When Whirlpool created its first line of front-loading washers, designers came up with a simple but ingenious idea: to put the appliance atop a 10- to 15-inch pedestal. Users would no longer have to bend so deeply to load their clothes or to fish out the last sock from the back of the drum. The change was ideal for older people and those with bad backs, but it also made the washer easier for everyone to use. That’s a core principle of an approach known as “universal design.”
“It’s all about accommodating a range of abilities,” says Doug Beaudet, global director for user experience and interaction design at Whirlpool. The company has employed the concept of universal design to create a number of features that make its appliances easier to use, such as adding both visual and audio cues to indicate wash choices or signal when a cycle is over.
This philosophy has infused more and more of design over the last decade. “It doesn’t matter if you’re designing a mobile device or a medical monitor—the principles are the same,” says William Gribbons, director of the graduate program in human factors and information design at Bentley University. “You want to think about how people physically interact with the product.”
While universal design doesn’t specifically mean designing for the aging population, that approach has inspired a number of products that turned out to be more broadly useful. Oxo cooking and gardening tools, for example, were initially designed for older people who had difficulty gripping handles of standard tools. But the company soon found that its handles had wider appeal, says Gribbons. Whirlpool has also implemented this approach in its latest refrigerators. Whereas traditional refrigerators are lit by a single bulb, leaving many items on lower shelves in shadows that make it hard for many people to see, the new models have LED lighting along the sides.
Achieving a successful universal design can be tricky. The Jitterbug phone, an extremely easy-to-use phone geared primarily for older people, did well in part because the device also attracted the interest of parents who wanted to give their children a simple phone for safety reasons. However, other phones aimed at aging people have failed, including ones with very large buttons. “Aesthetically, this generation is becoming more demanding,” says Gribbons. “They want improved functionality, but they don’t want something that reminds them they are old. That places increased demand on product designers.”
Gribbons believes that cars are ripe for the application of universal design. “The automotive industry has ignored the fact that they are creating a vehicle that is very difficult for the elderly to use,” he says. Many of the latest vehicles, for example, have touch screens with rows of small, low-contrast buttons. “If we improve some of those design issues,” he says, “we would not just make cars safer for the elderly. We would also make them safe for others.”