As the trends continue for increased life expectancy and active mobility well into later life, new ways of responding to ageing must be embraced by businesses. A cursory review of products designed for the elderly reveals a pricey and stigmatised cocktail of sterile colour palettes, oversized feature clichés and unsophisticated engineering.
There is no need for creative apathy. The business opportunities presented by the elderly market are enormous. Some 80% of the UK’s wealth is controlled by the over-50s.
Consumer products tend to be designed with young demographics in mind, but savvy businesses are starting to embrace the commercial value of meeting the needs of the over-65s in fresh ways. Any business wanting to access this market needs to start by truly understanding their potential customers. A good design agency will send an open-minded multidisciplinary team out of the office to get immersed in the lifestyle of the target user. Observational research is a powerful way of breaking a cycle of ingrained beliefs that drive companies to think they know what their customers want “because that’s what we’ve always done”.
Emotional and physical well-being contribute equally to older adults’ ability to maintain their independence, while lower levels of energy and poorer senses challenge this. New ways must be sought to maintain the quality of interaction with the surrounding world. The best products talk to their potential customers on an emotional level, as well as satisfying functional needs.
A rigorous design process will achieve this by involving users in the development, simulation and prototyping of the emerging concepts. This allows data gathering to expose the quantitative and qualitative value of the innovation as well as users’ emotional reactions.
Design teams have an array of prototyping tools and research methodologies to test appeal to the ageing senses. Physical modelling techniques create tactile, weighted “aesthetic” demonstrators and enable mechanisms to be prototyped from different polymers in single operations. Ergonomic considerations such as grip size, weight and balance all contribute to the quality of experience of using products, and are complemented by an array of advanced tactile polymers, tool-sparked finishes and even soft-touch paints.
Small and fiddly operations, multiple steps, processes that require practice or instruction are at best potential usability pitfalls. At worst, if the device is of a medical nature such as a drug delivery system, they could be life threatening.
Graphical user interface design is established as a way of enhancing usability and sales appeal. Huge advances have been made in rapid software prototyping where “mash-up” code libraries provide the building blocks for testing applications before they are coded. New graphical layouts can be generated and refined quickly.
Visual cues such as high-contrast graphical interfaces, and distinctive fonts recommended by organisations like the Royal National Institute of Blind People, can be enhanced with positive acoustic reassurance – we have used solutions ranging from a simple confirmatory click to fully customised responses.
All these testing, prototyping and user trialling techniques are based on the realisation that great design has at its heart an interactive learning process. Many new ideas will not work first time, and the aim is to fail quickly and cheaply, then learn, add value and move forward.
Transgenerational design thinking provides potentially lucrative opportunities. Cambridge Design Partnership’s Naturally meal preparation device for the elderly is founded on this approach. Sam Farber’s Good Grips kitchen products are another example of age-related inspiration. His wife’s arthritis prompted a fresh approach to the design of kitchen utensils, and the business has achieved an almost cult appeal because they look good and work well.
Perhaps we should substitute the word “old” with the more graceful and sympathetic term “ageing”. Good design after all is about enhancing pleasure and supporting quality of life regardless of age or ability. With my Good Grips-laden kitchen drawer, I’m proud to be enjoying the benefits.