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Adding Wearability to Diabetes Devices: Jessica Floeh Makes Design Approachable

Hanky Pancreas™ founder on insulin pump accessories

Laura Kolodjeski of Sanofi US DiabetesLaura Kolodjeski

I’m often intrigued by the story of how products come into being; how designers get feedback from their audiences to see what will be the most useful. Today I’d like to introduce you to another product designer, Jessica Floeh, founder of Hanky Pancreas™.

Jessica was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at a young age. “I don’t really remember too much,” she said. “It was mostly my mom who was diagnosed, I suppose, more than me. My mom used to be a nurse, and she pretty much was my pancreas until I was able to function on my own with my diabetes management. I was really lucky in my early childhood to receive that kind of care. That was just my life as I knew it; I hadn’t really known anything else.”

Jessica Floeh of Hanky Pancreas™
Jessica Floeh,
© 2012 Hanky Pancreas, LLC

At age 21 Jessica got her first insulin pump while in college, after years of not wanting to use one. The pump took some acclimation on her part, emotionally. “There was a lot of shame about it and I didn’t feel like I identified with it,” she said. “I was studying art, sociology and technology in school at the time, so getting this new device tied right into my studies. I felt like I had an opportunity to work on my personal experience with it and could play a part in its design reconsideration.”

Jessica decided to continue on to graduate school, where she could explore these concepts of design, behavior and technology further. “I knew that if I was going to do something, it would be with diabetes technology,” she said. “I got into Parsons The New School for Design in New York City in 2008 and entered the Design and Technology program. Once in second year, the thesis year, it was like ‘choose your own adventure,’ so I aligned myself with certain professors and organizations and led my own course of study.”

She focused on the overall topic of the wearability of medical devices like the insulin pump. “I wanted to look at the human condition in relation to this machine,” she said. “I worked with a type 1 support group and some online communities as focus groups, specifically investigating women’s relationships with diabetes and the technologies that they used. I was looking for inspiration and ideas to try to make things a little bit better for them.”

Jessica’s research led her to some unexpected realizations. “As I was exploring the wearability of the device I began tapping into the world of fashion, though I don’t really have an affinity for fashion,” she said. “It’s more the sociology of it; thinking about what people wear, how they make it a part of themselves and how clothing can communicate to others that you belong to certain sub-groups.”

Jessica found so many women who felt self-conscious about their pump and the social intrusiveness of it. “I started thinking, ‘what if the pump was too beautiful to hide?’,” she said, “or ‘what if its presence could lead to an immediately positive and approachable conversation about what it means to wear it?’”

She started making sketches and prototypes for insulin pump accessories as a part of her thesis project. “Ultimately, I wanted it to be something functional, something comfortable and wearable,” she said. “So I started creating these products for the pump that someone would actually adorn themselves with, like fashion accessories, and integrate into their wardrobe.”

Her project quickly morphed into something more. “In May 2010 I got a write-up on Threadbared, a blog that explores the notion of fashion and culture,” she said. “Then Jezebel picked that up, as well as Perez Hilton and things started happening quickly. All I had were these prototypes that I had made in my room in New York City. They were not something you could mass produce; they were more like found-object and delicate jewelry pieces. I realized I needed to take this more seriously and learn how to sew and run a business.” She named her business “Hanky Pancreas.”

Her designs garnered attention from more than just the fashion bloggers. She was invited to speak at The Mayo Clinic and the Healthcare Experience Design Conference. Her work won awards and was also featured in exhibitions in Spain, the United Kingdom and New York.

Jessica started selling her designs online in 2011. Her most popular item is the Hanky Scarf, a scarf that has a little pouch on the back side to carry a pump. “It’s definitely the most popular item because I think it is the most versatile,” she said. “I prototyped much more complicated pieces but ended up finding that the simplest design is what’s most popular.” She also has a line of “Hoop’N Bolus” products, which is an elastic loop with a floral accent.

2011 was the same year she accepted a position with an international medical software company, where she works on their creative team doing patient experience design. “It’s very relevant to my interests, which is improving patient relationships with health technology,” she said. “That’s sort of my mission in life as a designer.”

I find the path that led Jessica to where she is now compelling; the sociology of wearing medical devices and how she translated that into functional fashion design. And, I’m pleased to see all the attention and kudos she’s been given! My thanks to Jessica for sharing her story.

All the best,

Laura K.

Disclosure: Jessica Floeh received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.

Hanky Pancreas is a registered trademark of Hanky Pancreas, LLC.

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