With the world’s population ageing, we investigate how adopting inclusive design principles can increase profits for companies.
Ever had trouble shaking ketchup out of a glass bottle? Now imagine struggling to unscrew the lid of a marmalade jar every breakfast time because you don’t have the strength to grip it firmly enough. Or maybe you’ve had to wait for an airport screen display to refresh before spotting your flight? Now picture standing there for several repetitions and still not knowing the latest departure information because you can never read the screen quickly enough. This is the reality for many disabled and elderly people, for whom physical or cognitive impairment makes carrying out everyday tasks or accessing services difficult or impossible.
According to the World Health Organisation, around 22 per cent of the global population will be older than 60 by 2050. In Britain alone, the Office for National Statistics predicts that more than 29 million people will be 60 or over by 2032. Even today, government figures indicate that upwards of 11 million people in the UK have a long-term illness, impairment or disability. As ageing causes a decrease in our physical, cognitive and sensory capabilities, this adds up to a lot of customers either excluded from or having difficulty using products and services ranging from new technologies to public transport. However, this situation can be avoided if service providers and product designers use inclusive design, which aims to encompass the widest possible range of users.
“Inclusive design is not traditional assistive technology. It’s about taking the sorts of things you’d normally find on the high street and making them reach as many people as reasonably possible,” explains John Clarkson, director of the University of Cambridge’s Engineering Design Centre (EDC), which specialises in best practice for design. Although it is a fundamental part of inclusive design to encompass the needs of people with reduced capability, aiming to reach as many users as you can makes your product or service better for everyone, says Clarkson.
“Inclusive design is actually an innovation tool. It requires working with real people of all ages and abilities, and real communities, and looks at the full dimensions of a person’s life, not just a marketing stereotype,” says Rama Gheerawo, director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art (RCA), and reader in inclusive design. “It’s a real kick-starter method that helps designers and businesses understand their customers better,” he continues.
One of the keys to making a success of this type of design, says Gheerawo, is involving potential users of your products and services from the outset. He feels designers need to understand the views of people in different age, economic and social groups. They can gain valuable insights by “giving people the opportunity to speak about the challenges and experiences in their lives”.
Meanwhile, Clarkson recommends actually observing people using a product or service as this can reveal the coping strategies that people struggling to use a design develop, which they may not self-report. This approach is fundamental to US consumer products business OXO, which has won over 200 design and business awards. It develops new products by studying people using existing versions to determine what design features would ease the task being tried.
Observing potential users can sometimes involve targeting specific user groups. Elizabeth Raby, a research associate at the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Centre, began her current one-year project working with Arthritis Research UK to make digital technologies more accessible and helpful to people with arthritis by “scoping and delving into the lives of people with arthritis. I am gathering key insights through visits to arthritis groups and exercise groups for older people, holding workshops, speaking with academics working in the area, as well as visiting people with arthritis in their own homes,” she explains.
However as Sharon Cook, a senior lecturer specialising in ergonomics at the Design School at Loughborough University, explains it is not just designers who need to have these experiences. “It is also important for those commissioning the designs and steering the direction of investment or training within companies to realise the importance of inclusive design,” says Cook, who has worked with companies including Ford and Napp Pharmaceuticals to help them understand the requirements of customers with reduced physical capabilities.
In addition to observation and listening, actually physically feeling the same way as a person struggling to use a product or service can be a powerful awareness-raising tool, says Cook. In the mid-1990s, she designed the ‘Third Age Suit’ for Ford. This full-body suit simulates some of the effects of ageing by impeding the wearer’s joint movement and reducing sensitivity in their fingertips. “It has been documented in journal papers that if designers don’t understand who they are designing for, they will just default to designing for themselves,” she says, adding that the suit helps young designers “have empathy with what it’s like to be an older customer.”
Cook has since created bespoke versions for other companies. Meanwhile Ford is using a third generation of the suit, developed in collaboration with the Meyer-Hentschel Institute in Germany. This, along with customer research, has helped Ford develop inclusive designs such as a rear view camera that helps drivers reverse, and the B-MAX, a small car with easy access thanks to hinged front and sliding back passenger doors that integrate the central body pillars.
