Older people and product design

Industry’s ideas about the usability of their products doesn’t match those of older people. That’s what the Centre for Modern Ageing found in their survey of 1000 older people and product design. Given Australia’s ageing population, product designers should focus more on making everyday products more user-friendly. That means taking a universal design approach and using co-design methods.

A word cloud created a visual representation of how many times respondents used a word to describe the difficulties they have with product design. And these are everyday products. The image is from the report.

A screenshot from the report showing a word cloud. Words include difficult, small, expensive, complicated, poor instructions, impossible, frustrating and disappointing.

Key findings from the survey

Key findings focused on products older people use in their daily lives.

  • 93% said product usability supports independent living
  • 43% rarely or never seek assistance to operate the product even when dissatisfied with product usability
  • More than 50% believe products are not user-friendly.

The Image is from the report.

A graphic showing the different issues with product design. Opening mechanisms, weight and handling, safety, connectivity and compatibility, inadequate instruction, remotes and interfaces, small print and complicated technology

Grip issues related to slippery handles, tight lids, weight of products, and small text on labels and confusing instructions weren’t helpful either. Product packaging is also a challenge and probably not just for older people.

Electronic devices with menus and different functions as well as issues connecting devices to others and to networks were difficult and challenging.

The title of the report is Empowering Older Australian with Better Product Usability. Go to the Global Centre for Modern Ageing to download the report for more detail.

Help for product designers

The Inclusive Design Toolkit from the University of Cambridge has an Exclusion Calculator to show how many people can’t use a design due to their level of capability. It covers most of the issues discussed in the report. It’s an excellent online resource for product designers.

The Universal Design of Products and Services has more detailed information which includes guidelines on body size.

Note that some designs are potentially covered by the Australian Disability Discrimination Act.

Useability of small kitchen appliances

A busy array of small kitchen appliances and cooking utensils.

Meal preparation is something most of us do every day. It’s not until you can’t do it that you realise how much it impacts on wellbeing, independence and quality of life. 

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee worked with General Electric to develop an audit tool they can apply to the design of their small appliances. The tool can be used by engineers, retailers and individuals as well.

The title of the tool is Small Kitchen Appliance Accessibility and Universal Design Information Tool (SKA AUDIT). It includes 7 features: doors, lids, dials, on/off water reservoirs, buttons and “ready” indicators. Both physical and cognitive conditions were considered in the development of the tool.

The title of the article is Small Kitchen Appliance Accessibility and Universal Design Information Tool (SKA AUDIT).  

The Pain of Design

A work table is filled with paper and folders and a woman is cutting a piece of paper with scissors. It looks like a group of people are working on a design.

Arthritis is a common condition and is not often referred to as a disability. However, the pain of arthritis is disabling. So how to design out pain? Design Council ran a workshop with people with arthritis. They found that no-one was interested in special products, which are often stigmatising. So the principle of inclusive design became the top issue.

“Inclusive design is crucial. You have to step away from the idea that it’s “older people” having a problem and start looking at a universal problem and therefore a universal solution.”

They found the most important thing is that people want desirable, stylish, mainstream products that anyone would want to own. People don’t want medicalised, stigmatising equipment. Clearly, including the user-voice is the way to design for all rather than the mythical average. 

The article is titled, Ollie Phelan of Versus Arthritis writes about the importance of the end-user being at the heart of design, and can be accessed on the Medium.com website where there is more information.

Workplace diversity, design and strategy

How do you measure diversity and inclusion in the workplace if people don’t identify as being in a defined or separate category? And why should they? Diverse from what or whom? What is the baseline measure and who is doing the measuring? And is disability or ageing considered part of the diverse workforce population? A research team in Italy had a look at workplace diversity, design and strategy to assess the state of play.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how much the physical environment can affect people’s well-being, mental health, social relationships, customs and habits.”

A brightly coloured graphic representing women from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds.

In their paper, the researchers discuss examples of workplaces that claim to promote a culture of diversity and reduced discrimination. Many have created positions for “Diversity and Inclusion Managers” to asses the mismatch between company and employee perceptions of inclusion. Details of the research methodology include diversity types, design features, workplace policies and strategies.

