Suitable for all ages: why we need age neutral design

“Everyone’s instinct was that if you could find out [people’s] age and gender data, that’s fantastic. But what we learned is: it’s almost useless. [What matters is] not who they are in a superficial sense – like gender, age, or geography. It’s not even what they tell you. It’s what they do.” Todd Yellin, VP Product Innovation, Netflix.

We hear a great deal about the looming ‘demographic crisis’ that is about to put Western societies under extreme pressure as the proportion of older people grows. In general, we are living longer and developing ever more complex medical needs. But while there are obvious challenges ahead, there are also opportunities in this shift: opportunities to rethink not just our attitudes to ageing but to work, family and how we think about our lives.

Social enterprise The Age of No Retirement is at the forefront of this debate. Through research, an online innovation hub, events and the development of a new set of universal design principles, TAONR aims to build the ‘business case’ of an age-neutral society. Regular CR readers will be familiar with its work, which has championed a new approach not just towards creating products and services for older people but around the whole issue of ageing itself.

Poster for the conference which will discuss age inclusive design
All photographs by Natalia Evelyn Bencicova

In the past 12 months TAONR has been further developing its mission to “shatter ageism and make ageing an opportunity rather than a burden”. Working with the research consultancy Flamingo, it has set out its argument that societal and cultural changes have rendered many of the assumptions we make about how age determines attitudes and wants irrelevant.

One of the temptations in developing products and services specifically for older people, and the marketing that talks about them, is to imagine the over-50s as a homogeneous group. Segmentation by age has been a tried and trusted method for both product development and marketing, but is it an approach that still makes sense? TAONR argues that an age-neutral, intergenerational approach is the key to creating the successful products, services and therefore brands of the future.

Age inclusive design will be discussed at the conference

It cites the impact of the so-called Xtra 10 – the notion that due to longer life expectancy and better healthcare, many of us will benefit from an extra ten years of healthy, active life. Although the opportunities created by this Xtra 10 vary according to our relative wealth and health, the suggestion is that “living a healthy, full, free, fearless life for longer, a new marker of social status, and a high aspiration at any age”. This TAONR contends, partly explains the growing trend for brands such as Céline and L’Oréal to feature older women in their marketing.

Furthermore, TAONR place age in the context of a more socially liberal age, putting it alongside sexuality and gender as areas where previously held mores are breaking down. “People are constructing their identities, running their life, and choosing interests more freely than ever,” TAONR contends. “As a result, people, at any age, are put off  by age-specific entry points. They engage with organisations that can address their particular needs and aspirations, regardless of their age.”

Age-inclusive design is the future of design. It is people-centric, has a lifetime value and benefits everyone

And as working lives are being extended, our traditional notions of life stages are breaking down. People are having families later, many are living in households of three generations (or more) due to the housing crisis, career breaks are becoming more common – we don’t fit into those neat progressive stages anymore.

The impact of technology, TAONR argues, is further accelerating a blurring of age boundaries. “The web has given us equal opportunity to access information or connect with people on the basis of same interests and lifestyles rather than same age. Any mainstream, universal innovation will be adopted faster by all demographics and reshape their expectations collectively.”

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We are, supposedly, moving to a world of ‘post-demographic consumerism’ – or at least that is what a 2014 Trendwatch report claimed, cited by TAONR in its research. “Society is now too fluid, ideas now too available, the market now too efficient, the risk and cost of trying new things now too low for this (postdemographic consumerism) not to be the case,” Trendwatch claims.

Thus, generations, TAONR argues “are an increasingly misleading, limiting and stigmatising construct. Differences between generations may actually boil down to a difference in life stage and to some delays in technology adoption and social platform usage.” Young and old increasingly share cultural ideals – in music for example – meaning that attitudes and values are determined less by age than by other societal and cultural factors such as wealth, class and education.

In the light of these changes, TAONR argues that marketing predicated on age-based representations and segmentation is increasingly irrelevant. “Today’s consumers reject generational classification and don’t want to be treated like another member of the herd,” it says. “In order for marketing to succeed today, it has to be personalised, people centric or tribe centric. It means having to find innovative ways to identify, communicate and connect with customers and prospects on the basis of attitudes, values, interests, needs, motivations and life situation vs age.”

