Business Spotlight

Going beyond Marketing Segments: Q&A with Stanford’s David L. Jaffe

The struggle to rank is real.


Performing well in search engine results through search engine optimization requires a massive amount of research and planning – and even more hard work. It requires a person to scour over analytic data, to identify the right marketing segments, and to create an effective plan to reach and satisfy target audiences.

And inside all the marketing verbiage, it’s easy to lose track of the original goal. Sometimes you need a new perspective.

We had the pleasure of speaking with David L. Jaffe, a lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University about his course “Perspectives in Assistive Technology,” a class that designs solutions to benefit people with disabilities and older adults. His thoughts are especially poignant when it comes to marketing; to succeed, identifying a marketing segment for your product isn’t enough.

Search engines try to organize information and help their users. If you’re not sincerely attempting to help those very same people, you might find the process of ranking exceedingly difficult.

About David L. Jaffe

David L. Jaffe holds a BS degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan and a MS degree in Biomedical Engineering from Northwestern University.

Dave was a Research Biomedical Engineer at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System’s Rehabilitation Research and Development Center. There his interests were designing, developing, testing, and bringing to market microcomputer-based devices for veterans with disabilities including communication, mobility, and information systems.

At Stanford, he teaches “Perspectives in Assistive Technology” and coaches students in other courses who are working on team projects related to assistive technology. He can be reached via email at

Could you describe your Stanford course, Perspectives in Assistive Technology, to those who aren’t familiar with it?

Perspectives in Assistive Technology (ENGR110/210) is a 10-week course that explores the design, development, and use of technology that benefits people with disabilities and older adults.

In this course, Stanford students from many disciplines and all years learn about disability, assistive technology, and rehabilitation engineering from guest lecturers including healthcare professionals, researchers, and people with disabilities (including students) and older adults. Other class sessions feature field trips to local facilities, a movie night, and an assistive technology fair.

Enrolled students have the opportunity to work on projects that benefit people with a disability, older adults, and their caregivers in the local community. These projects typically address difficulties in performing tasks such as working, learning, moving, communicating, accessing products (including computers), and other daily living activities including cooking, cleaning, creative expression, and pursuing happiness. Projects that explore design concepts that improve diagnosis, therapy, and rehabilitation are also pursued.

Projects typically address one individual’s challenges through the fabrication and testing of a functional prototype. However due to the short course duration, commercialization is not pursued.

More information about the course can be found at:

Do engineers have a unique method for problem-solving?

Each engineering problem-solving situation is somewhat different, depending on the problem itself: its purpose (student project, research question, product manufacturing), goal(s), and time & money budgeted.

However, in general it is important to fully understand the problem by bringing together skilled team members and an individual those who would benefit from the solution. A review of current technology and existing products is critical.

Next steps would include developing design criteria, identifying current technology which could be employed, and brainstorming possible solutions.

The design development phase consists of the fabrication, testing, analysis, and redesign of increasingly refined prototypes until the design goals are met (or time or money runs out).

How do you use that engineering design process in your Assistive Technology course?

The process employed in the course includes the above with emphasis on working closely with the project partner, a person with a disability or older adult in the local community. Each student team is expected to meet with the instructor to make sure they are making progress toward the project goal and to provide suggestions.

Your class exposes students to new people, ideas, and problems. How important do you think that is to the process of considering and pursuing solutions to problems and challenges that people with disabilities and older adults experience?

It is supremely important to present student teams with real challenges affecting real people in the community. Much of students’ traditional class experiences are limited to solving problem sets, examining case study descriptions, and considering made-up situations involving imaginary people. Community-based project courses like Perspectives in Assistive Technology give students a real-world experience to prepare them for their professional careers.

What are the skills that you’d most like to instill in your students?

An excellent question!

Several years ago, I realized there was a huge disconnect between what I learned as a student in the universities I attended and what I do now as a professional. In particular, no one told me how important it is for a prospective engineer to master writing and presentation skills. So, I decided to promote professional skills to students in my course. I use assistive technology as a framework for introducing, exercising, and improving these skills: working in a team, working in the community, problem solving, following an engineering design process, employing critical thinking, and practicing report writing & project presentations communication skills.

I have done away with problem sets, quizzes, readings from text books, and exams – skills that students have already mastered and are much less important on the job.

There’s a clear need for more recognition of and services supporting older adults and people who live with a disability. What are some common misconceptions that the public have of these groups?

One common misconception is considering people with disabilities and older adults as “groups” or “markets”. In reality, they are individuals, all different in their situations, abilities, life expectations, desires, and preferences.

Do we do enough as a society to include them?

I don’t think so. For example, I find it amazing that people with disabilities and older adults are rarely included in discussions of diversity, despite their representation nationally (19% and 15% respectively). It is important to realize that everyone has something to contribute – perhaps as a valued employee, a loving family member, an active community participant, or as a consumer.

What types of solutions do they need the most?

As I mentioned, people with disabilities and older adults are individuals – each with their own challenges. Some challenges might be lessened by an appropriate assistive technology device, others by financial, medical, social services, or educational support.

I noticed in your class notes that you provide resources to improve critical thinking for your students. How important is critical thinking to the process of addressing a problem or challenge experienced by a person with a disability or older adult?

Critical thinking, especially in engineering, can inform the design of good assistive technology solutions.

How important are they to Assistive Technology?

Critical thinking, good teamworking skills, as well as familiarity with the engineering design process are all key to creating suitable assistive technology solutions and useful products.

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