Disability, race, gender

Company reports embrace and list diversity features. The most cited diversity feature is disability, followed by ethnicity/race, gender, sexual orientation and age. However, ignoring this listing and focusing on inclusion and accessibility provides other measures of success.

Inclusion is when “an employee feels a sense of community and belonging in a work system, being accepted by others for their unique characteristics and treated as an insider.”

Image from “Turning back time for inclusion, today as well as tomorrow.

Inclusion is one group looking at another group and thinking about "Them".

Physical spaces

Companies focus on HR policies for inclusion but don’t address aspects such as workspace design. This separation neglects the role of architectural and interior design. However, there is research on the physical elements of workplace design. Floor plans, acoustic comfort, choice of materials and green building certifications all have a role to play.

Diversity and inclusion is more than a policy or strategy. Organisations need to join the dots between employment practices and the design of the workplace. For people with disability in particular both are essential. An inclusive corporate culture together with an appropriately designed physical environment is what’s required. That’s universal design in action.

The title of the paper is, Room for diversity: a review of research and industry approaches to inclusive workplaces. (Open access.)

While organisations of all types claim to be implementing diversity strategies in the workplace, it isn’t easy to measure their validity. The video from the UK is a parody on employers who say their organisations are diverse.

From the abstract

This paper explores how scientific literature and company reports address inclusive workplace design and strategies. It asks the following question: To what extent is inclusion present in workplace design and related strategies?

We analysed 27 scientific papers and 25 corporate social responsibility reports of the highest-ranked companies in the Great Place to Work global ranking. We disentangled the main aspects related to workplace design and strategies for promoting inclusion.

This paper reports on four macro-categories of diversity that support the development of inclusive workplace design. These are psychophysical; cultural; socio-economic conditions; and ability, experience and strengths.

Although diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is key in many organizations, it remains unclear how DE&I principles are applied in workspace design and strategies. This scoping review integrates scientific knowledge and practice-based approaches which address this matter independently.

Are shopping malls ageist?

Older supermarket shoppers need a positive attitude from employees, functional shopping trolleys, and appropriate placement of products on shelves. Retail stores are public space and they should look good and be functional. Therefore a universal design approach can prevent shopping malls from being ageist.

Key design elements are: seamless outdoor to indoor access, easy to use shopping trolleys, seeing, finding and reaching products, reading product contents and price tags, and a smooth payment process.

View inside a shopping mall showing shops on each side of a walkway. Are shopping malls ageist?

Apart from helpful staff and functional equipment, there are other elements to consider.

  • Circulation systems and spaces: ramps, elevators, escalators, hallways and corridors
  • Entering and exiting: identifying and approaching entrances and exits and moving through them easily
  • Wayfinding: Graphical text, pictograms, maps, photos, diagrams, obvious paths of travel, nodes, edges, zones and districts
  • Obtaining products and services: service desks waiting areas and shops
  • Public amenities: toilets and seating
  • Ambient conditions: noise control, non-glare lighting, adequate temperature and humidity

A paper titled, Design Failure in Indoor Shopping Structures: Unconscious
Ageism and Inclusive Interior Design in Istanbul
explains more. The authors use the 7 principles of universal design as a guide and add another 4. The additional four principles are related to aesthetics, social participation, sustainability and equity. They also found that toilets and seating within supermarkets could do much to improve the shopping experience for older people.

As older adults’ need for toilets increases, the time spent in the supermarket declines. So they choose medium or small-sized supermarkets within walking distance of home.

overhead picture of the fresh food section of a supermarket.

From the abstract

People consciously or unconsciously make older adults feel less important than younger citizens. Older people may experience social and economic stress as well as anxiety, hopelessness, isolation, and depression. Almost all industries are disproportionately focused on developing technological innovations for younger people, but not for older adults.

Although there is research on aging populations, research on the indoor design problems that older people encounter every day is scarce. Shopping is a good opportunity for older people to get involved in the community and we should aim to prevent architectural barriers.

A questionnaire was administered to 198 participants about their experiences in supermarkets. The results showed that as the need for rest areas and toilets increases, the time spent by older adults in supermarkets declines.

