15 minutes with... Sara Urasini
Our design, engineering, and science (DES) experts are on the frontlines of bringing ingenuity to life for our clients. They turn ideas into reality and in doing so, launch world-changing innovations that challenge the status quo. In this series, you’ll meet some of the brilliant minds delivering ingenious work every day.
How would you describe your job to someone you’ve never met?
I’m head of Wearables Design at PA Dublin, and I work with clients to help design and build smart garments and wearable technology that helps improve people’s lives. Our team has deep expertise in developing meaningful new experiences between people and the technology they use. A lot of my work is in the healthcare or consumer electronics sectors, including applications like embedding health monitoring sensors into devices, like ECGs to maintain a healthy heart, or EEGs that monitor brain activity to support clinical trials.
Overall, I’ve been at this studio for more than seven years. My work has covered all parts of the body from head-worn devices, to wristwear, to socks. We’re looking into exoskeletons covering a larger part of the body and wearables focused on the future of communication. We even had a project on horses to monitor the health of the horses. It’s fantastic having the variety of projects on which we’ve been working.
That’s one of the exciting parts of working in consulting – we work across so many areas and bring that knowledge from one project to another.
How do you bring ingenuity to your work?
We bring ingenuity to our work by prototyping as soon as possible and bringing products to the human body to test and get real-world feedback. We built a dedicated wearable lab in our Dublin facility which allows us to test different textiles, trims, and conductive materials without the need for outsourcing samples.
Our projects are multidisciplinary and require close collaboration between disciplines. By bringing these capabilities in-house we can iterate and bring products to life more quickly – that’s the best way to bring ingenuity to our work, by bringing creative ideas into reality.
What are you most excited about and inspired by in wearables right now?
The fact that electronics and tech are becoming smaller and more adaptable to our lifestyles is very exciting. All of these monitoring devices will improve people’s lives, as people can be made aware of physiological changes in their bodies before even getting diagnosed with a disease. The wearable world is expanding and evolving as we speak. It started very small and now everyone is wearing a smartwatch, and it’s only going to keep growing.
For instance, sports performance monitoring is seeing major changes. Embedding smart technology into athletic wear enables athletes and their coaches to optimise their training, performance, and recovery. For example, shifting from using big and cumbersome force plates to monitor athletic performance to wearing smart socks and insoles that can gather the same data faster, in a more integrated, natural way.
Which projects are you most proud of?
The projects that I’m most proud of are those that get to production. Having a project go from idea to proof of concept, to an end user – there’s a massive innovative trajectory at work.
One example is the Cumulus project, which is in clinical trials now as a new EEG testing device. They had a proof of concept they’d tested with participants that needed to be improved in terms of sizing, comfort, and circuitry management. As well as solving highly complex issues around technology and sensing, we made it more comfortable and more adjustable to a person’s head. When we did some formative testing, we heard that this solution was more comfortable, and participants would wear it for half an hour to an hour a day.
That’s a huge achievement when I hear it’s more comfortable and they wouldn’t mind leaving it on their body. With electronic sensors and hard components, it’s difficult to make a wearable comfortable, so hearing positive feedback from users is a great achievement. And getting the right data as well, because sensor contact is very important. We do a lot of work getting good contact with sensors, because that leads to good quality data.
What are your goals, professionally?
I always try to work on meaningful projects and help clients to realise their ideas to make a positive impact.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow a similar career path?
I do a lot of mentoring with universities and schools. I don’t want students to feel like they’re in one bubble or silo. There are a lot of ways to work across different industries. With smart wearables, we touch fashion, electronic engineering, mechanical engineering, design… If you’re in fashion, you don’t have to stay in fashion, there are areas you could help with in wearables.
We hired a graduate last year from fashion design because those craft-based skills are important in wearable smart garments – pattern making, fitting the human body, and creating desirable end-products. A lot of designers think they just need to design the next generation product, but they should be open minded about the opportunities that exist.
How is your approach to designing wearables different from other organisations?
What we’ve seen is that in this space, a lot of companies are doing either technology development or working in soft goods. The fashion and textile industry wouldn’t know a lot about the electronics side, for example, and the tech industry can be naive about garment design. Often, the disciplines are broken into different siloes.
We make sure any prototype made with soft goods is integrated with electronics straight away. Having everything available in the same space is important. This industry is so niche that there aren’t many production lines available right now to accommodate this type of work. Every wearable project has slightly different production requirements. We’re establishing new standards that will come out in the market – there aren’t specific norms right now, it’s all new. We’re at the forefront.
And I haven’t even mentioned the digital side. I’m a designer on the product side. But with wearables, a lot of projects are connected to a digital platform where data is analysed and communicated to the user. We work with user experience and interface designers on our team to translate data into tangible insights. PA has loads of capabilities in that area. It’s very important to give this type of complete package to clients, helping them build growth platforms, and we make that possible.
Anything else you’d like to add?
We’re working on a project for Duchenne UK, a charity in London that’s helping kids who are slowly losing body mobility. We’re building a solution to help them raise their arms – that’s the exoskeleton I mentioned earlier. For children, it has to be something approachable that fits around their lives. It can’t be a cold, sterile solution for kids that are often in a wheelchair and have robotics already in their homes. We always begin projects with research to help us understand the disease and the person’s needs.
Even with a company of 4,000 people, we can never have enough diversity in our own group compared to the target user group. It’s very important to put the garment or wearable on the people who will be using it so we can see how they’re able to put it on, use it, and take it off. Working with diverse populations and really understanding their needs and abilities is key to creating successful products that improve people’s lives.