Product Design for Elderly

  • Update:2013-11-22
  • Arthur O. Eger, Huub Mulhof

The population in Western countries is growing older. In the second part of this century, about one third of the people there will be 55 years or older. Many of them will have made a successful career and will have a lot of money to spend. This makes them an interesting target group, amongst others for product designers. At the moment older people are often approached as one big, homogeneous group. In the past this may have worked, but for the present, very critical baby boom generation, it will most likely not. They have different opinions, different requirements and do not want to be treated as one homogeneous group. Present research and product development is mainly aimed at helping people with flaws, based on the idea that people become needier when they get older. For a small part of this group this is certainly true, however these flaws do not come to everyone at the same time. In this paper a design method will be presented that makes it possible to design for different, elderly target groups, taking into account their formative years (between 15-25 years), the influence of their age and the present.
To test the method, six designs for radios were created and discussed with members of the target group. Ten persons participated in this test; nine of them selected one of the mood boards that was created to represent their formative years. Five of them chose the design that was intended for them as their favourite.

The world population is growing older, especially in the Western countries. Not only the number of elderly people is rising, besides that, their life expectancy grows and they remain healthy much longer. At present there are 7 billion people living on Earth. The expectation is that the growth will continue up to about 9 billion in 2050 (Fresco, 2012). After that the growth will come to a halt and a decline will start. For both the 22nd and 23rd century a - sometimes strong - decline is expected. According to some predictions for example in 2200 Italy will have no more than one million inhabitants. The growth for the coming years will mainly take place in Africa and Asia (figures 1 and 2). The stagnation has already started in many parts of Europe and North America (figures 3 and 4). In the second half of this century in the Western part of the world one third of the population will be over 55 years. Many members of this age group will have made a quite successful career and will therefore have a big amount of money to spend. This makes them an interesting target group for products and services aimed at their requirements.

55 Years
For many people the age of 55 is a psychological turning point in their lives (Eger, 2012; Mulhof, 2007). Their children are leaving or have left the house. Their role in the family changes from parent to grandparent. They are aware of their mortality (often one or both of their parents have passed away), worry about their health, and work to improve it. Many of them will be retiring, and as most of them have taken good care of themselves, they have a lot of money and time to spend. They do not plan to save this money for their children. They are assertive and critical; they want to enjoy the rest of their lives, but they also want to give it meaning (fulfilment).

Design for Elderly
Until recently elderly people were treated as one big, homogeneous target group. Present research and (product) developments for elderly are mainly aimed at overcoming the deficiencies of old age. Research is based on the premise that old age comes with deficiencies. And although there is some truth in this, for most people these deficiencies come many years later: It is not until the age of 75 before 50% of the (Dutch) population have minor flaws and only about 10-15% have major discomfort (figure 5) (Van den Berg Jeths, et al., 2004).

Functionality and meaning attribution
Product design is more than taking care that a product performs well, and is easy to handle. Designers will, be it consciously or subconsciously, attribute meaning to a design. Each shape, whether manmade or not, has both functional and experiential aspects. Functional aspects concern the usability or applicability of the product’s appearance. The emotional aspects relate to the appreciation for the appearance (aesthetics) and the meaning of the appearance (semantics).
Desmet (2000) distinguishes four kinds of experiences. Based on Desmet’s research the following experiences can be formulated: Anticipation of usage or ownership; cultural meaning; aesthetic value; associative meaning. E.g. a watch can acquire meaning in one of several ways: through the brand (status: Rolex, Cartier, Swatch; i.e. the cultural meaning), through design and use of materials (aesthetic value), by built-in extras such as a stopwatch and an altitude meter (anticipation of usage), or because it was a present from Gran (associative meaning).
Often, the appreciation of a product will be a combination of several meanings. As mentioned before, until recently elderly were considered to belong to one homogeneous group. Only taking into account the age difference within this group - between 55 and over 85 – makes this very unlikely. It therefore makes sense to take a closer look at this group. Based on only their demographic characteristics this group can be segmented in four age categories (Eger, 2012; Mulhof, 2007; Foot, 1996). These groups can be further segmented based on their opinions, norms and values (Motivaction, 2009; Schlossberg, 2003).

New Seniors, 50 – 59 years
The new seniors do not consider themselves to be elderly and don’t want to be addressed as such. Most of them are still working, their career is running smoothly while their expenses decrease. Their children start living on their own, or have already left the house, their mortgage is nearly paid off and many of the products they have are good enough and don’t need replacing. They prefer to spend their money on vacations, going out for dinner, visiting concerts or theatre performances. They prefer faraway, exclusive holiday destinations. They are interested in the economy, technology, new media.

