Beyond beige: Old people don’t have to look dated or dull

From tablets to ‘sports’ canes and simple MP3 players, specialist brands are proving that products for older people don’t have to look dated and dull. Welcome to the world beyond beige

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Sabi’s Roam Sports Cane, priced at £36, offers a more modern alternative to the traditional walking stick. It’s made from aluminium coated in rubber and comes in a choice of four colours

 
Traditionally, products aimed at older consumers have been restricted to items targeting health or mobility, usually sold through specialist stores or advertised in Sunday supplements next to spreads promoting bed sheets and chinos. But with the population getting older, and the older getting richer, there’s a growing market for well-made, everyday objects that take into account how our shopping needs might change as we age.Think of a product designed for older people, and what comes to mind? A Stannah stairlift, a remote with giant buttons, a reclining armchair, probably in beige? It’s a common assumption, but what if the phrase simply meant everyday products designed with an older market’s needs in mind, instead of just people in their 20s and 30s?

Spring Chicken is a website founded by Anna James, ex-marketing director at Mothercare, which sells products aimed at “making life easier and brighter as you get older”. Alongside traditional fare targeting reduced health, vision and mobility, it stocks gadgets, tech and homeware designed to offer a more user-friendly alternative to leading mainstream products.

James launched Spring Chicken with help from designer Michael Wolff and business partner Sarah Boyle after noticing a lack of innovation in the older market. “When I was at Mothercare, a lot of suppliers were making products for children and older adults – Oxo makes products for infants as well as Good Grips kitchenware – but there just wasn’t the same level of innovation in this area as we had seen in the baby and toddler market,” she explains.

A few years later, when her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, she struggled to find products to suit his needs that were designed with form as well as function in mind, which led to the idea for Spring Chicken. “We had started to see some bright and colourful walking sticks, so it felt like there was the beginnings of something, but most products were designed from a healthcare perspective, rather than a fashion or lifestyle one,” she adds.

Kindle device set to a 36-point typeface
Kindle device set to a 36-point typeface

As James points out, there are a number of reasons why products aimed at older people have traditionally been hard to find, dated or downright ugly: for a start, items aimed at people with health or mobility issues are often prescribed by local authorities and the NHS, meaning users are less demanding. “If you are given a shower stool for example, you’re going to be much less critical of its design than you would be if you were buying it for yourself,” she adds.

It also means less incentive for companies to invest in innovative products: traditionally, over 65s have been seen as having less disposable income, but with 79% of the UK’s wealth now attributed to the over 50s, it’s becoming a lucrative market. Older consumers’ needs might change, but it doesn’t mean they stop caring about how things look or work, and Spring Chicken’s stock is proof we are beginning to see more stylish alternatives to the traditional fare associated with products for older people.

One of the areas James sees particular growth in is technology, in particular, streamlined remotes, mobiles and tablet devices, that offer a more simplified experience than iPads and iPhones (which can often be difficult for older people to use due to small buttons and text sizes, as well as interfaces which assume a level of familiarity with touchscreen devices).

Visbuzz, for example, is a tablet which allows users to make video calls, while Myhomehelper, which is primarily aimed at dementia patients, offers a simplified version of the usual functions found in a tablet. Users can check the date and time, any appointments or plans they have for that day, view photos, browse the news and, again, make video calls.

Monitored Centrapulse Limmex Emergency GPS watch, a Swiss-made watch for people with dementia which is fitted with GPS tracking and connected to an emergency call centre
Monitored Centrapulse Limmex Emergency GPS watch, a Swiss-made watch for people with dementia which is fitted with GPS tracking and connected to an emergency call centre

Telecoms brand Doro has also launched a range of mobiles that have larger buttons, bigger screens and text sizes than smartphones but are also surprisingly slimline, and some of Spring Chicken’s biggest selling products are minimalist MP3 players, radios and record players. Some are designed specifically for people with dementia, while others simply feature less buttons and dials than mainstream competitors.

Several brands have also launched personal alarms offering a more modern alternative to dated wristbands and pendants – such as US start-up Lively, which recently launched a safety watch and home hub system. The watch includes a pedometer and reminder function as well as an emergency response button, while the home hub is connected to a series of discreet sensors which monitor movement around the home, alerting relatives or carers if activity has been unusually low.

