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Designing to make a difference: How Intuitive’s User Experience team brings new ideas to life

Joe Han Mike Curran

What does it take to build a complex system for minimally invasive robotic surgery? For members of Intuitive’s User Experience (UX) organization, including Mike Curran (Human Factors Engineer) and Joe Han (Industrial Designer), it’s all about understanding what it’s really like in an operating room, and doing whatever they can to help make surgeons’ lives easier. Below, Mike and Joe explain how their teams work together to design everything from surgical staplers to learning platforms, reflect on the challenges of their day-to-day work, and share what’s exciting about the future of UX at Intuitive.

What brought each of you to Intuitive?

Mike: I’d been doing academic research in biomechanics—devices for things like orthopedic injury recovery and muscle activation—and when I decided to move into industry and started researching medical device companies, I heard nothing but good things about Intuitive. The blend of digital technology and physical devices appealed to me, and they’re at the leading edge in both. I liked the idea of expanding the applications of robotics within surgery and beyond—Ion enables physicians to perform lung biopsies, for example.

We’re enabling surgeons to help patients. We like to joke that our CEO, Gary, starts every quarterly meeting by inviting a patient to share their story, and we all start turning off our cameras on Zoom because we’re getting weepy. It’s really powerful to see the impact we’re having on the world.

Joe: I did an internship here the summer before I joined, and I really liked both the mission of the company and the way the team works. Coming from an industrial design background, I enjoyed getting to adapt what I was learning in school to technology that can help patients. I’d done internships elsewhere, including with other medical device companies, and what set Intuitive apart was the design process here is incredibly thorough. We invest so many resources—people, time, and otherwise—in research and testing. A larger project might be in the design phase for a couple years.

I’d also gotten to know the UX organization during my internship, and it’s a large group of very talented people. I knew joining full-time would be a great opportunity for me to learn.

You work on two different teams within User Experience. Tell us what each does.

Joe: I’m on the Industrial Design team; our primary focus is the human interaction with physical products. We define the user workflow for a surgical team—mapping their journey, learning their habits, identifying pain points, and designing different forms to try to make their lives easier. If surgeons are using a stapler instrument, for example, they need to reload the retainer that holds the staples, and we want them to know exactly how to attach and detach that without having to read the instructions. It should be as instinctive as possible.

Within Industrial Design, I’m working on the next generation da Vinci systems. I'm also laying out the UX groundwork, studying the users and fine-tuning some of the stapling instruments, and helping build new options.

Mike: I’m a Human Factors engineer—our team’s job is to understand what surgeons and their patients go through and make Intuitive’s products as user-friendly, effective, and safe as possible. It’s a diverse area, with hardware and many other aspects under our umbrella; we work on everything a surgical team touches, sees, and hears. Something as simple as a beep, for example, can’t just sound good in our lab. It has to work in a noisy OR, too.

Within Human Factors, I’m part of the Digital team, which means I work on the applications our customers use to access and manage their accounts, as well as our educational modules that help them learn to use Intuitive technology. There’s a simulator environment where they can work toward certification as a robotic surgeon, and we also produce reports on surgeries they perform—they can get ratings on different aspects of a procedure and see how long various phases took, so they’re getting continuous feedback.

Tell us more about the UX process. How do the Industrial Design and Human Factors teams work together?

Joe: Mike and I actually haven’t worked together directly—apart from being teammates on Intuitive’s soccer team. But I do have colleagues on the Human Factors team I work with closely. As designers, we start a new project by understanding the user's problems, gathering insights from the problem areas, and diverging our thinking to come up with many ideas to solve the problem. I think Intuitive’s UX team is really good at what we call “failing fast,” meaning we try to test ideas as quickly as possible. If something doesn’t work, that’s OK. We move onto the next one. We use a framework called Double Diamond to diverge the scope of research and testing, converge down to the key user insights and diverge again to brainstorm concepts.

