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Special Talk

Pushing the boundaries
in healthcare

The A-RROWG Walking Sensing Insole was jointly planned and developed by NEC
and FiNC Technologies Inc. The project involved many challenges for NEC,
including co-creation with a start-up and crowdfunding. In fact,
it would not have been possible without pushing the boundaries and co-creation.
Hiroko Narasaki and Hiroaki Nakano, two of the central figures in this endeavor,
share their thoughts on how this project came about and where it is headed next.

Hiroko Narasaki
Hiroko Narasaki
Design Center, NEC
Hiroaki Nakano
Hiroaki Nakano
Corporate Business Development Division, NEC

A new perspective: gait

―― I believe the A-RROWG Walking Sensing Insole project was made possible by people pushing the boundaries and trying a range of new initiatives, such as collaborating with FiNC Technologies Inc. (FiNC), a health tech startup, and crowdfunding. How did this project start?

Nakano: The NEC laboratory has been researching the use of sensors to measure gait together with Tohoku University Hospital since 2015. The challenge was how to commercialize and monetize this technology. Then, in 2018, FiNC visited our lab for a technology exchange meeting and showed interest in the walking analysis technology, believing that it might be possible to develop an intriguing new healthcare service. That was how everything started.

―― I see, so the walking analysis technology originated in the lab. A lot of people count the number of steps they take but how did you come to focus on how they take those steps, that is to say, on their gait?

Narasaki: It’s common knowledge that doing a lot of walking is good for your health, but that does not necessarily mean that the more steps you walk, the better. It’s like the difference between sleeping on a plane and sleeping in a comfortable bed.

Nakano: Walking is the most basic form of physical exercise for humans. That is why walking for years with an imbalance can lead to poor walking posture and misalignment.* So, we had the idea that people could enjoy better health by improving how they walk.
*Keiichi Tsukishiro, Sumiko Yamamoto, Yoshihiro Ehara and Shuzo Bonkohara (2005). Observed walking analysis, p.17, 112, 116, 123, 143-146, 150, 151, Igaku-Shoin.

Narasaki: Previously, elaborate tools such as image analysis and motion capture were needed to analyze a person’s gait, but we felt that by using NEC sensors, we could visualize the gait without the person being conscious of it. At first we considered making a special shoe, but we ended up choosing to go with an insole so that it could be used in many different situations. A-RROWG links the insole’s walking analysis sensors with a smartphone app that provides advice and training based on a score derived from the measurement data. The advice is intended to make the user pay attention to how they walk and learn to improve their gait.

A new perspective: gait A new perspective: gait

Crossing boundaries to accelerate co-creation

―― What were the key points for creating the product?

Narasaki: We were constantly thinking about our target’s persona and preference and what they would enjoy using on a continuous basis. For example, our design aimed to make the app fun for users to check every day and to share their scores with others. For the insole, we wanted to place the sensor in a position that would not sustain pressure from the sole, nor be a source of discomfort either. There was a lot of trial and error with cooperation from an insole maker and we were finally able to get it right. We also kept the insole design simple so it would blend in with any outfit and positioned the air vents in a way that expresses strength and beauty.

Nakano: If it’s a bother then people will stop using it, and if it’s not convenient, few people will pick it up in the first place. I’ve also been using A-RROWG myself, because if I’m not using it, how can I ask others to? I’m probably among the top three A-RROWG users, in terms of how much data I’m generating!

Narasaki: Visualizing people’s gait is a new approach, so hardly anyone is familiar with it. We want people to get excited about starting their A-RROWG life. To do that, we wanted the user to start the walking analysis sensor themselves, and tried to make it easy for the user to insert the sensor into the insole. Without first sparking their interest, there is no way we would get users to want to keep using it.

Pushing the boundaries in healthcare Pushing the boundaries in healthcare

―― When we talk about “design,” we tend to think of a product’s interface or the user experience, but you were involved in “designing” the concept itself.

Narasaki: Design is really about creating a blueprint. For any project, I want to create the best product possible, which is why I want to be involved in the design of every aspect. That includes developing the vision, understanding the users’ needs and considering the value offering. I was constantly thinking about this with my team members.

Nakano: We don’t draw lines between what a designer should or shouldn’t do. She would come with us for product tests, walking along the seashore wearing A-RROWG insoles. She was involved from concept to production, the “glamourous” parts included.

Narasaki: I thought that we could create more value by working with a lot of different team members so I made a point of acting as a hub between everyone, while also providing feedback to the lab, for example.

―― Apparently, you were communicating with people in different professions and positions across the company.

Nakano: My department, the Corporate Business Development Division, has several project development teams, and each of them works like a start-up. There is no clear division of labor, so what we have is a good kind of chaos. The project developers tell the designers their honest opinions, and the designers do the same with the engineers and researchers, even if they are working outside their own field of expertise. All of us are united by a desire to deliver new value to the world, so I guess you might say we are crossing boundaries in a constructive way.

