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Last Updated: Friday, 14 January, 2005, 12:55 GMT
A design for (long) life
By Christine Jeavans
BBC News

How inclusive design is already used - and future ideas

As Britain as a nation gets older, manufacturers of consumer goods, so long in thrall to the youth market, are very slowly cottoning on to the fact that there are hordes of customers out there who have reached middle age and beyond.

They may not be as nimble-fingered or sharp-sighted as they once were but if attractive products which take this into account are available, they are willing to spend - as the success of products like the best-selling BT big button phone prove.

"In the new generation of older people expectations will be higher," says David Yelding, Director of Ricability - an independent consumer research group that focuses on older and disabled consumers.

"They have been brought up in a consumerist society and will be much more demanding."

I tell young design students... let's think about what the world is going to be like for us and let's get it right
Professor Roger Coleman
But this doesn't mean we are suddenly going to see a flood of products for "oldies" hitting the shops. The best design will be "inclusive" - designed to be appropriate for the widest range of people possible.

Often users - both young and old - won't even be aware that a special effort has been made, they will just think the product works well.

'Stigma'

Professor Roger Coleman, one of the UK's leading experts on inclusive design, teaches tomorrow's product designers at the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, part of the Royal College of Art in London.

"I tell young design students it's not about 'let's design some nice stuff for old people' - no, let's think about what the world is going to be like for us and let's get it right."

The last thing most people want is to have the fact that they're ageing highlighted with "special products", which are also costly to develop, he says.

"Things that are designed for people with problems are designed in such a way that the users feel stigmatised. But things which are well-designed move into the mainstream and become part of the accepted solution."

Crossover success

This is the case for products such as Oxo's Good Grips kitchen utensils which have won critical and commercial acclaim.

Oxo Good Grips potato peeler
The Good Grips range of utensils have soft, chunky handles
The idea for kitchen tools with chunky, comfortable handles came about when a newly-retired US entrepreneur Sam Farber noticed his wife, who suffered from arthritis, was struggling with her metal potato peeler.

He commissioned a New York design company which used the latest thinking from across the design spectrum including handles modelled on bicycle grips and blades made by a Samurai sword manufacturer.

The result was a product that had mass appeal and became a best-seller in its first year.

However, for every example of good inclusive design, there lurk a million other products which do not take older or impaired users into account.

Packaging is a particular bugbear for Jette Hansen, 52, who suffers from arthritis. "My hands are the worst affected, so anything that puts pressure like opening jars and milk cartons, I can't do.

"You just get very frustrated, very tearful and in the end I just have to wait until somebody comes round to help me."

Fear of the new

While people with arthritis have a particular struggle, there are plenty of daily household tasks that young and old alike find tricky - so why aren't more manufacturers cashing in by improving their products?

"They just seem to be too afraid to take the plunge with something that is fundamentally quite new," says Nina Warburton, director of product designers The Alloy.

Alloy rethought the kettle so that it could be easily and safely used by people who had a weak grip or trouble lifting.

Kettlesense design
Kettlesense has not found a manufacturer
They came up with Kettlesense, a machine that works like a coffee percolator and dispenses water into a mug or teapot without the user having to lift and pour a heavy unit full of boiling water.

It has a stepped level jug so that users can easily see or feel how much cold water they are putting in and big paddle switches that look funky as well as being easy to use with a palm or even an elbow.

Warburton says the safety-conscious design would suit parents with young children just as much as the elderly. However despite a lot of interest, Kettlesense is still lacking a manufacturer.

"We've got quite far with quite a few [manufacturers] but in the end they all get cold feet," says Warburton.

"That whole market segment has got tiny profit margins and most people have said 'if Tefal did it then we'd do one too' but nobody wants to be the first."

'Darwinian design steps'

Professor Roger Coleman agrees that companies should have more imagination and lateral thinking when it comes to the future of product design.

"For instance young people walk around with headphones hanging out of their ears well why can't we give that to older people to give them good quality hearing?

"One set of headphones could give you your mobile phone and music and then public service announcements. It could be linked to microphones on your glasses - you could walk through an environment and it could talk to you.

"But there has to be a set of Darwinian steps otherwise you've got to make some great leap. While people are designing products for young people and not thinking about the full range of people who could use it you don't make those step changes."




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