Old people are younger than they used to be. It’s oxymoronic of course, but this little aphorism sums up how a generational shift has formed a 50-plus demographic with a much keener sense of design and aspiration than the one before it. Today’s older people are astute, discerning and demanding consumers of products and services, with huge combined purchasing power.
Although it’s not news that populations are ageing and the 50+ have money to spend, domestic appliances manufacturers have been slow, or unwilling, to take older consumers’ needs into account when designing mainstream products. Instead, this group is often tackled separately, if at all, through specialist, targeted products often tightly focused on specific disabilities. To convince manufacturers of the great commercial opportunities of more inclusive design, a symposium at this year’s Domotechnica – the household appliance trade fair – will focus two days of debate on the 50-plus market.
‘We’re not talking about producing products for handicapped or very elderly people specifically, but better design for everybody,’ says Martina Koepp, managing director of the German Society for Gerontological Technology and a speaker at Symposium 50+. ‘Manufacturer interest in inclusive design is rising – and it has to. This is a very interesting group; they’ve consumed their whole life, have high buying power, a high share of real estate and a willingness to invest in the quality of their environment and products.’
As we age our faculties deteriorate. But unlike previous older generations who, recalling a time before the welfare state, were often happy with any help or attention they received, today’s 50-plus consumer is accustomed to great choice and is unlikely to buy products focused on age or ability. ‘Older people don’t want to be targeted or stigmatised; they want to be part of a continuum,’ says Rama Gheerawo, a research fellow at the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, home of inclusive design at the Royal College of Art. ‘We design with aspirations in mind as much as disabilities and we talk about a multigenerational approach, especially in the household, where there may be up to four generations.’
HHRC graduates worked with BT to develop a concept telephone that connects the ‘digitally excluded’ (typically older people) to broadband, without a computer. The TwoTone Phone acts as a normal cordless phone on one side and a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone on the other. The VoIP mode has no screen, but six large buttons on which users can write the names of their contacts. These buttons turn orange if the person is online and available and flash if they call. The phone also connects to a television to allow video calls via the TV screen.
‘Mostly, inclusive design ideas come from research rather than commercial projects, but it is becoming of greater interest to commercial parties and is creeping into design briefs slowly, especially from Japan,’ says Mike Woods, creative director at product design consultancy Tangerine and host of an inclusive design workshop at the Nikkei Design Innovation Forum in Japan last year. Andy Davey, founder of TKO Design, also cites Japan: ‘It is at the centre of usability issues due to the substantial ageing population. Olympus, for instance, is always trying to create imaging products such as digital cameras that are less complex.’
But attention also needs to be turned to more quotidian domestic appliances, says Alison Wright, managing director of Easy Living Home, a consultancy specialising in inclusive design for the home. She believes there’s still a long way to go before domestic products start to meet inclusive design principles. ‘Very few manufacturers consider an inclusive design process and very few even realise it’s an ageing market,’ she says. Even those products that do address universal issues often do so coincidentally, as a result of ‘funky’ or aspirational designs, adds Wright.
Zanussi and Siemens, for example, have each developed a fridge in which all the drawers slide out, allowing access to the very back of the shelf. ‘This is useful to everyone, but one wheelchair user was especially delighted because he couldn’t normally bend any lower to see inside,’ says Wright. And a Siemens worktop hob aligns the plates side by side rather than in a square, so users need not lean across steaming pans or bend under an extractor to reach to the back. ‘But even here they’ve missed the final five per cent because the hob controls are low contrast and hard to read,’ observes Wright.
Screen displays are a black spot for many people. Poor contrast, small type and narrow angles of view all blight easy use, especially for those with poor sight. Woods recalls the long-standing joke that nobody can ever successfully programme a video recorder: complex menus, tiny buttons and a requirement to get down on your hands and knees do not make for a user-friendly experience. Tangerine designed the Sky+ set-top box, which saw off all such problems with its one button record. Although a high-tech gadget, Sky+ is easier for everyone, but it’s especially beneficial to older people living alone who are unable to programme a VCR, notes Woods.
‘There’s nothing special about these well-designed products. They’re good for handicapped people, good for children, good for everybody,’ says Koepp.
This article was written for Design Week, 13 February 2008.