It all started when a few of my engineering classmates and I decided we wanted to spend our free time designing an affordable prosthetic arm for the developing world. One thing led to another and we went from just designing an arm in our free time to starting a 501(C)(3) nonprofit organization with dozens of volunteers and over 20 partners in 7 countries around the world.
In the beginning, we were just engineering undergraduate students with a lot of ambition and a bit of free time. As we moved forward with our project I found myself thinking more and more like a designer everyday. I was always skeptical of engineers just doing cool stuff and assuming that people will want it as a product. I kept thinking about the user and questioning what they would actually want.
We interviewed dozens of amputees in Guatemala & India over a four-year period as our prosthetic arm went from concept to reality. I got to know these individuals better than my own neighbors. I got to know their life story, their families, what music they like, what made them tick, and even visited many of their homes.
I began to gain a new appreciation for what it meant to be both an amputee and to be an amputee in the developing world. However, one thing was predominantly clear, even though these individuals would accept any help they could get, when you would ask them what kind of arm they truly wanted, it was overwhelmingly clear that they wanted a lifelike robotic terminator arm. They wanted a prosthetic arm so good that it doesn’t even exist yet anywhere in the world.
“it was overwhelmingly clear that they wanted a lifelike robotic terminator arm”
Just like us, these amputees had ambition. It was true that their circumstances were rather dire but they had aspiration, desire, dreams, and vanity all the same. It would be dreadful to allow ourselves to look down upon these individuals and assume that they would gladly accept a poorly designed prosthetic arm as a miraculous lifesaver just because they were unfortunate enough to live in the “developing world”.
“it would be dreadful to allow ourselves to look down upon these individuals and assume that they would gladly accept a poorly designed prosthetic arm as a miraculous lifesaver”
We ended up creating a product that I am truly proud of called the OpenSocket. It is an off the shelf prosthetic socket for below elbow-amputees. It comes in three sizes, small, medium, and large and can be fit in 30 minutes using a few basic hand tools. This is a huge process improvement to the worldwide standard of custom-made arms — which take anywhere between a week to a few months to fabricate and fit.
I believe that the OpenSocket has exceptional value to amputees in both the developing world and the developed world. However, despite having a product with great design, our organization is struggling to endure to become more than just a 5-year project (financially, it is very difficult to sustain an organization dedicated to providing prosthetic limbs internationally due to the dispersed nature and relatively small quantity of amputees around the world).
Nevertheless, it is my hope that I can share some of what I have learned over the past 5 years developing the OpenSocket so that other engineers and designers can step off my shoulders instead of having to start from scratch like I did — that, in essence, is the objective of my master’s thesis.
Stay tuned for more thoughts on how to create Great Designs for Everyone because no one wants a shitty product.