Additionally, checkout counters and product display shelves show design problems that constitute indoor accessibility issues. This study concludes by looking at issues in the design of indoor shopping area that contribute to ageist attitudes. We call for inclusive shopping environments to address spatial justice and to eliminate ageism.

Shopping for All: Inclusive Retail

Photo of wide shopping corridor at Barangaroo. Inclusive retail experiences.

Designing with people with disability in mind results in greater convenience for everyone. That’s why we need businesses to think about inclusive retail experiences and strategies.

The Australian Network on Disability, and Design for Dignity produced an excellent resource for retail outlet designers. The key is for designers and retail outlets to understand the level of their missed business by ignoring population diversity. Graphs and statistics are used to highlight the lost opportunities.

Guides for retailers

graph of people using mobility and hearing devices

The guide is aimed at retail business owners, service providers, shopping centre owners and managers, designers, builders and certifiers. There is also a Design for Dignity microsite with the information in a web-based format with more detail.

Readers are reminded that disability is more than wheelchair users. The use of other mobility devices and communication aids is shown in the graph above. 

The business of age-friendly

A clothes store with jackets hanging and a table with other clothes.

Many businesses would like to expand their customer base to include older people and people with disability, but not sure how to do it. Utilising a checklist is one way to start thinking about it. Several organisations have produced checklists and other information to help businesses understand what they can do. Much of it costs little or nothing. Here are just three.

COTA TAS has a checklist that has a rating scale from excellent to needs work. It covers external environments, shop entrances, safety, comfort, and staff training, and much more. It’s nine pages and easy to read.

AgeUK has a more comprehensive document that provides the reasoning behind some of the “Top Tips’. These include telephone interactions, websites, and resolving complaints. The report is based on consumer workshop consultations.  

Shopping with cognitive challenges

Picture of a shopping mall with a plain grey floor and shops on each side. Thre is a woodend bench with armrests and backrest. In the distance you can see more shops.Shopping for groceries is a chore for most people. But for people with reduced cognitive abilities shopping can be a major challenge. Researchers in Sweden carried out a study of 29 people with cognitive challenges to find out their coping strategies. They found very different approaches to coping, but in every case the coping strategy was underpinned by a “personal and strong wish to maintain individuality and independence”.

The researchers found some good points for retailers including: clear paths that connect the entrance and exits with check out counters, clear signage, places to sit and rest (and reduce anxiety) and creating a sense of feeling safe in the environment. The title of the paper is, Shopping with Acquired Brain Injuries, Coping Strategies and Maslowian Principles, by Andersson, Skehan, Ryden and Lagerkrans, from the Swedish Agency for Participation. As with most personal case study research this is an easy read.  

The recommendations are also good for people without reduced cognition. For example, reducing “visual noise” and clutter helps everyone to find what they are looking for, and a clear path of travel is good for people using mobility devices. Again, thoughtful design is universal design.

From the abstract

In Sweden the expected life span has increased with approximately 25 years during the 20th century. This study is based on interviews with groups of older persons who experience cognitive problems and relatives. The interviewees were asked about everyday activities like shopping groceries, clothes or other necessities. The interviewees identified problems and described a series of strategies for coping.

The strategies range from complete withdrawal, an increased dependency on proxies to the development of elaborate techniques to mask their problem and obtain assistance. Following the current trend in the design of the Swedish sales environment – large scale, abundance of goods and Maslowian strategies for making people stay longer (and spend more money) – accessibility in the built environment is often an absent friend.


Accessible and inclusive workplaces

There’s a lot of talk about inclusive workplaces and a diverse workforce, but a policy isn’t enough. The “how-to” is the tricky part. The Australian Human Rights Commission has produced a plain language guide to help employers recruit and include people with disability. The guide is titled IncludeAbility and is 10 pages (in PDF) and therefore sticks to the basics.

People with disability have the right to work on an equal basis with others, and in a work environment that is ‘open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities’.

Graphic from the cover of accessible and inclusive workplaces called include ability.

The guide covers some old ground including the ageing 7 Principles of Universal Design and the Lendlease Design for Dignity Guidelines. And of course existing standards for the built environment. In terms of technology, readers are directed to the WCAG guide. Assistive technology and Employment Fund Assistance also get a mention. Case studies highlight some of the issues many people with disability face when getting work and while at work.

