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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?