Football helmets provide the best protection when properly fitted to a player’s head.

The way this is achieved is by inflating air bladders inside the helmet - via a series of inflation ports on the back of the helmet - each and every time a player takes the field. Helmetfit founder Mike Weatherby noticed that due to the imprecise and time-consuming method currently used (a hand-held bulb pump), too many players were hitting the field with poorly fitting helmets.

Weatherby came to us looking to develop a hand-held smart inflation system that would capture each player’s specific fit data. Once a proper fit was established for a player, the system would enable fast and precise fit maintenance to be performed each time a player took the field.

After interviewing coaches and equipment managers, we developed a variety of concepts which took into consideration size, portability, and ergonomics of use both on- and off-field.

Ultimately we pursued a design that clipped a smartphone to the device - similar to a spring-loaded car mount - and paired to the device via bluetooth, giving us numerous advantages from a hardware and interface standpoint, as well as reducing overall cost.

We divided up the user tasks into 2 categories: Administrative and Functional. Administrative tasks - such as creating a team, adding players and helmet specifications, and configuring settings - could be performed independently from the pump. Functional tasks - such as performing the initial fit or maintenance fits for a player - were device-dependent and had unique interaction requirements. These tasks needed to be easily performed with one hand, leaving the other free to lubricate and move the inflation needle in and out of the various helmet ports, and to physically check various aspects of the fit. The operator also needed to be able to communicate and work with the player to ensure a safe, comfortable fit.

We mapped the Administrative task interactions into standard user flows, relying on common mobile interaction patterns. For the Functional tasks, we mapped both physical and digital interactions into a digital / physical workflow - a format we came up with that documents physical and digital interactions in parallel - to ensure that the interface supported the unique physical and cognitive requirements of these tasks.

This led to the development of a hybrid interface - one that could be navigated via typical touch interactions or by using the directional keys on the device itself.

The Functional task flows guide the user through each step of the process, allowing them to continue by pressing the right arrow key, go back by pressing left, and to navigate lists or inflate / deflate by pressing the up or down keys. Arrow icons on the currently selected action reinforce this navigation throughout, as do screen transitions and animations. We leveraged the accelerometer in the phone to reverse all directional pad controls when the device is inverted - allowing for intuitive use in either hand.

We presented the instructional graphics to match the physical orientation of the operator and player. Since the bladder ports are on the rear and top of the helmet, the operator typically stands behind the player. When we introduced the idea of an “off-player fit”- where bladders can be inflated without the player there using alternate PSI readings - we removed the player and displayed only the helmet. This visual mapping helps operators avoid mistakes without much thought.

Mapping the Digital - Physical Workflow

Mapping the digital-physical workflow — and iterating along the way as the device and app were tested — was essential for visualizing and clarifying pain points. The workflow visualizes the physical steps with corresponding digital interactions and back-end elements. The ultimate goal is to determine how the digital user interface can best support physical tasks.

Here’s how it works: A player is added to the roster, along with the specific make and model of their helmet. (More than 20 popular helmet models are accounted for.) The database then retrieves the specific bladder configuration for that helmet, and steps the user through the process of doing the initial fit. The PSI of each bladder is then recorded.

The mapping led to the creation of two separate interaction types: administrative and functional. The former (pairing device, team setup, player setup, settings) are independent and can be accomplished on the phone without connecting to the pump. These are typical touchscreen interactions, the kind of functions you’d find on any mobile app.

For functional interactions dependent on the pump (anything involved with fitting the player), the directional pad has four hard keys (up, down, left, right) that give the user control over the pump and app. “Right” is “select,” to give the user the sense that they’re advancing from left to right through the process. “Up” inflates, and “down” deflates. “Left” is back.

Special consideration was given to the seamless transition between interaction types, making consistent use of the directional arrows as an interface element, and supporting “highlight states” for items selected in a list via the keypad.

Designing Digital to Support Physical

From there, industrial design, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering moved forward with the hardware prototype; and interaction design, electrical engineering, and the software development team moved forward with app development, prototyping, and user testing.

The engineering team sourced a pressure sensor that is extremely precise — down to +/-0.00023206038 psi — and that also measures air temperature to help compensate for the difference between outdoor temperature and player’s head temperature due to changes in volume based on the ideal gas law. Validation testing with a simulated, 3D-printed prototype attached to an iPad mini provided valuable feedback about the directional keypad from a group of high school and college coaches.

Insights from this research led to the rejiggering of several features and addition of new ones, including a well to store a small amount of lubricant right in the pump. Precision inflation requires a lubricated needle, but many users either forget or ignore this step – having it handy might encourage people to do it. The needle clicks into an impression designed to hold it in place when the cord is wrapped – and the cord is designed to a specific length to help the user achieve this.

Along the way, Bresslergroup’s electrical engineers determined a lithium ion battery, similar to what’s used in a Tesla, would be the best way to power the pump. Because the device is so efficient, one charge can handle more than 1,000 helmets, and the pump is chargeable via USB.

Bresslergroup created presentation prototypes for trade shows and fully functional alpha prototypes for on-field testing with football teams. Minor refinements can continue to be made until the product is launched in Spring 2018. Weatherby was granted a patent for a “system and method for easily and frequently checking the gas bladder pressure levels in a sports player’s helmet and refilling them to maintain optimum head protection for the player.” Elite programs including Ohio State University and the San Francisco 49ers have signed on with HelmetFit for the 2018 season.

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Former President & COO of Riddell and former Director of Product Development for Schutt Sports, J.C. Wingo, recently told AFCA (American Football Coaches Association) magazine: “I’ve been in this industry over 35 years, and I think this is something that’s long overdue. It’s a product that should be in every locker room.” With its novel design and accessible price point, HelmetFit is a solution that could have a major impact on a serious problem.