It was fantastic to win one of the coveted iF DESIGN AWARDS for Alma, our smart cooling case for injectable fertility drugs. International recognition was a nice boost to the team responsible for a concept with potential to improve quality of life for women facing the challenges of IVF treatment. That point explains why the feeling of satisfaction resonated at a deeper level for many of us involved in the project. 

The future of patient monitoring

The big reward for our female-led team was that we managed to keep the needs of patients – many of whom had shared their worries and fears with us – at the centre of our vision from start to finish. This feeling continues to strike a chord as we approach International Women’s Day on March 8, our annual reminder to act for equality and do what we can to make a positive difference for women. 

The Alma project began with our own desktop research and collaborative internal workshops here at Cambridge Consultants. We tested our assumptions with experienced IVF clinicians, before talking to patients coping with the ordeal of infertility treatment. In those interviews, women told us of the huge impact the IVF process has on their lives – and the negative effect it can have on their mental wellbeing. 

Many explained how their lives suffer as everything ends up revolving round a dispiriting routine of appointments every few days, and injections which must be taken at the same time every day. Constant testing adds to the waiting periods and heightens worry. As project manager, I was struck by hearing about one patient who simply stopped going out in the evenings or at weekends during the periods she had to self-inject with fertility drugs. Such anxiety is of course exacerbated by the stress of uncertainty over the treatment outcome. 

Patients need autonomy, flexibility and control 

The insights we started to accumulate certainly challenged initial assumptions. Some of us had expected the physical pain of clinical procedures, especially the injections, to be the most obvious ‘pain point’ for patients. On the contrary, many described this as one of the few parts of the process that gives them some semblance of control. It is one element they feel they have influence over. It makes them feel directly involved with the treatment. An injection is a relief from the ‘waiting game’ that characterises the rest of the journey. All this brought home to us the importance of giving patients autonomy, flexibility and control – vital themes that had a fundamental influence on the Alma concept. 

We’d started our work from a technology agnostic standpoint. As the project gained momentum, inspired by the women’s insight, we were led towards a patient-centric solution rather than a more clinically focused concept. The appropriateness of this became increasingly clear was we turned our attention to the IVF regime itself. As well as having to be injected at set times each day, fertility drugs must be stored under specific temperature conditions, making them difficult to carry discreetly away from home. Some have a good deal of paraphernalia associated with them, adding to the problem of keeping an IVF journey private. Many women, of course, want that journey to be known only by those closest to them. 

Optimal potency for IVF success 

I like to describe the Alma concept as a truly flexible solution that gives patients back their freedom. The smart cooling case that controls the temperature of pre-filled syringes ensures the drugs retain optimal potency for a greater chance of IVF success. It is discreet and personal, with a non-obtrusive contemporary design aesthetic that sits well alongside the various devices and personal belongings most of us carry around these days. The patients benefit from a supportive ecosystem thanks to the companion app that guides them through their IVF treatment. It offers control and support through reminders, journey tracking and a connection to a wider patient community. The burden of remembering and preparing injections is lifted from the patient. 

The insight we gained is reflected in the detail of the solution. Alma looks up the recommended storage information for the medication and adapts the storage temperature of the case. This reassures patients that their treatment is optimised, even when they are away from home. A large storage section in the case keeps syringes cool, while the next injection waits ready in a smaller section. Here, it is readied automatically to the correct temperature for a time chosen by the patient. A needle cutter is integrated into the case, so that the patient doesn’t need to carry a bulky and obvious sharps container with them.  

I’m really proud of the way our multidisciplinary team rode the challenges to deliver such a well-received concept. One of the hurdles was making sure all our interactions with patients were sensitive and appropriate, given that we were dealing with such an emotive topic. This is why we decided to create an IVF workflow map to use as a crucial conversation tool to validate assumptions during the stakeholder interviews. With one eye on the sensitivity of the patient interviews, the content and tone of the workflow was carefully reviewed with colleagues experienced in IVF and iterated. We engaged clinicians to ensure accuracy and check sensitivity of our material before talking to patients. Everything we presented to patients was reviewed for tone and appropriateness. 

Understanding patients informed the design 

There is, of course, no template for an IVF journey. The complex pathway through so many different steps and tests, either in a clinical environment or at home, can lead to a multitude of outcomes, depending on the individual patient. This matrix of repeated actions with different variations was something we had to get to grips with if we were to understand the patients and inform the design successfully. To make sense of assumptions, we organised workshops and utilised modern collaboration tools, empathy maps and personas. This immersive process was crucial in helping us visualising the real needs we had to respond to. 

It’s a clear point of pride for the whole team that we delivered on the objective of creating a solution that was appropriate, sensitive and helpful. This demanding clinical process – which even leaves some  women feeling exploited, according to a fertility watchdog – is steeped in emotional strain. Our Human Factors engineers took pains to ensure that their experiences with patients informed the work of our industrial designers at all stages of concept development. 

A final point… the development team was female-led but not female-only. The mixture of perspectives was key to finding a great solution that kept the needs of the patient at the centre of the vision. Male and female team members alike seized the chance to increase their empathy for a very particular patient group – and come to terms with the human side of a challenging clinical process. 

Daisy Prior
Senior Mechanical Engineer, Medical Technology Division