 Doro's PhoneEasy 508
Doro’s PhoneEasy 508

Part of Lively’s success, aside from its minimal design, lies in its positioning. The home hub isn’t described as an alarm, but a device that aims to give users more independence by letting their families know how they are, without making them feel like they’re being watched. The watch, meanwhile, looks more like an expensive smartwatch than an alarm. Lively’s products were designed based on feedback from focus groups, in which people complained that products for the over 75s are rarely nicely designed. “It’s a great example of taking something traditional like a pendant alarm, thinking about the end user, and saying, ‘OK, how can we make it better?” says James.

There is also a growing need for health management products, particularly medicine management, explains James: Sabi makes minimal pill boxes and crushers, while Pivotell’s automatic dispensers alert users via vibrations, lights or an alarm when they need to take medicine. Spring Chicken also sells a range of organisers aimed at helping people (particularly those with more complex health needs, who have to take pills at several different times of day) to remember what they’ve taken and when.

For consumers with reduced mobility, or those who just need occasional support getting around, James says there are an increasing number of companies offering bright and cheerful alternatives to NHS-standard crutches, walkers and wheelchairs. The Let’s Go Rollator, for example, is a small and flexible walking frame designed to fit through narrow doorways and around corners, and can be easily folded away when not in use, while Sabis sports canes come in a range of colours and a sleek design.

One area which is lagging behind others in terms of innovation, however, is the home. “There are some innovative companies, but there’s still huge work to be done,” says James. “We sell a number of nice looking shopper stalls and those kind of things, but when it comes to products for less mobile people, like over bed trays, we struggle to find ones that are good looking and affordable, and I think there’s a real gap for nicely designed, multi-use furniture,” she adds.

Sabi's Thrive range includes colourful pill organisers, cutters and crushers, available at sabi.com and Spring Chicken
Sabi’s Thrive range includes colourful pill organisers, cutters and crushers, available at sabi.com and Spring Chicken

While many of Spring Chicken’s products are sourced from UK and US companies, including traditional mobility product suppliers, some were invented by individuals as a solution to a personal problem or one experienced by a friend or relative. Others have been created by professionals in response to problems encountered in their line of work – such as the SoleSee, an angled mirror allowing people to examine the soles of their feet, invented by shoe fitter Lisa Preston.

Preston had the idea for the product after meeting several diabetics who had failed to spot abrasions and skin damage on their heels and soles, and later experienced infections, ulcers and even amputations.

“We look for products everywhere – we’re at trade shows, scouring the internet, and really trying to build a product network all over the world,” says James. “We work with traditional companies as well as brands like Doro, who have built quite a wide niche selling their range of mobiles, and businesses who just sell a single great product like Lively. But we’re also trying to work with institutions that foster innovation [such as Coventry University’s Health Design and Technology Institute], helping any innovative product we can with a route to market.”

While major brands are becoming increasingly aware of the need to cater for older consumers, however, there is still a reluctance among bigger department stores and retailers to stock products specifically targeting them. This is understandable – as James points out, not all people of a certain age need to buy specialist products, and companies don’t want to suggest their core products might not be of use to older consumers – but it seems there is an increasing awareness of the need to design with older people in mind, and a growing number of companies specialising in creating products for the older market.

So will we ever see an older people’s section of John Lewis, with a similar level of choice as its baby and parent sections? Or simply more products aimed at older people on shelves alongside leading brands in mainstream retailers? It’s a difficult issue for brands – an older people’s section could either be seen as a positive statement, giving older consumers the same level of choice and variety as they have at any other stage of their life, and acknowledging the growing number of people experiencing particular health conditions in later life, or it could be seen as ghettoising products for the old.

James thinks it’s unlikely we’ll see an older floor of a high street store any time soon, but she does think we will start to see a more inclusive approach to mainstream product design, as well as products for health and mobility issues stocked in more places, as more consumers come to need them.

MP3 player designed in collaboration with Bath Institute of Medical Engineering for people with dementia
MP3 player designed in collaboration with Bath Institute of Medical Engineering for people with dementia
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“With mobility and dementia, there is a growing need for products which isn’t currently met by mainstream retailers, and I think that’s where we will see new items spring up in major stores. For example, I think we will see walking frames and wheelchairs in John Lewis,” she explains. “I think we’ll also see some categories for older people stocked alongside mainstream offerings in stores – Doro is stocked in Carphone Warehouse, for example. But I think what we’ll see even more of is inclusive design taking over, and people thinking about a wider user group when they make products, not just young people,” she adds.

