Next week on September 16 I’ll be participating in the Seattle Design Festival (#sdfaging) moderating a panel discussion “Enlivening Design For Aging” with some of the most pro-aging designers and elder-advocates I’ve ever met.
Our panelists include Carina Ngai of Inflection and formerly Samsung exploring how designing for our future selves can help us think about aging differently; Eric Baczuk of the vaunted frog Design team sharing incredible new insights from recent concept development to empower aging-in-place; and Cara Lauer of Seattle Senior Services on tapping into the paradox of aging — the fact that elders are happier and more fulfilled than younger people despite living in the context of physical decline.
In Part 1 of my blog post on Design For Aging I took a humorous approach to ageism inspired by Craig Ferguson’s monologue explaining Why Everything Sucks. In short, widespread ageism fueled by our obsession with youth distorts our mass media, popular culture, fashion and just about all aspects of design.
Now I’d like to explore what that means on a practical level for designers and what we need to do about it.
I’m not a designer by training or background but through years of work in marketing and in collaboration with designers I’ve gained a fair understanding of the principles and power of good design thinking. Taken straight from the wiki, design thinking requires the designer to put themselves in the user’s shoes and combine empathy for their particular need with creativity and rationality to develop the best solution to fit their need.
Obviously, one of the consequences of ageism is that older adults get left out of the design process because designers are focused overwhelmingly on developing products for younger demographics. But the problem is actually much more complicated than merely neglecting to take elder’s needs into consideration. The fact is older people are quite a bit more challenging to design for than younger people.
And I’m not talking about physical decline or other negative stereotypes we associate with aging. Guess what — people of all ages live with “special needs” such as vision or hearing impairment or limited mobility and dexterity.
No — I’m talking about the overall immense diversity, richness and complexity that is only gained by a lifetime of experience — and our culture’s refusal to recognize and honor this. It is not harder to design for older adults just because they have special needs — it is harder to design for them because we refuse to acknowledge they are vastly more complex, nuanced and interesting than younger people.
Now, I don’t want to bash youth any more than necessary. Like Craig Ferguson said it’s not their fault they’re stupid — that’s what being young and inexperienced is all about! The reality is, if you take a room full of 20-year-olds, their tastes, interests and needs are going to be VASTLY more homogenous and conforming than the tastes, interests and needs of a room full of 80-year-olds.
This does not mean we need more “senior-friendly” products designed specially for older adults. It means we need to raise the design bar for all products. Some people call this universal design or inclusive design. Whatever you call it, it is the defining characteristic of the technologies and products that are most successful among all age groups, like the Nintendo Wii and iPad. The Wii is not so successful among older adults because Nintendo designed it specifically for them — it’s successful because it has a universal design focused on people’s strengths (imagination, playfulness), not their weaknesses (physical decline).
ChangingAging gets pitched by developers of new “senior-friendly” products on almost a daily basis. My simple, non-expert advice to these designers is — DO NOT DESIGN BASED ON DECLINE. Even if you’re trying to solve an urgent problem, focus on the users’ strengths, not their weakness.
There’s a huge race right now to create products and services that meet the unique demands of older adults. One example is remote home monitoring devices like Lively, Amulyte and Be-Close, intended to help people stay independent in their homes longer. These are all nice products designed with great intentions (as I said in my review of Lively). But I can guarantee that the device that breaks through all the competition and emerges as the consumer choice in this market will not come from one of those companies — it will be a product with a universal design. My hunch is it will be some kind of next generation fitness monitoring device, like the Jawbone UP, FitBit or Nike Fuel Band.
And the irony will be that none of those companies even had older people in mind when they designed these products.