Designing for the Aging

People still think that elderly means pathetic, uninventive and unfortunate.  Yes, there is the occasional nod to the statistics showing Boomers have more disposable income than Gen Y folks, for instance and people address the fact that the elderly market is the largest market there has ever been, making them a worthy group financially to go after.  Early retirement means that a sizeable part of this market is commercially significant and has the money, and willingness, to pay for design. But that’s often where the story ends.  Before we can really addresses this population, we have to fundamentally shift our view of the aging and rethink our own perceptions.  We need to ask, what is such a market looking for?

Why is that so important?  Because in focusing too intently on designing for this population means, more often than not, that we are in fact designing for ourselves – our preconceived notions of the aged, our subconscious fears or growing old, our cultural biases about what it means to be over 65, etc.  Consequently, I believe that an approach of designing just for the elderly is too narrow and therefore possibly problematic. In a time that people are getting older and older, many over 65 have the physical and mental capacity of people that are twenty years younger, engage in demanding professional endeavors and personal activities, and would hate to be called “elderly.” They might have a different time horizon than younger people but they are not less able. Redesigning a bottle top is one thing, redesigning a dashboard is quite another.

An additional issue is that many of the problems that some elderly face are not unique to them, but also affect a host of other people – the disabled, parents with strollers, young children, people with various health problems, etc. Rather than narrowly focusing on the elderly, a broader approach can helps ensure that the real underlying cause for design addresses a real problem. Beyond being able to address a wider range of markets, there is also a social advantage: people don’t feel excluded or singled out.

It’s also important to remember that like all people, being older doesn’t mean that your world is restricted to interaction with a single, similar population.  People do not exist in vacuums.  Yes, I’ll say it again – CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. Elderly populations are part of a shared community that spans age cohorts and easy classification.  Consequently, you are not designing for the elderly, but rather a host of interactions and agents.

With these overarching considerations, what, then, are some of the specific things to keep in mind as you design? There are several.

  •  Avoid designing “special” products for elderly people. Most elderly people are not disabled. There are exceptions, of course, but typically it is the condition of the disability, not the age of the user that is the issue. A shoe, a telephone or a saucepan designed for a disabled foot or hand may not suit an elderly foot or hand, designing for an elderly hand or foot to the exclusion of other populations will certainly not suit the broader population. Provided elderly people are considered at the right life stage, most products should be suitable for young and old. Design for the young and you exclude the old. Design for the old and you include the young.  You also run the risk of leaving your would be elderly clientele feel singled out.  While this may make a population feel catered to, it also runs the risk of feeling like pandering.
  • Good body use (what we should do) is far more important than what we can do. Ergonomic data may demonstrate what the body is capable of reaching. It is not part of design or ergonomic education to know whether such actions are healthy or natural. Elderly people may be able to reach a certain height, but should they?  The same can be asked of children. Peter Laslett, demonstrated not only the special potential of people in the “Third Age” but also some of the similarities between older and younger people. Provided certain things are understood, products for elderly people can suit younger ones, too.
  • Remember what, where, when, who and how. With the exception of hermits, the elderly do not in complete isolation. They are part of the broader social dialog and members of the cultural milieu. As such, designing for the elderly all too often revolves around methods and assumptions that treat this population as if they were lab experiments or living in complete isolation.  Products live shared lives as do the people who use them. That means designing with multiple users in mind and designing according to the contexts in which products will be used.
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