Once we come up with a few rapid prototypes, whether they’re 3D printed or machined, we’ll get support from Human Factors on user testing. They’ll help us recruit people—and decide who those people should be, depending on the project and phase. Often we’ll start with subject-matter experts within Intuitive, or ask someone from our Advisory Board, which includes practicing surgeons. They might just look at a model, or try it on cadavers to give us feedback on how it feels. We’re also always thinking about DFM, which means “designed for manufacturing”—we need to choose a design based on not just how well it works for surgeons, but also how easy it is to actually produce.

As we test, Human Factors and Industrial Design will synthesize the data we gather and use it to refine our ideas—along with the user journey map we’ve built. The map isn’t a static document; it lives in a browser-based platform called Mural where we can all see it across teams, and update it whenever we learn something new.

Mike: On the digital side, I’m working with interaction rather than industrial designers, but it’s a similar process for us. We meet weekly or more, depending on where we are in the design process, and we use Figma to collaborate, so there’s a constant dialogue of asking questions and giving notes on wireframes. Joe mentioned the Double Diamond model—industrywide, the point at which Human Factors get involved has changed over the years, in part because Human Factors is still a relatively new field. A decade ago, it was more common to show up in the second diamond, where you need to start paring things down. But we’ve found it’s helpful to join earlier and bring in our knowledge of all the possible use cases.

And as Joe said, once our colleagues in design have something ready to test, we can help figure out who to bring in and when—and get specific about the elements where feedback will be most useful. It’s all iteration, iteration, iteration, until we narrow down to a few versions that we can feel really good about putting in front of surgeons, and know where we really need them to weigh in.

What’s challenging about your work right now?

Mike: One challenge is balancing and blending our immediate and long-term goals. There’s always so much we want to streamline and so many new features we want to add. But we also need to be conscious of the roadmap years out. Similarly, we’re thinking about each project within the context of the larger ecosystem—Intuitive learning has to integrate with the My Intuitive web app, with user management, with metrics. It takes lots of communication to stay aligned.

In general, I think Intuitive really offers interesting challenges. This is an ambitious company, and we’re doing extremely hard things. But they’re also extremely important things, and that’s the fun of it. We’re able to attract incredibly bright people who like a challenge, and who are motivated by the opportunity to make a difference for patients.

I’d also say that being on a team like this can be motivating. You’ll have moments where you think, “Wow, I really need to step up my game.” But I think we do a good job of hiring people who are not only bright, but also supportive. They’re generous with their time; you never have to be afraid of asking a question. It creates this environment where people expect you to do your best, but they’re also going to help you do your best.

Joe: Absolutely. For someone with a design background, for example, one big challenge is that we don’t necessarily come into Intuitive with existing clinical knowledge. And to design a great surgical experience, you need to know all the steps and everyone’s responsibility within an operating room. But we have a great training program called DUCT, which stands for Design, Usability, Clinical, Technology, where we get to learn about specific procedures. And with every new project I join, I’m constantly learning from my colleagues in Human Factors, as well as our clinical development engineers. It’s never just me sitting in a room, building things by myself. I can set up calls to ask questions, or they’ll even take me to the lab—or the factory—to see something firsthand.

What are you excited about right now?

Joe: It will be great to see the latest work I’ve done being used in the field, and actually helping people. But beyond that, I think what’s most exciting to me is what I’m going to learn next—every time I start a new project and begin building out the user experience workflow, I gain so much knowledge.

Mike: I’m excited to see the Human Factors team expand even further, and have more impact. For our educational modules, I can’t wait to see what it will look like for a surgeon who’s never done a robotic surgery before to learn on our platform and then continue for 10 years or more, constantly getting feedback and learning.

I think we’re also at a very cool inflection point with our digital applications in general, where everything’s starting to come together into this beautiful, seamless workflow. We want our surgeons to be able to log in and get everything they need in one customized, integrated place. It’s going to be amazing.

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Joe Han

Joe Han is an industrial designer focused on the human interaction with physical products. He helps define the user workflow for a surgical team—mapping their journey, learning their habits, identifying pain points, and designing different forms to try to make their lives easier.

Mike Curran

Mike Curran is a Human Factors engineer. His team’s job is to understand what surgeons and their patients go through and make Intuitive’s products as user-friendly, effective, and safe as possible.

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