Get to grips

Designers should be creating products and services which are accessible to everyone – however able-bodied. It’s not only the law, it’s commercial sense.

“Sex can be a problem – Helen’s a screamer.” This poster for a recent Government initiative tried to encourage the world to “see the person”. Forget being right-on and worthy: it’s about to become an absolute commercial imperative to be able to see those with disabilities – or with grey hair and glasses – as part of your design constituency, and to create products and services that don’t exclude sections of the population. It’s also the law.

Everything from cashpoints and kitchen implements to retail environments and transport systems will have to become more inclusive, whether by the carrot or the stick.

To date, design for older people or those with disabilities has been pretty substandard. This is partly because “there are relatively few professional designers involved in this field,” says Chris Ramsden, the Chartered Society of Designers’ vice-president responsible for health, disability and inclusive design. “Designers see it as stigmatising to work in this area,” he adds.

Also, says Roger Coleman, a senior research fellow at the Royal College of Art and co-director of the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, politics has hindered more inclusive design. “In the past we’ve always approached this by dividing the population into two groups: normal, and special. This comes from a state-supported welfare sort of thinking. The mindset is a fundamental chunk of the problem,” he says.

“Statistics tend to reinforce that view. Our assessment of disability is related to who’s entitled to benefits. The reality is that there’s a continuum of capability during our life course. At the end of the lifescale, all sorts of minor changes start to add up and have considerable impact on our lives,” he adds.

However you feel about statistics, you can’t ignore these (from the Design Council’s Design Horizons website): in the UK, the over-50s control 80 per cent of wealth. We also have 80m people who are hard of hearing , 11.5m with poor vision, 22.5m with reduced strength and 45m who can’t walk without aid.

The Audit Commission’s Fully Equipped report, released in March, concluded that equipment publicly provided to older or disabled people “is not always of a reasonable quality”, says Coleman. “It doesn’t work and it’s a waste of money.” Ramsden agrees: “Baby boomers are reaching the age where they won’t accept the crap that’s available at the moment. There’s a higher level of design awareness than we’ve ever had.”

The challenge for design, from wheelchairs to websites, is to see beyond the stigma and the statistics, and become more human-centred, more focused on usability. It’s not as complex as it might seem. “It isn’t ‘disabled and not disabled’,” says Professor Alan Newell, head of the University of Dundee’s Applied Computing department. “It’s a continuum – you’re reduced functionally.”

Think of it this way, says Newell, “A soldier on the battlefield. He’s impaired: visually by smoke, aurally by bombs exploding, cognitively because someone’s shooting at him and physically because he’s wearing a heavy flak jacket. He’s very disabled without even being shot yet – but you wouldn’t call him disabled.” Just an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation.

Designing for our ordinary soldier, or for pilots or astronauts, says Newell – “ordinary people handicapped by their environments” – is no different from designing for “extraordinary people operating in ordinary situations”: those with disabilities, or older people, for example.

Coleman puts it another way: “There are times in everyone’s lives when they find themselves temporarily disabled. Your hearing is best when you’re in your teens; the peak of your visual acuity is in your 20s.” Pregnancy and injuries, too, can reduce functionality.

Part of the solution, then, is to redefine what’s “normal” to include “all the people who in the natural progression of their life-course move into and back out of having limited capabilities”, says Coleman, “and all of the older people who experience accumulated ‘multiple minor impairments’ – changes to vision, hearing, joint articulation and such like.”

Economically, designers can no longer afford to be exclusive, for many reasons. Products for the less-abled often have enormously successful mass-market spin-offs. If it weren’t for the vision impaired, for example, we might still be using the reel-to-reel. “The cassette recorder was invented by a firm making talking books,” says Newell. “The first typewriter was invented for a blind Italian countess.” The ball-point pen, the remote control and the flip-top rubbish bin all have similar origins. Tegic Communications developed T9, an intuitive text-input technology now found in mobile phones, out of research on reduced keyboards for people who couldn’t cope with full alphanumeric ones.

Also, designing for less-able people often engenders products and services that are better for everyone, thus expanding your market. “It’s all about identifying critical user groups and making sure you’ve accommodated their needs,” says Coleman. “At best, you get better products for everybody. At least, you have included user groups who in the past would have been excluded.”

Dr Andrew Monk, chairman of the British HCI (human-computer interaction) Group, seconds this view: “If you can make a system usable for someone with a poor short-term memory, that’s good for everyone. If you want to make interesting, useful products, you need to understand what people want to do with this technology, and that’s particularly true for the disabled and the elderly. They have different requirements.”

Designing inclusively “is definitely a business growth opportunity”, says Dr Andreas Fructl, development manager for knowledge at the Design Council. “Now, people design products for 25- to 40-year-olds. Only 29 per cent of the FTSE 100 companies think they should produce products and services for the elderly, but by 2020 over 50 per cent of the population will be aged 50 and over.”

Companies with a clear view of the future, says Fructl, already know that creating products and services for these niche markets is a necessity and “a business growth opportunity that will definitely increase market share. In five years time, companies won’t be able to avoid it any longer.” Coleman adds: “The numbers make it cease to be a commercial advantage; it becomes a commercial imperative, like e-commerce.”

