Key take aways from my PhD project

This blog post presents key take aways from my PhD project “Wearing health products: A wearer-led accessory approach to wearable health design”

The research study is an article-based PhD thesis consisting of seven articles. Five articles have been published at design research conferences, and two scientific journal articles have been published in connection with the project. These You find here.

The objective of the study is to contribute to the understanding of wearing and designing accessories for the body. I argue that this knowledge is essential for the development of wearable health design, since the relationship between the wearer and the wearable health design – such as welfare technology and body aids – can be strengthened, resulting in an increased acceptance of the product that will enhance its effectiveness.

In current design of wearable health design there is a risk of a mismatch between the product and the wearer’s social identity, which may often result in the wearable health design being stored away and not used as intended – if it is used at all. This is a waste of resources that can have disastrous consequences for the user’s health and well-being. The research study combines field studies and design experiments with theories on accessory design, dress practice, and symbolic interactionism in order to contribute to the understanding of which accessories are preferably worn on the body, and how and why these objects are worn as a part of personal adornment.

In field studies of 19 wearers and their favourite accessories, the nature of the wearable objects ranges from jewellery and scarves to handbags and mobile phones. Thus, the research study demonstrates that accessories represent the wearer’s identity in the form of personal and emotional stories – signifying momentous experiences, and memories of emotional and material value, for the wearer. To the outside world, such accessories convey the wearer’s identity as an integral part of the wearer’s body; the individual object is described along with the wearer’s own physical qualities.

This transforms an accessory into a functional as well as an expressive hybrid object for the wearer. The thesis demonstrates that accessories have meanings that are unique to the individual wearer, inspiring personal choices. This knowledge is relevant to the development of wearable health design, as these are products that are worn close to the body and are thus considered part of the wearer’s social identity.

The design experiments in the research study were carried out in collaboration with Spurvetoften, a home for people within the autism spectrum; Cortrium, a heart-monitoring device company; Coloplast, a health care company; Sarita Care Tech, a developer of fall alarms; and Sahva, a company that develops wearable aids. The focus in these design-led studies is on the experience of accessories and various wearable health designs for present and future wearers. I have also facilitated design activities in which 18 design students, two professional designers, a stoma nurse, a wearer of an ostomy pouch, an occupational therapist, and three pedagogues work together on redesigning the experience of wearable health products.

Contribution: Based on the insights gained during the research study, my research contribution is a ‘wearer-led accessory approach’ to wearable health design. As part of this research contribution, I formulate the implications of wide-scale industrial production based on a personal design approach that is adapted to the individual wearer’s preferences. This leads to a discussion of the paradox that arises when the opportunity space in a personal design approach results in complex challenges for the development of wearable health design. The thesis highlights ways in which the designer can implement a wearer-led accessory approach in practice, and design techniques that assist with creating personal and accessible wearable health design.

In order to clearly define a wearer-led accessory approach, this research identifies six design factors that must be incorporated into the early design process of wearable health design:

  • The body-centric focus. I argue that the body can be perceived as integrating three levels: the physical, mental, and social body. Incorporating this holistic body perspective into the early stage of the development process of wearable health design will ensure that functional, psychological, and also social factors – such as the wearer’s social identity – are respected in the process.
  • The ‘dress-act’. Through field studies, applied theory, and design experiments conducted in the course of the PhD project, I propose that it is in the act of dressing that an individual wearer makes choices about which objects represent them. In this ‘negotiation’, the wearer considers her own appearance and what the product communicates. The dress-act therefore affects what the wearer thinks others should see and know. The designer’s insight into the choices the wearer makes through the dress-act is therefore crucial for what the wearable health design looks like, and it can thus be incorporated as a design factor into the early stages of the development process.
  • Adornment factors. Insights from applied theory demonstrate that the designer of wearable health design needs to relate to the wearer’s inherent need for body adornment. This is an important factor because these objects are worn close to the body and thus automatically become part of the wearer’s social identity. Adornment factors represent our inherent human need to adorn ourselves as a way of expressing status and social value. I argue that this insight must be at the forefront of the designer’s intentions when developing wearable health design, as well as prioritised during industrial production. 
  • Personal preferences. Insights from the design experiments demonstrate that if the designer incorporates the wearer’s personal preferences, this promotes closer affiliation between the wearer and the product. This personal sense of attachment will positively impact the acceptance, and therefore ultimately the effectiveness, of the product. Combining the wearer’s personal preferences with the designer’s creative process can encourage the wearer to feel like an independent person, rather than a patient. Incorporating the wearer’s personal preferences into the design can also diminish the feelings of stigmatisation that are often associated with current wearable health design. 
  • Cultural fit. The field studies exploring the wearer’s personal preferences regarding accessories, as well as applied theory about dress practices, demonstrate that what we wear on our bodies says something about our position in social relationships. Hence, I argue that aligning a product with the wearer’s cultural fit is of key relevance to the designer of wearable health design. Field studies of the wearer’s accessories can yield valuable information about the purpose of the wearer’s cultural fit and also inspire the design process, thus strengthening the relationship between the wearer and the product.
  • Accessory design skills, methods, and practices. I maintain that familiarity with the field of ‘accessory design’, which addresses a whole spectrum of emotional, functional, and expressive aspects of objects designed for wearing on the body, can yield important insights for the designer seeking to create personal and accessible wearable health design. The thesis contends that an understanding of the principles of accessory design – as well as its competencies, techniques, methods, and practices – can facilitate a holistic design approach that the designer of wearable health products can incorporate into the development process. It is useful, for example, for the designer to be aware of the range of materials currently available for jewellery, clothing accessories, and functional accessories, as well as advanced craft techniques that can adapt products to suit the body of the individual wearer.

Based on the results of the overall research study, I propose that, through a wearer-led accessory approach, the designer can implement specific design factors to expand and reinforce the empathetic relationship between the wearer and the product. This is particularly crucial during the early phase of designing a wearable health product, because making it more personal and accessible to the wearer will enhance its acceptance, and ultimately its impact.

Keywords: #Body-centric focus, #dress-act, #accessory design, #wearablehealthdesign, #hybridobject, #wearer-ledaccessoryapproach, #symbolicinteractionism, #personalpreferences, #adornmentfactors, #socialidentity.

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