Today’s consumers reject generational classification and don’t want to be treated like another member of the herd

Of course, ageing itself is not irrelevant. We will all, hopefully, get older and with age will come physiological changes. Cognitive sharpness, flexibility, physical strength and our senses will all deteriorate to some extent. But such issues are not confined to specific age groups. Those suffering from certain health conditions or those in deprived areas may experience them too. It’s misleading to think of them just in terms of older people.

After working with the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, TAONR has tested its theories in a major piece of consumer research conducted with Tapestry Research. The results back up many of the theories put forward by TAONR. In particular, the youngest and oldest groups of the 2,000 people surveyed displayed surprisingly similar attitudes. For example, 89% of 18 to 24 year-olds agreed strongly with the phrase “The internet is part of my life. I’d miss it terribly if it wasn’t there”. No shock there. But 84% of 65 to 99 year-olds also felt the same way. Attitudes toward the pace of modern life, new technology and healthy living all showed similar harmony between the very youngest and oldest of those surveyed.

Armed with this research, TAONR is now seeking to develop an intergenerational approach to design and communications. It has looked back to the principles of Universal Design and in particular to the work of Pattie Moore.

Some of the results of recent research carried out by TAONR and Tapestry that reveal a surprising level of consistency in attitudes across age groups, undermining some of our assumptions about older people
Some of the results of recent research carried out by TAONR and Tapestry that reveal a surprising level of consistency in attitudes across age groups, undermining some of our assumptions about older people

For three years in the late 70s and early 80s, the American industrial designer and gerontologist (one who studies the effects of ageing) famously travelled throughout the US disguised as various women in their 80s – from the wealthiest to the poorest in society. Her experiment revealed some of the challenges faced by older people which Moore believed could be met by design. In fact, she has argued, design actually contributes to the restricted abilities of older people experiencing physiological change. “When these familiar and predictable physical changes combine with everyday challenges, our quality of life, our autonomy hang in the balance. We are actually made unable, by design,” she has said.

Following Moore’s work and a body of research and thinking around ‘design for all’ dating back to the 60s, in 1997, a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers at North Carolina State University formalised Seven Principles of Universal Design. The Principles called for design that enabled the equitable use of products and services by all, flexibility in their use, that products and services should be simple and intuitive, provide perceptible information, have a tolerance for error in use, require low physical effort and that designs should  be at a size and allow for such space that would allow their use regardless of a user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Universal Design has had some notable successes – in particular the Ford Focus which was famously designed with the needs of older people in mind. For the 2000 model, Ford’s designers and engineers developed a Third Age Suit to mimic some of the effects of ageing, based on research initially organised by Age Concern. Strength and flexibility were reduced by up to 24% when wearing the suit, which also made it much more difficult to get in and out of the car. The Focus has consistently been the bestselling car in the world. Much of its success has been attributed to the fact that it was designed for all.

Despite exemplary case studies such as the Ford Focus and products like the OXO hand grips, TAONR argue that the application of Universal Design remains an exception. Possibly this because of a perceived image problem – that universal design is about box-ticking or somehow too ‘worthy’. However, they argue that it offers the solution to the challenges posed by the socio-cultural changes of today: “The principles of age-inclusive design match the driving forces of customer satisfaction and business success nowadays,” they claim. In its research, TAONR asked respondents to measure current sectors’ performance against the principles of Universal Design: many failed badly.

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At Age Does Not Matter, an event in London at the end of September, TAONR hope to revisit the seven principles devised in 1997 and create an updated list of ten principles that will acknowledge the impact of new technology in the intervening years. The organisation will then seek to work with organisations to help them apply those principles in the service of creating truly age-neutral products and services.

“The breakdown of age boundaries in society is happening faster than the way most organisations see and address it,” TAONR say. “It’s not that age segments no longer exist, but that they exist in much more fluid terms than they ever did before. Also it is about how people want to perceive themselves and reject stereotypes. Universal or age-inclusive design is the future of design. It is people-centric and not product-centric, has a lifetime value, and benefits everyone, at any age.”


Age Does Not Matter, The Age of No Retirement’s four day conference, will be at The Bargehouse, London SE1 , from September 28 until October 1. See ageofnoretirement.org 

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