms of their prosthetic needs. PTC software tools also allow for virtual simulation and analysis to optimize the design of the prosthesis before it goes into production, and to improve user experience upon receipt of the product.

TMD: What type of information did the program collect?

Cox: After talking with Showers to assess the user experience, and then collaborating, the STEM teachers presented their ideas, including a customization plan, a user interface storyboard, a system diagram, and a failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA).

  • The concepts they presented included:
  • Connecting with trail maps and conditions via the Internet
  • Tracking performance and competing against other snowboarders via a social media feature
  • Pressure sensors that send alerts before they cause painful blisters
  • Toe turns with a flexible joint
  • Warming legs via a heating element triggered by temperature sensors
  • Wearing a cover on the prosthesis that could play video images while racing down the slopes


TMD: What types of sensors were used?

Cox: Pressure and temperature sensors gave feedback from the prostheses.

TMD: How did Showers participate?

Cox: As a double amputee, world champion motorcycle drag racer, rock climber, and pilot, Showers was instrumental in not only providing inspiration for the program but being the voice of the user community by sharing the unique prosthetic needs for snowboarding and other alpine activities. Showers also engages in educational outreach programs to support STEM education, and audited the Winter 2015 STEM Certificate Program to learn new concepts, PTC tools, and other takeaways to enhance his outreach efforts.

TMD: How do connected prostheses change the landscape for medical device designers?

Cox: Smart, connected prostheses have the potential to change the landscape for medical device designers dramatically. We are already seeing new developments that allow healthcare providers to stay connected to their patients through smart, connected devices. Connected prostheses, as with any connected medical devices, allow for improved quality of care, improved response times, and improved communication between user and provider regarding the prosthetic user experience.

TMD: What do medical device designers need to consider when developing new prostheses?

Cox: As with the design of most new products in the smart connected world, medical device designers need to consider the type of data they want to be able to collect and analyze from a smart connected prosthesis – what do they want to learn about the product and its performance, as well as how the patient/client is using the product.

TMD: What was the outcome of the STEM Certificate Program around smart, connected prosthetic devices?

Cox: The purpose of the design challenge was to help K12 educators in the program solidify their understanding of the product development process by applying their knowledge to design a conceptual model of the smart connected prosthesis. Teacher participants generated conceptual designs and presented them to Showers, and he provided feedback on each of their designs based on his experience as a prosthesis user.




About the editor: Elizabeth Engler Modic is editor of TMD and can be reached at 216.393.0264 or

The Sept. 2013, issue of Today’s Medical Developments magazine featured an article on digital product technology’s use for prosthetics. To read about earlier innovations for prosthetics design, visit