Young Seniors, 60 – 69 years
The Young Seniors have both time and money. Their children have left the nest. Young Seniors want good quality and service. Many of them will be retiring, and as most of them have taken good care of themselves, they have a lot of money to spend and a lot of time to spend it. They do not plan to save this money for their children. They are assertive and critical; they want to enjoy the rest of their lives, but they also want to give it meaning (fulfilment). They have sufficient experience with products of poor quality to have become very critical and appreciative of good quality. With regard to clothing, they know what fits and suits them and they are willing to pay for it. They need good financial advice about how to invest their money (private banking). They are aware of their mortality (often one or both of their parents have passed away), worry about their health, and work to improve it.

Seniors, 70 – 79 years
The Seniors are – to a great extent – comparable to the Young Seniors. However, they develop more and more problems with their health. Their need for medication slowly grows, whereas their mobility slowly decreases. In this period 30% of them gets major flaws and about 80% has at least some problems - although not always severe - with their health. They have accepted being elderly and don’t mind too much being treated that way.

Elderly, 80+ years
The close circle of this group is getting small. Their friends and relatives die, their mobility diminishes. Their need for medication grows. They start to strike a balance of their lives. In this group women have the upper hand in number.

Three effects/influences
Time has influence on the way people live, on their values and lifestyles, and on the way they behave. Besides the afore mentioned demographic shifts, other factors play a role as well. The following three different effects can be distinguished: the cohort effect, the effect of the present period (shortly: the present) and the age effect. In sociology these effects are usually studied separately (Mannheim, 1952; Becker, 1992; Van den Broek, 2001). In this research however it is presumed that they all have their influence, although their relative importance may differ among individuals and across situations. In the following sections the three effects will be elaborated and discussed.

The Cohort Effect
In the conception of the cohort effect it is supposed that most preferences, norms and values of people are formed in their so called formative period. A cohort is defined as a group of persons of the same age that had the same kind of experiences in their formative years. Although the age that is the most influential can differ between persons, usually it is assumed that this is the period between 15 and 25 years. An explanation for the importance of this period comes from what is called the reminiscence effect. Events that are experienced during this period, are generally remembered more often and better than events that took place before or after these years. In neurophysiologic perspective the brain and memory are in their best condition around the age of twenty. Furthermore between their 15th and their 25th most people have a lot of new and first experiences, that are often impressive and worth remembering. Things like their first relation, the first time they have sex, starting a study, their first job, starting to live on their own, etc. Amongst these first memories there are many facets that influence the rest of people’s lives, their identity, their career, their opinions and values.
A small experiment by Mulhof (2007) illustrates how the formative years can influence the ideas persons can have of the styling of a product. Twenty persons, varying in age between 19 and 82 years were asked to draw a radio. No requirements were given with regard to the kind of radio or to the quality of the drawings. In figure 6 some of the results are shown. As can be seen, the formative years do have an influence on their drawings. A remark has to be made with regard to the styling: the subjects of the experiment made drawings of the radio they owned, or wanted to own in their formative period. This does not necessarily mean that these products were introduced in that same period. The mood boards in the figures 7 give an impression of three formative periods.

The Present
Although ‘generation sociologists’ often suggest that the formative period determines the lives of people to a great extent, it seems improbable that later periods do not have any influence at all. The present period in which people live will most likely have its influence as well. Important events in the years between the formative years and the present may also have their consequences, think of a war, such as WWII or the Vietnam war. Another example of such an influence is the optimism in the fifties with regard to nuclear energy. This optimism slowly gave way to a much more critical opinion in the decennia that followed, because of the waste problem and disasters such as Tsjernobyl, and, more recently, Fukushima. It can be concluded that people’s preferences, opinions and values are mainly formed in their formative years, but that they sometimes change in the years that follow. This influence and the influence of the present can be assessed through market research. Doing market research in the present is common practice among industrial designers, so there is not much difference here compared to ‘normal’ design projects.

The Age Effect
The age effect has already been mentioned in the introduction and in the section about functionality and the attribution of meaning. Reaching a certain age has its effects on what is sometimes called the ‘big five’ (Huysmans, et al., 2004). The ‘big five’ are extroversion, kindness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to new experiences. Research has shown that older people become less extrovert, less neurotic and less open for new experiences, but more kind and conscientious (Aarendonk, 2003).
However, it is interesting to see how design can overcome some of these problems, in this case the diminishing openness for new experiences. As professor Job van Amerongen of the University of Twente said in his farewell speech on the 19th of October 2011 (Eger, 2012): ‘It is striking to see how my parents and in-laws aged between 88 and 93 learned how to use the iPad without much difficulty, even though my mother-in-law had never touched a computer before. Now she enjoys receiving and sending e-mails, Googling and listening to the radio on her iPad.’ (see Figure 8)

Combination of the three effects
The three effects described in the preceding section - the Cohort Effect, the Present and the Age Effect - are all used by sociologists to analyse societal changes. In this research we have tried to turn things around. We expect that all three effects influence the requirements of the senior target groups and will try to use them to create a method to better predict their demands and wishes. By taking all three effects into account, we hope to be able to design products that fulfil their requirements in a better way. In the next section we will show how this was done.

