Is This the Future of Design for Aging?


When you’re squinting to read something online or struggling to work a little control on a gadget, do you ever growl, “This must have been designed by a 20-year old!”?

It very well could have been. And with young, able-bodied digital natives designing for people just like themselves, is there any hope for the rest of us?

Yes, in fact there is. It lies in several university programs where skill-building in technology and design combine with research on aging – specifically, the needs of people with mobility, vision or dexterity issues.

Students in these design programs spend a lot of time “in the user’s shoes.” They might visit retirement homes to spend time with residents, use a walker for a weekend or wear glasses that simulate vision disabilities. Sometimes they collaborate on designs with their products’ end users.

While this process doesn’t always result in marketable products, it does produce graduates who consider the people they design for. Here are a few examples of the projects coming out of design schools today. They’re not all in production – yet. Take a look and share your views on which you can imagine using, now or someday.

Candoo: You Can Do It

Peter Franseschini, a freshman in Pace University’s Gerontechnology course, noticed people having trouble using electronic tablets. This led him to develop Candoo, a simple start page for Android tablets.

Candoo opens up with large, easy-to-read buttons for Internet, email, medication and other applications, and lets people with limited manual dexterity speak commands rather than use the touchscreen. John Robb, Peter’s roommate, provided the visual design.
Peter and John demonstrate the Candoo:


The spiffed-up Candoo has won several national and international design competitions. Now, with two years’ more experience, Peter and John are considering commercializing their app. 

Rethinking the Walker

Plenty of people who need mobility support use walkers – and yet walkers haven’t really changed in years. Josh Wesolowski and Fei Xue chose the humble object for their semester project in a course called Disability + Relevant Design (D+RD).

Collaborating with a 90-year old woman who uses a walker and likes to stay active, the students decided that an improved version would weigh less, be less awkward, collapse with less effort and allow the user to either carry supplies on it or sit down on it to rest. Their nonagenarian collaborator tested their model and admired it for its unique look, as well as for meeting the design requirements.

Concept Drawing of Walker
Josh Wesolowski and Fei Xue, Industrial Design, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


These days Josh, now 26, is getting a Master’s in Product Design and Development at Northwestern University. Of the D+RD course, he says, “It really opened my eyes to empathic design and designing by putting yourself in the user’s shoes. It translates across all design, not just for the elderly or people with disabilities.”

Read more about Josh’s design process.

Stretching for Galileo

Karen Cheng and Erica Yang came up with the idea for Galileo while getting to know the residents of a local retirement community; their design class was actually held at the facility. They learned that exercise can reverse some of the physical decline that many of us experience as we age and wanted to develop a way to encourage older people to stretch and to be physically active. Stretching exercises can help reduce arthritis and back pain, helping older people to keep performing everyday tasks.

Their project, Galileo, is an interactive, adjustable wall-mounted product that encourages people to stretch to each of its end nodes, working on balance, posture and range of motion. When you tap the node at the end of one of Galileo’s six lighted spokes, it activates an LED light. Once you’ve finished tapping all the lights on, you can tap each one off again.

The design was inspired by modular art pieces; because it looks arty, Galileo won’t look like a piece of gym equipment in a living room.

 Karen Cheng (GaTech Industrial Design) Demonstrating Galileo

Karen Cheng (GaTech Industrial Design) Demonstrating Galileo


The Galileo prototype got great feedback from the judges in a design competition as well as community residents. And Karen says that Galileo was among the most interesting projects she’s worked on. The 22-year old college senior already has an industrial designer job lined up after graduation.

Everyone Gets a Turn with KINECTwheels

Much as we might knock it, video gaming does offer the potential benefits of social connection and mental stimulation. Recent research indicates that for older adults, video games might even protect against cognitive decline. And motion-based video games, in which you use your whole body to control the game actions, provide the added benefit of exercise. It’s one reason why games like Wii Bowling are popular in senior centers and retirement communities.

But people who use wheelchairs, or who have limited mobility or poor balance, usually can’t use full motion video games. Kathrin Gerling and her colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan are out to change that.