Workplace attitudes are the barriers you can’t see and are therefore the most difficult to overcome. There’s a list of questions employers can ask themselves that mostly relate to organisational policies and staff training. The Human Rights Commission offers staff training in capital cities.

Workplace technology

At an individual level, assistive technology bridges many of the gaps between being able and dis-abled. However, company websites should be accessible for staff as well as customers. Similarly, all key documents should offer accessible formats for staff and customers. the South Australian Government toolkit is referenced with more information on this topic.

Creating an accessible and inclusive workplace is available online where there are links to a PDF version and a Word version. The IncludeAbility website is has additional resources for people with disability and Frequently Asked Questions.

Editor’s comment: This document appears to be a gathering of existing information that’s been around for a while. It would be interesting to see what a co-designed guide would look like. That is, what do employers want to see in a guide and how do they want it presented.? A guide is a product so it can be universally designed too.

Inclusive communication encourages buying

Inclusive communication is key to any purchase for people with and without disability. Whether in written formats, online, or in person, communication is a critical part of the purchasing process. Service based businesses such as tourist attractions, restaurants and banks are difficult to access based on a survey by Business Disability Forum.

Black and white logo for easy read, has a tick and a open book

“I ended up staying with my current bank because I could not get information in easy read format from any other bank”

Almost half the survey respondents said that booking and/or visiting a restaurant, café or pub posed the most challenges. Booking holiday accommodation was also challenging together with leisure activities. Dealing with banks, insurance providers and utility providers also caused challenges. Buying new technology, software and entertainment media was less problematic for most respondents.

graphic of a page with PDF on it red and white

A lot of companies use PDFs, it is not accessible with screen readers… Allow [me to receive] that information in a Word format so I can read it. Avoid columns, rows and text boxes… You would have thought that by now a lot of these companies might have grasped this.

The Business Disability Forum’s research is UK based, but is useful information for all businesses. Community service organisations and governments also need to heed the call for more inclusive communication methods.

Key findings

The online survey showed there was no clear single preference for means of communication at the decision-making stage. The following quotes from the report need no further explanation.

By email or text. The spoken word is hard for me to understand on the telephone, especially when calling from a call centre.

… you need all of it. Live chat, phone, email. It’s got to be accessible in as many ways as possible and quick to reply otherwise you think “I won’t wait for that product” and they have lost your custom.

For me as a totally blind person, email, phone or face-to-face are my preferred methods of communication. Particularly if face-to-face, I want staff to come and ask if I want help, not be left wandering around. If online, I need pages uncluttered with adverts, products clearly separated, buttons or checkboxes al-texted and graphics clearly labelled.

Interestingly, Amazon online purchasing was identified as having a good communication system. This was because:

A computer screen sits on a desk. It shows a web page
  • Contact points for queries before and after sales in customers’ preferred format
  • Being able to find detailed product information needed
  • Setting up the process for delivery
  • Quick purchase mechanisms that avoid repeat form filling

Inclusive imagery and icons

We are seeing more people with disability in films, tv and stories. Both the presence of people with disability and images depicting disability are being integrated into computing. But are the processes for developing inclusive imagery also inclusive?

If the only images available to illustrate accessibility are pictures of wheelchair users, then it becomes difficult to get people to understand and acknowledge the huge range of unique user needs.

Circular graphic showing many different icons related to disability.

A short article by Emory James Edwards addresses some of the issues related to diversity and inclusion in computing. Designers regularly use personas to help them communicate with developers. They each know what the other is talking about. But these ‘design assets’ as they are called, have not included images of people with disability, non-western users, or older adults.

Although people with disability are getting more recognition, the images are still prone to stereotypes. With luck, as we see more images of people with disability we could see increased understanding of the need for accessible technology.

If people who are blind are only depicted as wearing sunglasses or using a guide dog, but never depicted as using a white cane or walking with a sighted guide, it makes invisible the variety of skills and preferences of people who are blind or have low vision

A blind man and his guide dog walk through a shopping mall. Inclusive imagery.

More images of disability is not enough – they could even reinforce stereotypes. It gives people the illusion of knowing what life is like with a disability.