As sites like Spring Chicken demonstrate, there’s a real need for items which deal with some of the issues we face as we get older – but there’s also huge potential for products that simply make it a little easier for people to go about their daily life and do the things they enjoy, whether they’re 45, 75 or 95. And if you are an older consumer, there’s no reason those products have to be beige.

springchicken.co.uk

 Indoor Rollator made by Let's Go
Indoor Rollator made by Let’s Go

Making tech work for older people

The tech industry often talks about ‘making people’s lives better’ but bad design is excluding whole sections of the population from the benefits of technology, says Ollie Campbell, co-founder of digital studio Navy Design. Here, the Melbourne-based designer highlights seven things to bear in mind when designing tech for older people

Consider this: By 2030 around 19% of people in the US will be over 65. Doesn’t sound like a lot? Well, it happens to be about the same number of people in the US who own an iPhone today. But which of these two groups do you think Silicon Valley spends more time thinking about? This seems unfortunate when you consider all the things technology has to offer older people. While the ageing process is different for everyone, there are some fundamental changes that we all go through – and not all of them are what you’d expect. For example, while health concerns may increase, older people tend to be significantly happier and better at appreciating what they have. But ageing can make some things harder to do – and one of those things is using technology. So if you’re designing tech for older people, here are seven key things you need to know.

1. Vision and hearing

From about the age of 40, the lens of the eye begins to harden, causing a condition called presbyopia. This is a normal part of ageing which makes it increasingly difficult to read text that is small and close. Colour vision also declines with age, and we become worse at distinguishing between colours that are similar to each other. In particular, shades of blue appear to be faded or desaturated. Hearing also declines in predictable ways, and a large proportion of people over 65 have some form of hearing loss. While audio is seldom fundamental to interaction with a product, there are implications for certain types of content.

■ Avoid font sizes smaller than 16px (depending of course on device, viewing distance, line height etc.)
■ Let people adjust text size themselves
■ Pay particular attention to contrast ratios for text
■ Avoid blue for important interface elements
■ Always test your product using screen readers
■ Provide subtitles when video or audio content is fundamental to the user experience

2. Motor control

Our motor skills decline with age, which makes it harder to use computers in various ways. For example, during some user testing at a retirement village, we saw an 80 year-old who always used the mouse with two hands. Like many older people, she had a lot of trouble hitting interface targets and moving from one thing to the next. In the general population, a mouse is more accurate than a finger. But in our user testing, we’ve seen older people perform better using touch interfaces. This is consistent with research that shows that finger tapping declines later than some other motor skills.

■ Reduce the distance between interface elements likely to be used in sequence (like form fields), but make sure they’re at least 2mm apart
■ Buttons on touch interfaces should be at least 9.6mm diagonally (eg 44 x 44px
on an iPad) for ages up to 70, and larger for older people
■ Interface elements to be clicked on with a mouse (eg forms and buttons) should be at least 11mm diagonally
■ Pay attention to sizing in human interface guidelines (Luke Wroblewski has created a good round-up of guidelines at lukew.com for different platforms)

3. Device use

“If you want to predict the future, just look at what middle-class American teens are doing. Right now, they’re using their mobile phones for everything,” Dustin Curtis, designer and developer.

It’s safe to assume Dustin has never watched a 75 year-old using a mobile phone. Eventually, changes in vision and motor control make small screens impractical for everyone. Smartphones are a young person’s tool and not even the coolest teenager can escape their biological destiny. In our research, older people consistently describe phones as “annoying” and “fiddly”. Those who own them seldom use them, often not touching them for days at a time. They often ignore SMSs entirely. But older people aren’t afraid of trying new technology when they can see a clear benefit. For example, older people are the largest users of tablets. This makes sense when you consider the defining difference between a tablet and a phone: screen size. The recent slump in tablet sales also makes sense if you accept that older people have longer upgrade cycles than younger ones.

■ Avoid small screen devices (ie phones)
■ Don’t rely on SMS for conveying important information

4. Relationships

Older people have different relationships than young people, at least partly because they’ve had more time to cultivate them. For example, we conducted some research in how older people interacted with health care professionals. In many cases, they’ve seen the same doctors for decades, leading to a very high degree of trust. But due to health and mobility issues, the world available to the elderly can often be smaller – both physically and socially. Digital technology has an obvious role to play here, by connecting people virtually when being in the same room is hard.