Wearable simulators designed by the Cambridge EDC are an important feature of the inclusive design consortia run for designers of mainstream products and services by Rob Morland, director of inclusive design at the Centre for Business Innovation, in conjunction with the EDC. Morland says that putting on the glasses that simulate visual impairment and the gloves that mimic arthritis by restricting movement “has a most amazing impact on people. The glasses are representative of about 20 per cent of the UK population, and one designer found that with them on he couldn’t read the basic information on a box he’d designed, and he couldn’t get in the box. He realised for the first time the scale of the problems many people face, and that he could do something about it.”
Participants in the consortia, which have so far included staff from Alexander Dennis, Heathrow, Nestlé, packaging materials and solutions provider Stora Enso, Transport for London and Waitrose, are also trained to use the EDC’s free online Inclusive Design Toolkit, which includes an ‘Exclusion Calculator’. This calculator was developed via EPSRC funding and sponsorship from BT - whose inclusively designed products include a big-button phone - and is based on Office for National Statistics data on co-occurrence of multiple impairments. It enables designers to input each task step involved in using their product or service and discover what percentage of the UK population would be excluded from doing so. Thanks to funding from members of the latest consortium, Morland says a subscription-only exclusion calculator is now being created that will compute an entire user journey for a product or service.
Taking an inclusive approach to design can lead to completely new ideas for products or services. “Inclusive design is not just about need and what people can functionally do. It’s about people’s desires and aspirations,” says Jo-Anne Bichard, a senior research fellow at the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design. She experienced a user push for a new service during a project to investigate how well the design features in the UK’s public toilets worked for older people. A strong message she got from the focus groups of users she surveyed, particularly those who had continence issues, was that they wanted information on toilet provision before embarking on trips out, explains Bichard. Equally, she says, toilet providers wanted to supply information on their facilities in a format they could easily update.
As a result, Bichard and her colleague Gail Ramster created The Great British Public Toilet Map. Thanks to the Greater London Authority, which encouraged its local authorities to submit data on public toilet provision, and additional data collected by an RCA team, the online resource now shows over 10,000 publicly accessible toilets throughout the UK. Thanks to another push, this time from Toilet Map users including people with disabilities and parents of young children, Bichard is now working towards an app version of the map.
It was user feedback, in this case from drivers, passengers and operators, that led bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis to redesign its Enviro400, Britain’s best-selling double-deck bus, three years ago, explains group marketing director Jacqueline Anderson. This inclusive approach to design has, she says, led to a range of new features including an improved cab layout, a patented Quick Release Glazing system that reduces window replacement times from around three hours to a few minutes, access for Class 2 mobility scooters through a low, wide entry area, clearer visible and audible passenger announcements and an improved temperature control system.
Successful inclusive designs like this encompass every part of a user’s interaction with that product or service.Transport for London’s head of design Jon Hunter explains that TfL uses a minimum of 12pt text on the majority of its printed customer information. “We also use a high degree of colour contrast between products and their surroundings to aid clarity,” he continues, adding that TfL is currently promoting inclusive design as part of its Transported by Design programme, which celebrates the role of good design in transport.
“We strive constantly to embed inclusive design principles in everything we design and produce,” says Hunter. This ranges from customer information through to physical products such as stations and vehicles.
Barriers to using products and services can sometimes be simply due to unfamiliarity says Gabriella Spinelli, a reader in design innovation at Brunel University who has been working with various charities including the RNIB to help set up accreditation schemes for accessible products. If a new device has a similar method of operation to an old one - for example using the same type of buttons and mechanism - Spinelli explains that users can ‘map’ their existing knowledge onto the new device. “When this transfer of knowledge is disrupted because the new device works completely differently, that’s when you find real problems, particularly among older people,” she says.
Spinelli recommends that companies boost uptake of disruptive technologies by offering their customers ‘supported learning mechanisms’. “They could provide surgery hours when you can go and learn 10 minutes at a time, or have videos on YouTube that show you how to use the product,” she suggests.
Good business sense
Sometimes as much as two-thirds of the purchasing population can find a product challenging or impossible to use, says Clarkson, “so if you can solve those challenges, you make a product that is less difficult and frustrating to use for everybody”.
It also increases your customer base. “If you don’t use inclusive design, you are cutting off a big slice of the market,” states Spinelli.
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