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What Drives Good Design? Breast Pumps, Oxygen Tanks and More

Debbie says:

Courtney E. Martin and John Cary have some things to say about breast pump design.

The pump is a symbol of the modern work-life conundrum. In theory, women have the freedom to honor the wisdom that “breast is best,” while still pursuing their own careers. And yet, to do so, they’re forced to attach themselves, multiple times a day, to a loud, sometimes painful machine that makes one feel anything but powerful.

No doubt inspired by the ubiquitous public service announcements about how healthy breastfeeding is for mother and baby, 77 percent of new mothers do it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 Breastfeeding Report Card.

… the modern pump remains largely unchanged since it was first invented. Edward Lasker, an engineer, produced the first mechanical breast pump and secured the patent in the 1920s. In 1956, Einar Egnell created the Egnell SMB breast pump, a more efficient answer to Lasker’s original design. Nearly 60 years later, little has changed about the fundamental design of the mechanical pump. …

We believe that all mothers deserve a better, more dignifying breast pump. It’s a critical, daily tool for the working mother and a no brainer investment for early childhood health (thus, the federal government subsidizing its use at such a significant level).

And beyond the health benefits of a better breast pump, there is a lot of money to be made by the company that attempts to really understand what would make the lives of working mothers easier and more pleasant. One pregnant friend put it in stark relief, “There were approximately one zillion different kinds of baby carriers to choose from when I was registering, but breast pumps? About three, and none of them looked significantly different from one another.”

Their article makes me think of my mother, before she died almost ten years ago, struggling to get her arthritic hands to work the clasp on her oxygen tank while having to conserve her breath, and saying almost the same things, once the oxygen was flowing. COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is hard enough; can’t we have decent tools to cope with it? 77% of nursing mothers pump; close to 100% of people with COPD use supplemental oxygen.

Martin and Cory attribute the problem to sexism, and to designers who have never lactated, and they are not wrong, but the issue goes deeper than that, because plenty of (mostly old) men have COPD. Breast pumps and oxygen tank apparatus (and crutches and wheelchairs and other durable medical goods) are things that economists call “low elasticity.” In other words, people who need them will buy them, whether they are any good or not. Strollers and other baby equipment are also “low elasticity,” but they are also consumer goods–you see them in stores, you comparison shop, sometimes you get them as presents. You have an opportunity to think about “is this one prettier? is this one better designed? will this one last longer?” You can buy them for a wide variety of prices with a wide variety of designs and options.

Durable medical goods don’t show up in stores much. What comparison shopping you can do is generally done on line, or you order the one your doctor recommends, or the only one your health insurance plan will pay for. Maybe there is some consideration of fit, and maybe not.

I’ve seen friends light up because they found colorful crutches, or ways to bling up their wheelchairs. More and more, I see decorated canes on the street. All of these could use more variety and more style, and some of them would benefit from more efficient basic design. But at least these are things we see in the world. Breast pumps are not only sold in low-profile venues, they are used in low-profile venues. No one ever sees them except the new parents and an occasional visitor. And while you may see oxygen tanks on the street and users with cannulas in their noses, you don’t see how they work; you only see them working.

Design improvements generally stem from two sources: competition and visibility. The items that have neither–no matter how much they might benefit from design attention–languish in the land of unmanageable connectors and ridiculously loud motors.

Sometimes, however, an enterprising designer/entrepreneur sees a need and fills it. Let’s hope several of them read Martin and Cory’s article.

2 Responses to “What Drives Good Design? Breast Pumps, Oxygen Tanks and More”

  1. I’m reminded of a bit from Jane Jacobs that the tools slaves use don’t get improved. This should probably be expanded to tools for low-status people don’t get improved, or (considering that there is variety and quality in strollers and kitchen knives) that tools for low status roles don’t get improved.

  2. Lisa Hirsch says:

    As far as oxygen tanks go, there are a couple of aspects of their use that have a huge impact on design: 1. They’re medical devices and the process for getting a new design approved may be considered too costly, since there’s an existing design that (sort of) works 2. They’re used mostly by old people so that they’re paid for by Medicare. The reimbursement rate may be too low to, again, justify new designs and going through regulatory approval.

    In other words, follow the money.

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