Narasaki: The more people there are, the less coherent the discussion becomes. I believe it is the role of the designer to organize all the points and visualize everything, so that everyone can communicate more easily if the points of discussion are clear.

When we talk about “design,” we tend to think of a product’s interface or the user experience, but you were involved in “designing” the concept itself. When we talk about “design,” we tend to think of a product’s interface or the user experience, but you were involved in “designing” the concept itself.

Testing hypotheses with crowdfunding

―― Did you hit any roadblocks during development?

Narasaki: It was very hard to come up with a good way of explaining the product to users. The physical therapists at FiNC use a lot of specialist healthcare vocabulary to describe the product and the gait is not something that has been visualized before. We wanted to share all this specialized knowledge with users, using words and visual depictions that they could understand, while taking care not to say anything incorrect. We worked very closely with FiNC to do that.

Nakano: For NEC, there were two major challenges. The first was that we were developing and selling a completely novel piece of hardware. The second was that we had to launch a consumer-oriented business to test our hypotheses through early adopters and to develop customers. Footwear has not yet gone digital, so there are no defined quality standards for putting battery-powered sensors into shoes, for example. We had to find our own way on this and so many other things. What’s more, NEC has done very little consumer business in recent years, so we had to do everything from scratch, be it customer support, handling deposits and refunds, dealing with complaints, putting out “fires” on social media, or product delivery. Also, we were designing a product for a very broad range of consumers, from people in their 20s to those in their 70s, both men and women, which was very difficult.

Narasaki: That’s right. A lot of different people have bought our product and are now sending us their feedback. The story doesn’t end when you make a sale. You need to continue to provide your service. That is why I want to take the feedback and try to further refine the product.

―― What kind of feedback has there been from users? A-RROWG has been acclaimed in a number of circles, winning the Makuake Of The Year 2020 and the iF DESIGN AWARD 2020.

Nakano: The response has been very positive, more so than we expected. Looking for early adopters, we tried test sales on the Makuake crowdfunding platform. We set an initial target of 50 backers but, amazingly, ended up with 445. We had envisioned a core user being a male aged between 30 and 59, but it turned out that 18% of purchasers were women and 22% were aged 60 or over. We were delighted to find the product was well-received by such a wide variety of people.

Narasaki: We were really happy when people told us they were glad to see their walk score and that they felt the training was improving their physical condition. Some also said they were not getting good readings in some situations and, based on causal analysis, we were able to make partial updates. Of course, there is still much to improve, but we are very grateful for all the feedback, whether it is situations where data is not recording or problems with certain shoes. It shows just how much our product is being used.

Nakano: Makuake, Inc. has engaged quite deeply with this project. Normally, NEC would be the client and Makuake, Inc. would just provide the crowdfunding platform, but they also shared their knowledge of product concept and design, as well as marketing strategy. I was very grateful for that. In the future, based on the feedback from users, we are hoping to expand our services into the B2B domain with fitness, rehabilitation, care businesses and so on.

Testing hypotheses with crowdfunding Testing hypotheses with crowdfunding

Broadening horizons

―― This project pushed a lot of different boundaries. Was there anything you focused on when doing that?

Narasaki: If you don’t set clear targets, you will lose focus, so it is vital that the whole team is always aware of the final goal. I don’t think you should restrict anyone’s role. You should not be drawing lines between companies or between job titles. I think the key is to move forward together. I mean, trying something new is exciting and fun, right?

Nakano: It’s not about doing something new just for the sake of it. It’s also about blazing a trail and giving back to those around us. We were the first in NEC to try crowdfunding, but we also invited a person from Makuake, Inc. to hold study groups at NEC to share their knowledge with our colleagues as well. Crowdfunding is now part of our toolbox for financing new projects, including developing products using NeCycle®, a beautiful, black lacquerware-like bioplastic.

―― A-RROWG was a project focused on walking, but its impact has been much broader, influencing health, society and the way business is done at NEC. For you, what is the creation of social value? What are your aims for the future?

Nakano: With A-RROWG, I hope to make staying healthy a routine part of people’s lives, so everyone can enjoy a better quality of life. Just like how people aren’t thinking about a submarine cable network when they meet online, or about how they’re using an NEC technology when they get cash out of the ATM, I want to make products that safeguard and improve people’s lives, without them having to give it a second thought. That is why, as a first step, I am thinking of developing products for monitoring mental and physical well-being, collaborating with backers on Makuake, as well as experts and business partners.

Narasaki: I have always loved the feeling of broadening my horizons, which I get from new experiences, meeting new people, learning new things and developing new perspectives. That is why I want to create opportunities for a lot of other people to broaden their own horizons. NEC has wide-ranging businesses and cutting-edge technologies, so it is in the perfect position to set out a vision and realize it in society. I believe that social value creation is all about finding solutions to the challenges we face, delivering novel experiences and expanding people’s creativity.

Broadening horizons Broadening horizons