Exclusive design not only no longer makes good economic sense – it’s also becoming illegal. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 mandated that as of October 1996, it became unlawful for companies to treat people less favourably or discriminate on the basis of disability. By October 1999, companies (employers, retailers, service providers) had to make “reasonable adjustment”.

A Disability Rights Commission spokesman describes reasonable adjustment as “being creative – if you have an employee with impaired mobility, is there a way to convert your downstairs storage cupboard into a disabled-accessible loo? If you sell clothes on the second floor, could a member of staff go upstairs and bring items down to a customer? It’s an issue of how easily that service or product is available to a disabled person. If you’ve got a flashy looking jar of pickles with a lid that’s difficult to get off, you could be affected by the DDA.”

As of October 2004, service providers may have to make other reasonable adjustments in relation to the physical features of their premises; the code of practice that will determine what is within the law will be up for consultation as of the end of May 2000. Also, the European Commission last year mandated that European standards bodies must address the needs of the ageing and disabled when drawing up standards, and has established a working party.

There are two main approaches to human-centred design. “One is very much a technologist’s view,” says Monk, “that if you’re old and arthritic you want really big buttons, big fonts, and that because older people may have cognitive disabilities you allow for short-term memory lapses. And there’s some value in that. A more interesting approach is to ask, ‘What do these people really want? Might they not want what we want at all?’ They might want a different kind of mobile device – for example, an alarm system. Perhaps the way they want to communicate with it is different from a teenager, or a yuppie. Not, ‘They’re just like us but stupider’, but, ‘They’re extraordinary users’.”

Doing research for BT in 1998 into telephone dialing problems, Coleman found exactly this. The user groups said to him, “But we don’t want a special phone – why can’t phones just be better?” A spokeswoman from Age Concern adds, “BT brought out a big-button telephone, and they find it sells just as well to younger people though it was designed for older people.”

Similarly, reasonable adjustment is often a highly commercial proposition. One British bus company found that introducing “kneeling” buses increased its passenger throughtake by 15 per cent – not only disabled and older passengers, but parents with prams. The spokesman argues, “Design, by its very nature, is full of people who use their creativity. We want them to take that extra step and include all sections of the community in their design work, be it products or packaging.”

Swedish consultancy Ergonomi Design Gruppen began taking a more inclusive approach to design in the early 1970s, when the Swedish institute for the handicapped commissioned Ergonomi to design a knife it could provide to those with arthritis or weak hands.

“It was a kitchen knife more like a kitchen saw, so you can keep your wrist straight,” says Maria Benktzon, an industrial designer at Ergonomi. The knife also went into commercial production: today, Finnish firm Hackman manufactures it. “For someone with normal function, it’s useful for cutting bread and so on, though it doesn’t give precision. It has proved it’s possible to make products for a wider range of people, starting from the requirements of people with disabilities.”

Over a decade ago, Ergonomi also designed a coffee pot for SAS’s flight staff. “Cabin attendants had problems with their hands and arms serving with a traditional coffee pot. The new coffee pot used the same basic principles – it could have been designed for people with weak hands, but it’s actually a working tool.”

Benktzon adds, “It doesn’t necessarily sell better if you have this approach – it has to be well-designed in order to sell well.” Ergonomi has also designed a series of knives for Tupperware “that are more or less universal”.

Retail environments, too, have come under greater scrutiny. Tesco head of design Jeremy Lindley says Tesco is “already there” implementing changes in line with the DDA. “It’s the smaller issues of consideration of ageing and differing abilities that matter. The phrase I use with my team is, ‘Don’t think about it as designing for other people, think about it as designing for your future self’,” he says.

“There are important economic and turnover reasons why we do these things,” says Lindley. “It isn’t just about being nice to people in wheelchairs. We design for mass markets, so we have to consider a range of abilities. The economic importance of the ageing is that they’re just a less-abled version of the young.”

Tesco’s signage policy provides an example. “It looks at how to reflect our brand, researching and understanding how long people look at signs, and how they see – how eyesight changes as you age. You need three times the contrast to read something at 60 than you did at 30. It’s great if signage is beautiful and artistic, but if it’s not functional, it’s of no use,” says Lindley.

“If you design something easier to use for someone who has arthritic fingers and can’t apply much pressure, it’s across-the-board easier to use. One of our innovations is a variety of different kinds of trolley. At any stage of your life, there should be a trolley for you.” Big trolleys, little trolleys, trolleys that attach to a wheelchair, or hold a single baby, or two babies, or a single baby and a child – 13 types in all.

“We’re just about to trial one which has got a little seat on the back, following feedback from our elderly customers,” says Lindley. They’ll let customers stop in the aisle when they’re tired. “When you sit on it, the wheels collapse so it won’t move. It’s not a fantastic design innovation, but every little helps.”

Coleman sums up the case for inclusive design thus: “The convergence of older people with diminished capability and younger, disabled people means we can produce well-designed, carefully targeted products that improve life quality and don’t carry a stigma, that people want to use.” As legislation and regulations become uniform across the European Union, he adds: “This very, very big marketplace for niche products will develop, and design investment becomes worthwhile.”

Related URLs

Design Council’s Design Horizons


Joint Mobility Unit

Disability Rights Commission (formerly National Disability Council and DARAS, Disability Access Rights Advice Service)

Government’s disability site


Can You Hear Us conference in Leeds

Audit Commission’s Fully Equipped report

Department of Transport’s Kneeling Buses report

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