Tips for inclusive image generation

Edwards explains six key points:

  1. Do not reinforce isolated, sad or pitiable stereotypes.
  2. Avoid being overly “sweet” or creating “inspiration porn”.
  3. Show the diversity of the the disability community. That includes gender and nationality.
  4. Consult with people with specific identities.
  5. Make a commitment to long-term engagement with people.
  6. Make inclusion the default position without resorting to tokenism.

The title of the article is, Putting the Disability in DEI Through Inclusive Imagery. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is about changing the paradigm in computing and other fields. Technology is an essential part of modern life. The reference list at the end is also useful.

A picture can paint the wrong words

For those who understand the issues with the picture shown, there is no need to explain. But there are others who see two good looking young people, one in a wheelchair being pushed by the other. They are wearing bright colours and looking happy as they make their way through an empty shopping mall. For the uninitiated there are three key issues with these companion pictures.

Shutterstock image of a young person being pushed in a hospital wheelchair. The occupant is obviously a model that doesn't look like they have a disability.
  • First, perpetuates the stereotype that wheelchair users must be helped by being pushed rather than mobilising independently. A person walking alongside would be better. 
  • Second, it is clear that both of them can walk as they change places with each other to be pushed in the chair.
  • Third, the type of wheelchair is usually found in a hospital setting. It is not one that a person would normally own let alone use it to go shopping. Wheelchair-user models would come with their own wheelchair.

Wheelchair users are not the only way to convey diversity or disability. The majority of disabilities are invisible, e.g. low vision, hearing loss, heart disease. So pictures of groups of people from all walks of life are much better. Too many of these pictures show a lone wheelchair user in places devoid of other humans. This is not real life.

Let’s make sure images convey the right messages.  

Barriers to shopping not good for business

The Business Disability Forum in the UK has an interesting report on the barriers people with disability face as shoppers and consumers. Whether online, by phone or in person, these barriers are not good for business or consumers. And it’s likely it’s difficult for almost everyone if the process is not universally designed.

A small cardboard box sits across a keyboard. The words on the box say online shopping.

The Business Disability Forum asked survey participants about specific barriers to shopping for products and services.

They asked respondents if they have any difficulties with access or engaging in the buying process. The key areas were going to restaurants, cafes and pubs; buying clothes or shoes, and personal and online banking. These were followed by pursuing a hobby, buying insurance and dealing with utility suppliers.

A restaurnt table laid with breakfast foods. It looks out to a water view with small boats.

An online survey and focus groups (around 650 people with disabilities and conditions) found almost everyone was impacted in some way.

The next most challenging activities were booking a holiday, booking tickets, buying large electrical appliances, and buying new devices.

  • Limitation of design – products, service or venues not being inclusive or lacking accessibility features.
  • Limitations in available information.
  • The way in which information was presented.

More than half the respondents said their choice of products or services was limited by design, and by the availability of information. It was also limited by the way it was presented.

A significant number (43%) abandoned the shopping task early or just didn’t buy. It was the same for going into shops in person.

The title of the resource is, What disabled consumers choose to buy and why – Barriers to buying. Forbes online magazine also has an article on the report.

Also have a look at See here: I want to go shopping for the shopping experience of people who are blind.

Design for shopping: a holistic approach

overhead picture of the fresh food section of a supermarket. Shopping - a holistic approach.

The recent pandemic curtailed shopping in the high street and in malls. When the lockdowns were lifted the rush to the shops shows how much people enjoy shopping. Younger people talk of retail therapy, but for older people it is an important social activity, particularly those who live alone. So every part of “design for shopping” needs to be inclusive. 

Elnaz Davoudi from the San Francisco State University conducted an in-depth study of older people and their shopping habits. This included shadowing them as they made their way around a supermarket. The whole experience is documented and their are several design conclusions to be drawn from this work.

Shopping carts, check outs, product packaging and much more are open for improved designs. The findings can also be generalised to other design disciplines. It is good to see a holistic approach in this research, not just the design of, say, a shopping trolley, or the product packaging.

The article is titled, Designing a Better Shopping Experience with a Holistic Approach to Ageing in Place. It is on page 21 in the Design for All newsletter from 2016.

