Innovation in Highly Complex Markets: Lessons from BJ Adaptaciones

Innovation in Highly Complex Markets: Lessons from BJ Adaptaciones

By Susana Gonzalez Ruiz

The innovation model of BJ Adaptaciones, a company specialized in designing solutions adapted for people with disabilities, gives us the keys to innovation in highly complex markets.

BJ Adaptaciones is a Spanish assistive technology company offering solutions to people with disabilities. Such solutions aim to improve overall personal autonomy and well-being as well as facilitating communication and access to both work and entertainment, always from the principles of service and quality.

What Challenges Face Companies in the Assistive Technology Industry?

The assistive technology market, unlike other biotechnology-related industries, faces 4 main industry-specific challenges. These challenges are:

A relatively small user base: Only 800 units of the most successful product have ever been sold.

Products require a high level of quality and, in many cases, price: A wheeled arm to hold a tablet can cost over $800.

Extreme users: The extremes are the average user, making it difficult to provide a truly user-centered design to meet their needs and preferences.

A wide variety of needs: Users have different disabilities and of different degrees, making it difficult to establish a balance between standardization and adaptation.

How BJ Adaptaciones Overcame Such Complex Challenges

As a researcher in the field of innovation and inclusive design, my interest in the innovation process of BJ Adaptaciones stemmed from finding out how a company addresses the challenge of innovating and designing solutions for such an extremely complex market. So, this is how they do it.

EXPANDING THE FOCUS FROM THE “USER ZERO”

The founders of BJ Adaptaciones are the brothers Joaquín and Borja Romero, both technical engineers. When Joaquin was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, they decided to adapt their home to ensure Joaquin’s autonomy and maximum well-being.

Initially, they sought companies to buy the adaptations, but their solutions were focused on creating smart homes, whereas what they needed was, in the words of Borja, “an obedient house.” Since the market didn’t meet their needs, they began to design their own adaptations.

The company was therefore based on the needs of a specific case, Joaquin, who became both the designer and the source of ideas. Eventually, they met other people with disabilities who asked them to develop tailored solutions and, subsequently, their source of ideas was progressively extended.

However, as a company, designing for a single person isn’t feasible. Staying with one extreme is counterproductive not only because the solutions cannot adapt to other cases, but because the needs of this user will change as their disability develops.

Thus, in the first phase, they work with this “User Zero” to create the first prototypes and test them. In the second phase, they take a leap and expand the focus to other profiles, involving other customers and associations, as well as their sales team, technicians and distributors.

DEEP UNDERSTANDING OF USER NEEDS

“The user cannot imagine what exists. They don’t know how to verbalize their needs.”

Users (both the disabled individual and their families) know better than anyone what they need, but they don’t know the market. They don’t have a clue of what already exists or what should be designed to meet their needs. Therefore, the task of the designer is to be in direct contact with users to understand their motivations and frustrations, reading between the lines to extract what they really need.

How does BJ Adaptaciones achieve this?

First, the whole team, from the back office to the sales team, are always in contact with the users. Borja explains that, in addition to being engaged in managerial and design tasks, he is also involved in activities that require contact with the users. Sharing a few days with them helps him understand many things and he always comes back with new ideas.

Secondly, thanks to their close relationship with users, BJ Adaptaciones has privileged access to their opinions. One of the flagship products of BJ adaptations is “My Room”, a multisensory space of adapted autonomy and leisure. Still in an experimental phase, My Room is open to any user with a unique condition. Each user gives their feedback once the session has ended.

My Room
My Room

Finally, a team of innovators collect all the suggestions coming from both the users as well as the team that was in contact with those users and the proposals are prioritized to decide which projects will be developed.

MODULAR DESIGN

“A person is a combination of different solutions.”

When dealing with people with disabilities, we realize that there is no “disabled user”. Some people are blind, some have autism spectrum disorders, others have some physical disability, some suffer from Alzheimer’s, etc. On the other hand, some users are able to use their hands to manipulate objects, while others only can use their mouth, chin or sight.

Faced with the challenge of offering solutions adapted to this wide variability of users  and, at the same time, useful for the greatest possible number of users, BJ Adaptationes has found the answer in modular design, i.e. creating horizontal products interconnected among them.

A solution is the intermediary between the user and a device. This solution, in turn, is composed of different modules. For example, imagine a wheelchair user who can only move his/her head. To use a camera, he/she will need a holder for this camera, an articulated arm connecting the holder with the wheelchair, a wheelchair that can incorporate an arm, and a switch adapted to the camera that can be operated with the head.

All these modules must be compatible with each other to be combined depending on the particularities of each action, user and device. If the user wants to use a tablet rather than a camera or needs an adapted bed instead of the wheelchair, the different modules should continue being useful. Innovation lies therefore in the ability of designing a highly efficient solution compatible with others.

THE COMPANY AS A SOCIAL PROJECT

Finally, it’s important to understand that BJ Adaptationes is something more than a company – it is a social project. Their goal, beyond making profits to continue funding the creation of new and better products, is to help improve the lives of the greatest number of people.

It is in this way that BJ Adaptationes allows the free use of My Room, organizes public seminars to explain the latest developments in the field of adapted solutions or collaborates in social projects to improve the employability of collectives with special needs.

This social character has opened the doors of the company to society, facilitating direct contact with a wide range of users, organizations and companies. As we have seen, this openness is one of the pillars of innovation in highly complex markets.

What Does BJ Adaptationes Hope to Ultimately Achieve?

Looking ahead, Joaquín has set the objective of transforming the company into a foundation to reach more people and help them improve their lives (Joaquín wouldn’t forgive me if I don’t mention this). He believes this is a way of returning to society all that he and his brother have obtained from people. We will see how they face this new challenge to reach such a noble goal.

Images courtesy of BJ Adaptationes.

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