The Design Tool
The Cohort Effect, the Present and the Age Effect form the three parts of the design tool. An important element of the tool is the time line. As can be seen in figure 9, the Cohort Effect and the Present are described with the aid of the PESTLEAnalysis, a tool to reveal the factors in the external environment that influence a company and its products (Chapman, 2006). For our research we added styling - below we will call it PESTLE-S – because the existing PESTLE-analysis does not take form giving or styling into account. For our research however this is a very important aspect, as we will show later on. The Cohort Effect and the Present are studied, based on the PESTLE-S-Analysis. The Cohort Effect is visualised by means of a database (Mulhof, 2007). In this database pictures with short descriptions of important events of the period between 1945 and 1975 are stored. By taking the date of birth as a starting point (in figure 9 this is 1950), events from the formative years can be selected (in figure 9 this is the period between 1965 and 1975). By combining these events and pictures in a mood board, an impression of the formative years can be given. It is possible to make selections, the database will refer to related events, which means that different mood boards for people with different interests in their formative years can be created. Not everyone in the period 1965-75 was a fan of the Beatles. The other two effects - the Present and the Age Effect - are part of the usual design methods of most industrial design engineers. Some of the Age Effects can be found in the preceding sections, the Present should be subject to dedicated market research.

To evaluate the design tool a small test was executed. A fictive design assignment for a radio was formulated. The radio was selected because it played an important role in the formative years that were studied and because it still is an important product in the present. The meaning of radios has changed considerably since its introduction. In the beginning it was a product the whole family would sit around while listening together. When television appeared, its place was pushed more and more into the background. Extra features were added, such as audio cassettes and cd’s. Different use situations were created: car stereo, Walkman. In the fictive assignment it was decided - based on a short market research - that the radio that was to be designed, should have the following functions: cd, radio and mp3.
The challenge being to make mp3 (a for the target group likely not very well known technique) acceptable for an elderly group. The design project was executed for three age groups, and within these three groups for two different life styles, thus bringing the total number of targeted groups at six. The target groups were described with the aid of the well-known method of personas (Pruitt and Grudin, 2003).
Figure 7 and 10 give the mood boards for the personas Guusje (female, born in WWII, is not interested in technique, and wants a product that is easy to use; figure 7, middle) and Jan (male, also born in WWII, used to be a ‘Teddy boy’ in the years after the war, is very active since his retirement, wants to take his radio with him to his small workshop, and has ‘sweet memories’ of his formative years, figure 10). The Age Effects were also described in the personas. Guusje: Healthy, has a problem with accepting her age; Jan: Healthy, enjoying his recently acquired ‘freedom’. The Present was researched by studying the latest trends in design, techniques, the usage of contemporary radios and related products.

The Results
Using the tool, Mulhof (2007) designed six radios. To test these designs, a small, qualitative experiment was set up. Within the circle of parents, family and friends (Note that this was therefore not a representative random sample) ten persons were found that fitted the chosen target groups and that were willing to participate in the experiment. In an open interview they were asked to choose the mood board that they considered the most striking and recognisable one, without them knowing why the mood boards were created (all six mood boards were shown). Next they were asked to imagine that they were going to buy a new radio and which design they would prefer. They were not instructed to look at the styling, but the given specifications of all designs were the same. An extra, seventh design was added, that strongly resembled the best-selling, comparable radio of that time (2007), based on information provided by the Media Markt, one of the leading audio and electronics discount stores in Europe. Figure 11 gives an overview of the results. In the first column the gender of the participants is given (f=female, m=male, followed by a consecutive number), the second column gives their age, the third and fourth column depict the mood board and the design they were expected to select, the fifth and sixth column give the mood board and design they actually chose and the last column gives an overview of the results. As can be seen, six participants chose the mood board that was expected, nine out of ten chose a mood board that fitted their own formative years, however three of them selected the mood board that was created for the other persona. The fact that half of the subjects actually selected the radio set that was created for them, is quite an encouraging result. We think that many designers will be quite happy if 50% of their target group actually selects their design. Interesting to notice is that only one subject (f5) selected the design that was created to look like the best-selling product of that time.

Conclusions and recommendations
In this paper a design method is introduced that can be helpful in designing and styling products that better fit the requirements with regard to functionality and attribution of meaning of elderly people. The method offers the designer inspiration and knowledge about three effects that influence the choices made by the target groups: the formative years, the present - state-of-the-art - period and the age effect. A small pilot experiment has shown that it is possible to work with the tool and to obtain usable design results.
For future use it is important that the database that is used to generate information about the formative years and to create the mood boards, is broadened, both by adding extra information, by checking if members of the target group agree that these were important events, products and designs for their formative years, and to make the database more international. The present database is too European (even Dutch), although for this paper some typical Dutch events were replaced by more international ones.
Furthermore it would be interesting to repeat the test with more representative random selected subjects, using the (improved) method. At present some students at the University of Twente work with the method (figure 12).


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