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4 stories about how design & user obsession can have a big impact

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We know everything from Snapchat clones to the latest infographic are falling under the umbrella term of design these days — heck, the President of RISD plans to join Silicon Valley heavyweight Kleiner Perkins in 2014. But the reality is that user-centric experience design (the kind we highlighted at Roadmap last month) can have a massive impact in specific and underserved environments like the developing world.

At the Ted Women 2013 conference on Thursday, four women shared their stories on how they’ve designed, engineered and created products that are having a significant effect on a population. Krista Donaldson, the CEO of D-Rev, a nonprofit development company, called her company “user obsessed,” showing off iterations of the company’s ReMotion knee, an $80 knee prosthetic that provides balance and mobility for customers that make under $4 per day. Many of its customers were previously using a wooden stick for support and balance.

ReMotionDonaldson said that the customer of their prosthetic knees need extra mobility for sitting cross legged, and for kneeling down in prayer. Even though the company is a non-profit, Donaldson says that if the product is going to reach scale, it needs to be market driven: “it it’s valued by the customer then it is used by the customer and that creates impact.” D-Rev has fit 5,000 amputees with its ReMotion knee, and there are 3 million amputees per year in the developing world that need prosthetics.

Jane Chen, the co-founder and CEO of Embrace, which makes a low-cost baby warmer, said she’s haunted by the words of one of her potential customers, who lost three babies because of a lack of access to a baby incubator. The woman told Chen after looking at the product that she thought she could have saved her babies if she had been given one earlier in her life. Chen says it not only haunts her but inspires her to keep going.

The Embrace bag, which resembles a sleeping bag, protects premature and low-weight babies from hypothermia. It was built for families in developing countries. Photo by Signe Brewster
The Embrace bag, which resembles a sleeping bag, protects premature and low-weight babies from hypothermia. It was built for families in developing countries. Photo by Signe Brewster

The Embrace warmer looks like a baby sleeping bag but it’s embedded with a wax-like substance that holds heat steadily for a long period of time. The user just needs to find some power to start the heating process. Embrace has been testing it will hospitals and mothers across rural areas of India and other countries.

Jessica Matthews, the co-founder and CEO of Uncharted Play, said their energy-harvesting Pulse jump rope (which I wrote about this morning) is an example of a “domino innovation” — an innovation that begets another, and inspires creativity and inspiration. Matthews and her co-founder designed the Pulse jump rope and the Soccket energy-harvesting soccer ball as a way to use play as a way to disarm the issue of the lack of electricity in developing countries.

TED WomenSpace might be the ultimate developing country. Rocket scientist and space suit designer Dava Newman is designing a series of space suits that could one day be worn by astronauts on Mars. One of the designs is an internal space suit developed for the traditional bulky space suit that many astronauts have worn, and which have caused many shoulder problems. The internal suit could track the users movements and shield and pad over use in needed regions of the suit.

Another one of Newman’s suits uses active materials, called shape memory alloys, made of nickel titanium. Those materials help provide the suit with the needed atmosphere but enable it to be mobile and streamlined. A third suit has gravity-loaded counter measures — or an exercise suit — because astronauts can lose 40 percent of their muscle strength on a several year long space mission. Newman said that exercise suit is also being explored for use for kids with cerebral palsy to help develop their muscles.

Design might be a catch-all term these days to describe thoughtful, empathetic creation. But design-centric product development is no doubt helping these four women create tools that are delivering innovation and having a big impact.