Mileha Soneji: Can Simple Innovations Improve The Lives of Parkinson's Patients?

Nov 17, 2017
Originally published on November 20, 2017 8:03 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Simple Solutions

About Mileha Soneji's TED Talk

When designer Mileha Soneji's uncle got Parkinson's, his quality of life deteriorated rapidly. Mileha couldn't cure her uncle's disease, so she designed simple ways to improve his everyday life.

About Mileha Soneji

Mileha Soneji is a strategic product designer from Pune, India. She studied design at MIT and earned a master's degree in strategic product design from Delft University in the Netherlands.

Her experience working as a designer in India and the Netherlands has taught her the importance of thorough research to find innovations that will best serve the user.

Her work includes designs for people with disabilities, from the No Spill Cup to a staircase illusion that helps Parkinson's patients walk more easily.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. What does simplicity mean to you?

MILEHA SONEJI: Simplicity, for me, is something that performs its function in a very simple manner so it's really effective. Smart - a smart product may not be something that's high-tech, you know? So, for, me that's the definition of simplicity.

RAZ: This is Mileha Soneji. Mileha's an industrial designer, and she takes ordinary things like vegetable peelers or bookshelves, and she tries to make them better and simpler. But some of her earliest ideas, when Mileha was still in school, were maybe her most personal.

SONEJI: So it started, actually, from - we had course in our study which was designed for special needs, and that's usually what they tell you - that you can take any specialty that you want to work on, and we will guide you with principles and guidance on how to do it.

RAZ: So Mileha immediately thought of her uncle who was struggling with Parkinson's.

SONEJI: Yeah, I think tremors were quite a prominent thing for him. He had to use a walker to walk, so sometimes even on flat land, he needed help sometimes, so his wife was always next to him. Combined with that, he also had osteoporosis. So if he fell, it would take way longer for his bones to heal. Slowly, even his speech changed, so sometimes you couldn't understand what exactly he was saying. So for me, those were really shocking things, and I saw him deteriorate. Of course, it was over years.

RAZ: Yeah.

SONEJI: But still, it was quite drastic, suddenly, yeah.

RAZ: So you're thinking, I am not a med student; I am not going to be able to cure Parkinson's, but maybe there's something else I can do.

SONEJI: Yeah. Since there is no cure right now for Parkinson's, I was really like, OK, how can I make his everyday life simple? And that was my goal - to find his everyday problems, things he does, and try to solve them. I guess I have always preferred simple solutions, so that was maybe something at the back of my head always, and that's why I did not choose to design one big, complicated solution but target his small needs and target different products or solutions towards it.

RAZ: Today on the show - ideas about how complex problems are often solved by simple solutions, sometimes even the one staring right at you - the elegant answers that don't require lots of money or technology. So we're going to explore some of those solutions, like how to make schools better for kids or how to prevent disease with very little effort or in the case of Mileha Soneji, how to improve the day-to-day life of her uncle, especially as the symptoms of his Parkinson's got worse and worse. Mileha picks up the story from the TED stage.


SONEJI: Well, the first thing I targeted was tremors, right? My uncle told me that he had stopped drinking coffee or tea in public, just out of embarrassment. So, well, I designed the no-spill cup. It works just purely on its form. The cover on top deflects the liquid back inside every time they have tremors, and this keeps the liquid inside, compared to a normal cup. But the key here is that it is not tagged as a Parkinson's patient's product. It looks like a cup that could be used by you, me, any clumsy person, and that makes it much more comforting for them to use, to blend in.

RAZ: So the shape of the actual cup is, like, what?

SONEJI: Yeah, it's actually like an urn.

RAZ: An urn, yeah.

SONEJI: So it's broad on top and curved, and towards the bottom it's way narrower. And so it's almost like an apple shape, right? Wouldn't you...

RAZ: I think it looks like a pear - like an upside-down pear.

SONEJI: Yes, pear...

RAZ: Right?

SONEJI: Yes, I agree.

RAZ: Yeah, yeah. So it's like an upside-down pear, and then there's, like, a - just, like, a wide handle on it so you could put four of your fingers in it, yeah.

SONEJI: Yes, four, and the thumb goes on the other side. So actually, the cup also has grooves on it that indicate that, hey, your fingers go here. So it's, in a subtle way, telling you where your fingers sit. So that was also a key detail that I thought to add so that they don't hold the handle because it's very natural for a person to go straight for the handle.

RAZ: Yeah.

SONEJI: But the idea was, no, this handle goes around your palm, and you hold the cup so...

RAZ: And is it made out of ceramic?

SONEJI: No because ceramic is something that could break. So psychologically, they avoid those cups. The idea was to make it, really, just plastic.

RAZ: So OK, so you designed this cup, which is very simple. I mean, I guess the idea is that because it look - it's shaped like an upside-down pear, it's harder for the liquid to spill out.

SONEJI: Yeah, the liquid keeps going up and down, up and down, but the cup keeps deflecting it back inside. But the key here was also that it did not look like a cup that was, you know, designed for a special need.

RAZ: For a disabled person, yeah, yeah.

SONEJI: It was really designed for all, for any clumsy person. And that was really also key because frankly, my uncle or any Parkinson's patient could use a sipper - right? - like, a baby sipper.

