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Turning the Tables on Bad Design: UC Students Innovate Better Hospital Tray Tables

UC is employing its design research capabilities to bring the hospital tray table into the 21st century. See a slide show of inventive tray-table options.

Date: 12/2/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Lisa Ventre and provided by students

UC ingot   Nineteen industrial design students from the University of Cincinnati’s nationally and internationally ranked School of Design are redesigning the hospital tray table, adapting the device for the 21st century.
Tray table design by Rachel Eckberg
Innovative hospital tray table design by UC student Rachel Eckberg. It's a design that would allow for easy expansion or reduction of table-surface area as required.

Design faculty and students from UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) have teamed up with the university’s College of Nursing to re-examine and redesign often overlooked items key to comfort and care in both medical and home environments.

Currently, UC design students are making redesign proposals for the hospital tray table.  Next quarter, the students will examine and make redesign suggestions for walkers.

  • CHECK OUT THE SLIDE SHOW for a first-time look at the UC students’ draft concepts for better hospital tray tables.  

The public will be able to view full-scale models of the tray-table designs during a DAAP open house from 5-7 p.m., Tuesday, December 8, 2009, in Room 6245 of UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. Images of the tray-table designs will later be displayed in UC’s College of Nursing.

Leading the tray-table project are Cindy Cook, professor of nursing; Steve Doehler, assistant professor of design; Evelyn Fitzwater, associate director of the Center for Aging with Dignity in UC’s College of Nursing; and Charles Puchta, director of the Center for Aging with Dignity in UC’s College of Nursing.

Though research interviews in hospitals, nursing homes and private homes, the students asked both care givers and users about the biggest drawbacks related to tray tables. According to Doehler, they generally found that users found the table trays did not offer enough space, were bulky and difficult to move, and made no accommodations for today’s electronic devices such as laptops and cell phones.

“Basically, if your battery goes out when you’re using an electronic device like a laptop on the tray table, you’re out of luck unless you’re very mobile and can reach a plug,” said Doehler.

Puchta added, “We’ve had the same basic design for tray tables for 40 to 50 years. It doesn’t work. The table is not easily moved. There are questions of control, clutter and contamination. And a huge problem revolves around who ‘owns’ the table at any particular time of the day.”
Industrial design student Mike Moore tries to use the hospital tray table.
UC industrial design student Mike Moore tries to use the current design of hospital tray tables with a "broken wrist" and "arthritis."

He explained: In the early morning, the attending nurse “owns” the table, using it for medicine or treatment devices necessary at that time. Then, food service “owns” the table for placement of the meal. Later, the patient “owns” the table for personal items.

It’s a back and forth all day long. There’s a meal and then there’s a urinal on the table. I always liken the hospital tray table to the ‘table’ you have when a passenger on an airplane. If the meal tray is still there, and you’re done with the meal on the airplane, you’re cramped. You need that space. It’s annoying. And just like the airplane experience, we are forced to tolerate the hospital tray-table experience. We need something better,” stated Puchta.

In their research, the students went further than interviewing users of tray tables. They also became those users in a role-play exercise where they became “hospital patients” – wearing hospital gowns, confined to hospital beds and experiencing some of the mobility and dexterity limitations common to patients.  

For instance, student Mike Moore, 20, of Columbus, Ohio, was confined to a hospital bed with one arm and hand covered to simulate a broken wrist while the other hand was covered by seven thick, rubber gloves to simulate arthritis. Recalled Moore, “I tried to peel a banana, but I couldn’t. I even tried to bite off the top of the banana to eat it but couldn’t. I really had very limited ability to move or open my ‘arthritis’ hand and limited mobility overall.”
UC industrial design student Mike Moore tries to use the current design for a hospital tray table.

He added that this limited mobility “created a laundry list of challenges in using the hospital tray table. I couldn’t raise or lower it. I couldn’t move it in any other way than to push it away from me. I couldn’t pull out the vanity mirror that is a feature of the table, nor really use any other feature.”

In response, Moore is designing a tray table that is “simplicity. It can be used with only one hand.”

Fellow student Irena Eckard, 21, of Delaware, Ohio, had a similar experience during her role play as a hospital patient who had suffered a stroke. She explained, “I had one good hand, but I found I couldn’t operate the tray table one handed. I couldn’t operate any of the features or move any of its parts. I couldn’t raise or lower it. For anything I wanted to try to do with the tray table, I had to drastically adjust my body to a difficult position.”
UC industrial design student Chase Jones attempts to use the current design for the hospital tray table.
UC industrial design student Chase Jones tries to use the current design for the hospital tray table as he role played being a hospital patient.

In response, she is designing a tray-table option that requires little physical strength to use and operate.

  • SEE COMMENTS students made while trying to use hospital tray tables when doing a role play as patients.

The range of solutions offered by the UC students includes cloth tray tables for children, tray tables that can expand surface area and a table tray integrated with a walker.

For instance, student Rachel Eckberg, 20, of Anderson Township, is working on a design that would allow for easy expansion or reduction of table-surface area as required. She is also incorporating a cup holder and battery-powered light.

She said, “In interviewing people who have had serious, long-term stays in the hospital, loss of control is one of the more debilitating issues they deal with. When those patients can do something, like pick up a book to read or work on a laptop, they want to be able to do that. That requires more table space. Otherwise, there are spills and clutter and constant movement of items on and off the tray table by others. So, the patient doesn’t have the control to reach for something himself or even turn on a light without calling for help.”

Fellow student April Ansley, 22, of West Lafayette, Ind., has designed a series of cloth, portable tray tables for children along with an innovative wheelchair attachment, also just for children.
April Ansley design
Design for a child's cloth tray table by UC's April Ansley. The hammock table is designed to fit between the arms of a wheelchair in front of a child occupying the chair.

The cloth tray tables (shaped not unlike hammocks) can clip to fit between the arm rests of a wheelchair or clip just beside a bed. When a child might be in transit, the cloth tray table becomes a carryall purse.

Ansley has also given thought to wheelchairs, adding on to the traditional wheelchair so it mimics a wagon. She stated, “Children are used to wagons. That familiarity would be comforting for a child entering the intimidating space of a hospital or nursing home.”

The wheelchair attachment Ansley is designing as a full-scale model clips onto the frame of the wheelchair.
Tray table design by Laure Jaffuel
Tray-table design by Laure Jaffuel.


Beyond these exhibits, the university partnership administrating the project – the Live Well Collaborative – will explore possibilities involving both corporate and non-corporate partners to further real-world adoption of the students’ design ideas. One previous project created a new series of hospital gowns.

The Live Well Collaborative at UC is an unusual business-university model: International firms that are part of the Live Well consortium work with UC students and faculty in conducting research and developing ideas to specifically benefit the 50+ age group.