Danish Design Ladder and universal design

Discussing universal design and inclusive practice helps individuals to understand the concept of inclusion. But it’s organisational culture where the change is needed. Everyone has to have the same universal design mindset. The Danish Design Ladder is one way to apply universal design to organisations.

The 6 steps of the Danish Design Ladder
Extended Danish Design Ladder

Design isn’t just for products and websites. Design thinking is also good for designing business strategies and operations. It shapes the brand and business concept. In short, it is good for business, as Matt Davies says. 

The Danish Design Ladder is useful for understanding the power of design within organisations. Universal design thinking comes onto the ladder at Rung 3 – Design as a Process. 

Rungs of the Danish Design Ladder

1 Non-Design:  Design is invisible, product development is done by untrained designers. The user or customer has no part in decisions.

2 Design as Styling:  After the product is developed it is given to a designer to make it look nice. 

3 Design as Process:  This is where design is not the result but a way of thinking. Customers are now the focus of the design process. 

4 Design as Strategy:  Design is embedded in the leadership team to shape the overall business.

5 Design as Systemic Change:  Design is a way of changing systems to solve complex social problems.

6 Design as Culture:  Design is a common mindset, as a way to innovate, a way to listen and and a way to lead. 

An article by Bryan Hoedemaeckers, Are you getting the most out of Design explains more on this. The Ladder is a good way of conceptualising how to weave universal design thinking into the fabric of organisations. 

The Brisbane Olympic Games are less than 10 years away. There is talk of wanting them to be the most accessible games ever. The top three rungs of the Ladder, universal design as strategy, change and culture, will be essential for this outcome. The Legacy Strategy moves to the 4th step of the ladder, but the strategy is about places and things, not culture change. 

Australian researchers used the Danish Design Ladder in an action research project. The title of their paper is, Climbing the Design Ladder; Step by step. The researchers discuss other intermediate “steps” for bringing about culture change. The article is open access. 

Advances in Design for Inclusion

Front cover of the publication.

This book covers several topics in design: universal design; design for all; digital inclusion; universal usability; and accessibility of technologies regardless of users’ age, financial situation, education, geographic location, culture and language.

It has a special focus on accessibility for people with auditory, cognitive, neurological, and visual impairments, ageing populations, and mobility for those with special physical needs.

The title of the book is Advances in Design for Inclusion. It is an academic text, published by Springer, from the proceedings of the International Conference on Design for Inclusion held in Washington DC in July 2019. 

The chapters are diverse and specific. For example, yacht design;  automated vending machines; prisons; parking meters; garden objects; housing; city maps, built environment and much more. Chapters can be purchased separately if you don’t have institutional access.  

The benefit of designing for everyone

Front cover of the report the Benefit of Designing for Everyone.The assumption that designing for everyone will cost more often goes unchallenged. Even economic arguments for business benefits rarely cut through because of this. If economic arguments for inclusion worked we wouldn’t still be talking abut it. A Centre for Inclusive Design report analyses inclusive business practice and covers some areas not covered before. The report analyses education, retail and financial services and argues inclusive design can drive financial, economic and social improvements. PwC was commissioned for the report, The Benefit of Designing for Everyone.

Jeremy Thorpe from PwC says, “Inclusive design is a no-regrets process that creates significant benefits which are currently being left on the table. It is an overlooked step in maximising the potential of Australian business and ensuring a more productive Australia.” There is also an infographic with the key information, and a summary report and a Word version

Infographic listing some of the key economic data within the report.The report analyses three key industries in Australia: education, retail and financial services. Each one can benefit from taking a universal design approach to improve their bottom line. 

David Masters, Corporate Affairs Director, Microsoft Australia, said,

“Accessibility is often focused on compliance, and while that is incredibly important, this report clearly shows that inclusion drives economic benefit too. Embedding inclusion in the upfront design phase ensures organisations are delivering products and services for everyone. Inclusive design is driving innovation at Microsoft and is a concept that all organisations should be embracing.”

It is good to see more work being done on the economics of inclusion. However, such arguments over the last ten years have yet to make their mark. The inclusive tourism industry is testament to that as well as the housing industry. Let’s hope someone is listening and willing to act.


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