■ Enable connection with a smaller, more important group of people (not a big, unimportant social network)
■ Don’t overemphasise security and privacy controls when dealing with trusted people
■ Be sensitive to issues of isolation

5. Life stage

During a user testing session, I sat with a 66-year-old as she signed up for an AppleID. She was asked to complete a series of security questions. She read the first question out loud. “What was the model of your first car?” She laughed. “I have no idea! What car did I have in 1968? What a stupid question!”. It’s natural for a 30 year-old programmer to assume this question has meaning for everyone, but it contains an implicit assumption about which life stage the user is at. Don’t make the same mistake in your design.

■ Beware of content or functionality which implicitly assumes someone is young, or at a certain stage in their life

6. Experience with technology

I once sat with a man in his 80s as he used a library interface. “I know there are things down there that I want to read,” he said, gesturing to the bottom of the screen, “but I can’t figure out how to get to them.” After I taught him how to use a scrollbar, his experience changed completely. In another session, two of the older participants told me that they’d never used a search field before.
Generally when you’re designing interfaces, you’re working within a certain scaffolding. And it’s easy to assume that everyone knows how that scaffolding works. But people who didn’t grow up with computers may have never used the interface elements we take for granted. Is a scrollbar a good design for moving content up and down? Is its function self evident? These aren’t questions most designers often ask. But the success of your design can depend on a thousand parts
of the interface you can’t control and probably aren’t even aware of.

■ Don’t make assumptions about prior knowledge
■ Interrogate all parts of your design for usability; even the parts you didn’t create

7. Cognition

The science of cognition is a huge topic, and ageing changes how we think in unpredictable ways. Some people are razor sharp in their 80s, while others can suffer decline as early their 60s. Despite this variability, there are three areas which are particularly relevant to designing for the elderly: memory, attention and decision making. (For a more comprehensive view of cognitive change with age, the first chapter of Elizabeth L Glisky’s Brain Aging: Models, Methods, and Mechanisms is a great place to start.)

a. Memory

There are different kinds of memory, and they’re affected differently by the ageing process. For example, procedural memory (that is, remembering how to do things) is generally unaffected. People of all ages are able to learn new skills and reproduce them over time. But other types of memory suffer as we age. Short term memory and episodic memory are particularly vulnerable. And although the causes are unclear, older people often have difficulty manipulating the contents of their working memory. This means that they may have trouble understanding how to combine complex new concepts in a product or interface. Prospective memory (remembering to do something in the future) also suffers. This is particularly relevant for habitual tasks like remembering to take medication at the right time every day. How do people manage this decline? In our research, we’ve found that paper is king. Older people almost exclusively use calendars and diaries to supplement their memory. But well designed technology has great potential to provide cues for these important actions.

■ Introduce product features gradually over time to avoid cognitive overload
■ Avoid splitting tasks across multiple screens if they require memory of previous actions
■ During longer tasks, give clear feedback on progress and reminders of goals
■ Provide reminders as cues for habitual actions

b. Attention

It’s easy to view ageing in terms of decline. But in our research we’ve observed one big advantage: elderly people consistently excel in attention span, persistence and thoroughness. Jakob Nielsen has observed similar things, finding that 95% of seniors are “methodical” in their behaviours. This is significant in a world where the average person’s attention span has dropped below the level of a goldfish. It can be a great feeling to watch an older user really take the time to explore your design during a user testing session. And it means that older people often find things that younger people skip right over. I often find myself admiring this way of interacting with the world. But the obvious downside of a slower pace is increased time to complete tasks. Older people are also less adept at dividing their attention between multiple tasks. In a world obsessed with multi-tasking, this can seem like a disadvantage. But since multi-tasking is probably a bad idea in the first place, designing products which help people focus on one thing at a time can have benefits for all age groups.

■ Don’t be afraid of long-form text and deeper content
■ Allow for greater time intervals in interactions
(eg inactivity warnings)
■ Avoid dividing users’ attention between multiple tasks or parts of the screen

c. Decision making

Young people tend to weigh up lots of options before eventually settling on one. But older people make decisions a bit differently. They tend to emphasise prior knowledge (perhaps because they’ve had time to accumulate it). And they give more weight to expert opinion (eg their doctor for medical decisions). The exact reason for this is unclear, but it may be due to other cognitive limitations that make comparing new options more difficult.

■ Prioritise shortcuts to previous choices ahead of new alternatives to consider
■ Information framed as expert opinion may be more persuasive (but don’t abuse this power)

Ollie Campbell is co-founder of Navy Design in Melbourne. This article originally appeared on navydesign.com.au and is republished with permission

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