The team started by identifying the wheelchair and body movements that most of us can make. Then they wrote a software toolkit called KINECTwheels that turns wheelchair and upper body gestures into game commands; sensors on a wheelchair convey its movements, and a camera picks up the body gestures.

Playing a Motion Video Game with KINECTWheels:



At press time, KINECTwheels is only available on request. In the future, the designers would like to see it used in game-based wheelchair skills training.

Table Talk

During weekly visits to a local retirement community for an advanced design course, John Davis and Michael Spear were struck by the lack of interaction among residents. Their idea for tackling this issue is Table Talk, an interactive hub that‘s designed to draw passersby into conversations with one another about the images it displays.

When Table Talk’s built-in sensors detect movement, the table emits a warm, pulsing glow. If someone comes over and sits down at the table, the glow becomes continuous, and a projector displays interesting images. The next person to pass by may be intrigued enough to join the first person. In this way, the designers hope, the table will spark casual conversation and perhaps friendships.

GaTech Students Demonstrating Table Top John Davis and Michael Spear, GaTech Master’s in Industrial Engineering program
GaTech Students Demonstrating Table Top
John Davis and Michael Spear, GaTech Master’s in Industrial Design program


The initial plan was to spark conversations using a mix of historical and nature images. But residents who tested the Table Talk prototype said they’d prefer content that was also informative, about such topics as health, wellness, etc.

John and Michael would like to develop Table Talk further, perhaps adding sound, dynamically generated images or personal photo albums.

Looking Ahead

Many of these students will be starting work soon as designers soon, bringing their insights on aging into a world that, focused as it’s been on younger consumers, has hardly thought about how we can make life-enhancing products for older generations work and look better. There’s hope for the rest of us.

What would you like to tell these young designers about product design for older people?

Or join a video discussion on this topic at


18 responses to “Is This the Future of Design for Aging?

  1. A version of Table Top would be marvellous in Doctors’ waiting rooms. One can be stuck there for 20 mins+ and bored. A combination of information and entertainment would help to pass the time. The piles of magazines get so tatty.

  2. One of the reasons older persons fail to communicate around the tables in retirement communities is that many suffer from hearing loss. Hearing loss affects nearly 1 out of 2 of those over the age of 70. Hearing in a noisy dining room or with fellow residents who do not speak up or (are unable to) project their voice can quickly become challenging. While hearing aids can improve the person’s communication issues in quiet and over short distances, they do NOT restore hearing to normal and regardless of the instruments’ technology the dining room or other gathering places remain challenging for most.

    Attention needs to be paid to the acoustics in these facilities; sound absorbing materials can help alleviate the reverberation and reduce some of the background noise. Communication strategies as well as using clear speech can go a long way to help people with hearing loss and hearing aids hear. I envision tables equipped with a “Talking” sign – to indicate that those sitting at the table are willing to make themselves understood by speaking clearly, and do not mind repeating what was said when a hard of hearing person indicates something was misunderstood. In larger gathering spaces it is highly recommended a PA system is used, with a handheld microphone used close to the mouth or an ear-level worn microphone (rather than a lapel mic) and the rooms should be equipped with an induction hearing loop. Hearing loops are considered a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA and make the room accessible for users of hearing aids and cochlear implants. [Hotlinks removed by editor]

  3. I have 4 comments to make .

    1. NYU hospital is now using tablets upon patient intake that the patient
    must use to enter Rx and insurance details ,they use an awkward program ,small letters and fast speed.
    Why can’t they design them better ,pages get lost by the time one gets to looking
    at their health info wallet cards to enter in that detail.

    2. In a perfect world we seniors would have a slow down app for screens with the Apple Ipad and El Capitan
    operating systems, changing screens my Ipad is to fast with fingertips, ditto the Iphone pages go to and fro
    like Superwoman flying the skies.

    3. My mother in law aged 99 in good health wants a better explanation when she sees me use the Ipad
    that it is a large typewriter- telephone with pictures .

    4. As a photographer since 1953 here in our city ,why can’t they make a good printer for fine b/w images?.
    Why can’t they make a fast accurate negative to positive scanner ,my scanner stinks to say the and is
    slower then a mule in a rainstorm.