RAZ: Yeah.

SONEJI: Yeah, like, why do we need a new product? But, hey, this is an adult, a confident adult. Why would they need a sipper? They need something that everyone can use.

RAZ: And so what happened when you brought this cup to your uncle?

SONEJI: He was really happy. He was amazed, and it really worked. I also you - tested it with some other patients and - that had more intense tremors, and it actually worked quite well even with intense tremors. So they were very happy to drink out of it.

RAZ: And did he go back out and drink coffee outside?

SONEJI: Yes, he did.

RAZ: Really?

SONEJI: He was extremely proud and confident about it. In fact, some of my friends as well were like, hey, I'm clumsy; I need that cup. So that was also, for me, a really nice moment where not only Parkinson's patients but even other people were asking for it.


SONEJI: So, well, one problem solved, many more to go - all this while, I was interviewing him, questioning him, and then it - I realized that I was getting very superficial information or just answers to my questions, but I really needed to dig deeper to get a new perspective. So I thought, well, let's observe him in his daily tasks - while he's eating, while he's watching TV.

And then when I was actually observing him walking to his dining table, it struck me. This man who finds it so difficult to walk on flat land - how does he climb a staircase? So he told me, well, let me show you how I do it. And then all this while, I'm thinking, oh, my God, is he really going to do it? Is he really, really going to do it without his walker? And then this person who could not walk on flat land was suddenly a pro at climbing stairs.

On researching this, I realized that it's because it's a continuous motion. There's this other man who also suffers from the same symptoms and uses a walker, but the moment he is put on a cycle, all his symptoms vanish because it is a continuous motion. So the key for me was to translate this feeling of walking on a staircase back to flat land.


SONEJI: OK, so imagine you look at a flat print. So it's flat, but it looks like it's a staircase. So it's a painted staircase that's extremely flat, but it's an illusion.

RAZ: That's two-dimensional.

SONEJI: Exactly, it's a...

RAZ: It's an illusion, I see.

SONEJI: It's an illusion. So the way you sketch it, it looks 3-D, but it's actually just flat.

RAZ: So it's like an M.C. Escher drawing, like, of a staircase, but you just draw it, and - what? - you put it on the ground.

SONEJI: What I did is, I went home. And since, of course, printing a big staircase like that - it's complicated. You need a fancy printer. I just took A4 sheets and quickly print - stuck them with sellotape, and that's actually the prototype I quickly took to his house. And I put it in his house, and I said, OK, now walk on this.

RAZ: Wait, wait, did he think you were nuts?

SONEJI: Yeah, he did, actually. He was like, what, what?

RAZ: What do you - yeah.

SONEJI: And I actually - it was really - I saw him walk on the staircase in the evening. So that was in the morning, and in the evening, I was back at his house, and I was like, OK, try walking on this now. So he did think I was nuts, yes.

RAZ: So he gets to the - he has his walker, I'm assuming - right? - because he needs a walker just to walk. And he gets to this optical illusion, which is just - looks like a staircase, but it's flat ground. And what does he do?

SONEJI: He just takes a while to get to the edge of this sort of optical illusion, the staircase illusion. And then he suddenly - he walked on it, and you could see he even lifted his walker and just walked straight on it.

RAZ: Wow.

SONEJI: So till it lasted, he walked completely fine. And then he, again, got back, and he froze when it ended.

RAZ: So...

SONEJI: And that's when he used his walker again.

RAZ: So he walked across these pieces of paper that looked like a staircase without the use of his walker simply because it looked like a staircase.


RAZ: Amazing.

SONEJI: He was amazed as well. And you could see his wife was like, what? You walked fast on that. So yeah.

RAZ: Wow. If I had a gong, I would bang the gong, and I would say, that's a simple solution.

SONEJI: It was. We also tested it in different parts of his house, just to see if it still works, and it worked quite brilliantly.


SONEJI: What I wish to do is to make every Parkinson's patient feel like my uncle felt that day. He told me that I made him feel like his old self again. Smart, in today's world, has become synonymous to high-tech, and the world is only getting smarter and smarter day by day. But why can't smart be something's that's simple and yet effective. All we need is a little bit of empathy and some curiosity to go out there, observe. But let's not stop at that.

Let's find these complex problems. Don't be scared of them. Break them. Boil them down into much smaller problems, and then find simple solutions for them. Test these solutions. Well, fail if needed, but with new insights to make it better. Imagine what we all could do if we all came up with simple solutions. What would the world be like if we combined all our simple solutions? Let's make a smarter world, but with simplicity.

RAZ: Why do you think we associate smart solutions with complexity?

SONEJI: I don't know. The word has just transformed from its original meaning as the digital world has evolved, you know? The moment Internet came in and everything, like, smart just became something that's - yeah, that's digital or high-tech. But smart was something - I think a smart product is the moment it's connected.

It's connected to the user. It's connected to a system. The principal makes it complicated, but the main thing is that it helps a user. It's intuitive. It's simple. It's effective. So that, for me, is still smart, and I think the meaning has just changed.

RAZ: Mileha Soneji works as a product designer in the Netherlands. You can see her full talk, including images of that staircase illusion and coffee cup, at On the show today - ideas about simple solutions. Coming up - two simple ways to make kids do better at school. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.