Older adults lead universal design processes

Three soda cans showing the ring pull opener. Older adults lead universal design.
Ring pulls need more space for fingers

If you design for the extremes of the population, you include the middle. That’s one way, among many, of describing the universal design process. So asking people at the older end of the age spectrum to engage in design process could bring good outcomes for all. A recent study tested this idea to see if older adults could take a lead in universal design processes. They found that they could.

“Lead users” are people who have the potential to identify needs that could be present in the general population. The concept is based on the premise that what is good for lead users is good for many others. A group of researchers decided to test this idea with older adults. In the process they found additional things they weren’t expecting. 

The researchers discovered that many everyday products do not comply with universal design principles. This leads to older adults ignoring tasks due to design complexity. For example, wearing slippers to avoid shoes that demand bending for socks or laces. 

The researchers found no real difference between the needs of the older population and the general population. They also found that products redesigned for older adults were preferred by others, on average, 89% of the time. One of the redesigns was the ring pull tab on soda cans. A deeper dent under the tab makes more space for all fingers.

The title of the paper is, A Lead User Approach to Universal Design – Involving Older Adults in the Design Process. It is open access. The paper provides the method and results in detail. 

From the Abstract

Previous work has shown promising results on involving users with physical challenges as lead users – users who have the potential to identify needs that could be latent among the general population. It has also been shown that older adults can act as such lead users. They can help design universal product ideas that satisfy both older adults and the general population.

In this paper we build on this and examine if involving older adults in the design phase can result in universal products, products preferred by both older adults and the general population over a current option.

Products were redesigned and prototyped based on the needs of older adults and tested among both populations. Although the needs differed between the populations, on average 89% of the general population participants preferred products designed based on design needs expressed by older adults over the current option.

This provides further evidence supporting the use of older adults in designing products for all.

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