  4. Sorry for posting twice….but, I just remembered that the ‘table top’ is a fantastic idea…it should work almost like a small computer – i.e., the senior can access info on health-related issues…news of the day…maybe check their email…all this – so while they are waiting for someone or just sitting there….they can improve their computers skills with something ‘non-intiminating’ and easy to use…maybe finger controlled…press and go to info and small keyboard that pops up to go to different sites…??

  5. I loved this article…never have read ANYTHING for older adults that makes their lives easier like this.
    Having said that, I would like young designers to continue on this path of ’empathetic’ design as there is no substitution for really putting yourself into that person’s “shoes”. So that is my comment – keep on keepin’ on…you guys and gals are on the right path! Oh, and canes need to be more ‘hip’ looking. Even older people don’t want a black cane~

    1. Angie:

      Just last week, I attended a talk on health technology and aging,where the presenter emphasized that people who design products and services for older adults need to move away from the paradigm of “Big, Beige, and Boring.” From a marketing perspective, nobody wants something that screams “old” or “disabled.” He cited as an example of a company designing things that are stylish and fun, as well as practical.

      While Sabi doesn’t offer many different products yet, they do have some cool, colorful canes; check them out at

      1. Kate: Just know you are doing a good thing writing about these issues and we all know that the ‘Baby boomers’ will be aging soon and don’t want to look old or disabled, as you say….even if they have some physical limitations – which we all have as we age…thanx again for reply too to my comments….I like where this is going…

  6. Dear All, just to let you know that as a proud design educator, I am passionate about preparing my students with empathic design skills to ensure they design products that will make our lives easier, more enjoyable and fun!

    Just love reading your comments!

    1. Claudette:

      Thank you for your comment. The layout proposed by Candoo should certainly simplify the overall interaction. I think there are other applications already available for the iPad, such as ConnectMyFolks, which might help. You might want to check them out. If someone else reading this knows of similar apps, please pass them along!

      Today’s tablets, smartphones, and computer have a number of accessibility settings to make them more usable for people with visual (or other) impairments. If you need help with this, I hope someone–a friend, family member, or OATS staff member–can help you set up your device(s) so you can see them better.

      Apple is always mentioned as having done a fantastic job with accessibility, but I imagine other providers have, as well. If not, let’s let them know they need to get on the ball!

      1. It does seem like apps and other programs have been giving the options to adjust text sizes and the sizes of necessary objects. What we were looking to do with Candoo was to make those sizes the default, so our users would be able to use the program right off the bat!

        Big companies have to deal with designing their products for all users, so they usually stick to their largest demographic. Thankfully they do provide accessibility options so their devices can be used by everyone.

    1. Betty:

      Yes, it would be awfully useful to have a walker that you didn’t have to wrestle with, every time you want to get on a bus, train, or subway. I hope the designers can get their product to market soon!

      Thanks for your comment,

      1. My wife has Parkinson’s disease and we use a special walker for her it is 16 lbs and when
        collapsed ,it can not be used in a NYC bus as even folded and held close to ones own body on
        a horizontal disability chair in the front of the bus the things sticks out and can easily hit & hurt
        fellow bus passengers boarding .
        We do need better design.

    1. Rosalie:

      Good point about something public transportation: something lightweight and not so unwieldy would be great, wouldn’t it? Let’s hope someone comes out with such a product soon!

      Thanks for your comment,

  7. I really like the Candoo idea. As someone experiencing declining vision, I would strongly suggest being sure that the contrast between letters and background is strong. The video inclines me to believe that black letters on the blue background might be impossible for some to see. Hopefully, this is manageable within the settings. It’s a great concept and I wish the designers well. Will watch for Candoo in Apps stores.

    1. Thanks, Tarzana; you raise a good point! This is exactly the type of detail designers (of any age) will recognize when they work alongside their intended audience or users.

      For Candoo, it may be that the blue screen is just due to what happens when you take a video of a computer screen. I’ve only ever seen Candoo online, not in person, so I’m not sure. I’ll pass your comment along to Peter and John, and let them know you’re awaiting the app’s appearance in stores!

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