Designers eye vast market: older adults

May 26, 2013

By Matt Perry
California Health Report

White orthopedic shoes. Walkers with tennis ball tips. Hearing aids that look like slabs of Play-Doh.

Products for older adults have typically focused on utility rather than style. And like the cars that reveal our hidden personalities, lackluster design for older adults offers an unfortunate message.

“If we are what we use, then it seems the elderly people in today’s society are cranky, stupid and tacky,” wrote designer Gretchen Anderson a decade ago in Gizmodo – her clarion call for more elegant design.

Last August, the Nielsen research firm reported that Baby Boomers own 70% of America’s disposable income – money available for spending – and are hefting that wealth into old age.

Retailers are beginning to eye that demographic – albeit slowly.

“The market has not yet caught on that there’s money to be made there,” said Anderson in a recent interview.

Websites such as The Senior Shop and Gold Violin still sell traditional old-school clothing and products that emphasize function over style – and scream “old person.”

“It’s all very vanilla, and it’s all very risk averse,” says Anderson.

Yet materialistic and tech-savvy Baby Boomers are today seeking fresher product designs that are both attractive and useful.

Aiming at the oft-maligned white orthopedic shoe, Spenco produces several lines of shoes that are both colorful and stylish.

Borrowing the Danish word for “with great care,” the OMHU company produces a series of designer canes sporting a variety of colors and styles.

OMHU “has reconceptualized the cane as a high-fashion item,” says Jeff Rosenfeld, who teaches the class “Design for Aging Populations” at New York City’s Parsons School of Design.

The Starkey company reconceived its hearing aids by hiring Stuart Karten Design to make them both more attractive and easier to use.

Celebrated architect and designer Michael Graves, now 79, was paralyzed from the waist down a decade ago with a mysterious infection, giving him a close-up view of the sanitized world of healthcare design.

“I had really good care and really atrocious rooms,” Graves told a reporter last year. “I thought to myself, ‘I can’t die here. It’s too ugly.’”

His firm is now busy redesigning both medical devices and furnishings for patient rooms.

The website Elderluxe collects an extensive array of products for older adults that target affluent buyers.

Founder Patrick Conboy, while working for the advertising agency Foote Cone & Belding, was caring for aging parents over a thousand miles away, and searched the globe for quality merchandise that complemented his parents’ lifestyle.

“I was frustrated with the level of commodity product that was available,” he says. “It went against what they had worked for and what I thought they deserved.”

Opened in 2007, Elderluxe now sells high-end products that include an Irish Blackthorn Walking Stick, wireless blood pressure monitors, shock-reducing floor mats, and The Luggie – a foldable scooter with its own suitcase that older adults can carry while traveling.

One of the first companies to capitalize on the growing trend for “universal design” – products for all ages – was OXO, whose founder Sam Farber noticed how hard it was for his wife to grasp kitchen utensils she once handled with ease. The result: Good Grips.

Universal design principles are clearly evident in airport bathrooms that feature automatic dispensers for water, soap and paper towels.

Yet older adults often need products tailored particularly for their diminishing senses and mobility, including more attractive healthcare tools like glucometers or blood pressure monitors.

Conboy recounts a depressing visit to a medical equipment store before he started Elderluxe.

“It really lacked energy and it was really a turn off,” says Conboy. “It was like you were at the last exit before death.”

While Graves – popularly known for his work at Target stores – has successfully brought style to budget consumers, entrepreneurs like Conboy eye a burgeoning market with a new name: the “wellderly,” or older adults with money to spare.

A former marketing executive for J.C. Penney, Conboy calls Elderluxe a “lifestyle retail concept rather than a medical supply store” that caters to the “well-heeled person who’s still younger and vibrant.” He likens its products to the high-end kitchen supplier Williams-Sonoma.

For Conboy, selling older adult products with style is much more than just a statement about fashion or wealth.

“The more active you stay – physically, intellectually, even sexually – the longer you live,” he says.

David L. Jaffe, who teaches a Stanford University class on assistive technology, envisions a future with several new products targeting older adults.*

“As the market for products serving older adults increases,” he says, “I would hope to see many ‘cool’ products that address a wide range of problems and needs.”

Adds Anderson: “There’s plenty of market out there depending on what you pick to make.”

Conboy says his role at Elderluxe isn’t just dollars and cents but targets a greater cause.

“A kinder, gentler country for aging adults.”

*Note. An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Jaffe’s position at Stanford and mischaracterized a comment about engineers.

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2 Responses to Designers eye vast market: older adults

  1. David Jaffe

    May 30, 2013 at 9:25 am

    I thought it would be informative to the readership of HealthyCal.org to
    include the entirety of my responses to Matt Perry’s questions.

    1) When you look at the landscape of product design for older adults, what do
    you see? Can you give me an example of really elegant and useful recent
    product design – and a really crappy one?

    I don’t have favorite good or bad product that benefits older adults, so
    I’ll pass on this question for the moment.

    But, let me say this about products. On one hand, the universal design
    methodolgy seeks products that serve the widest range of users, so that a
    product that is useful for younger people is also usable by and appealing
    to older adults. On the other hand, there are specific problems that are
    expeienced only by older adults that would require a unique product that
    addresses their needs. And, to make things complicated, there are
    individual needs of an individual older adult which may require a custom
    solution.

    2) What I thought was interesting in your course outline was the question of
    “empathy with the user first before design.” Is that the problem with product
    design for older adults? Are these being designed by people with no real
    affinity for older adults?

    Understanding the problem is a key issue in the design process. If
    designers and engineers don’t talk to potential users of their devices or
    products, the rest of the process fails. A misunderstanding of the problem
    invariably leads to an inaccurate assessment of the need, resulting in a
    device or product that only satisfies the designer’s or engineer’s
    perception of what the problem and need are. Designer and engineers must
    also make sure that a range of users are surveyed to get a broad
    understanding. This process is called empathy or ethnography.

    3) There’s clearly an overlap between design for the disabled and older
    adults. A company like OXO has created products that bridge the gap between
    “regular” users and those who need a little help with size and grip. Is the
    need for products tailored for older adults going to produce lines similar to
    OXO? What other cross-pollination do you envision?

    I addressed this above. One other concept to consider is preference.
    Everyone makes choices on products based on colors and designs that are
    appealing and project the proper image. A good example of this is the
    clothes we choose to buy and wear. An older adult may not be willing to buy
    or use a device that labels them as old, even though the device might be
    beneficial. Walkers are a good example of this. So it is important to
    provide choices in design and colors and consider the image the product
    projects. Sometimes preferences are easy to provide, such as options for
    setting up a computer with the font size, color, shortcuts, input options
    (keyboard, voice recognition), and output options (display, speech
    synthesis).

    4) What else do you foresee in product design for older adults? If you look
    at a website like “The Senior Shops” it’s filled with rather
    industrial-looking stuff – not very sexy. What trends do you envision in the
    next 5-50 years?

    There are many products currently on the market that despite their
    functionality, look unappealing. One way to address this problem is to
    modify existing products so they look better, do more, and are more useful.
    I’ve come up with terms to describe these modifications: “aftermarket
    aesthetics”, “aftermarket functionality”, and “aftermarket usability”. The
    simple addition of a plastic stick-on can add color and personalize an
    otherwise drab-looking device. This can make a huge different in the
    product’s appeal, purchase decision, and compliance in it use. A student in
    my class last year worked on a project to improve the aesthetics of a
    commercial emergency call product with great success. (Additional
    information and photos available by request.)

    As the market for products serving older adults increase (as well as
    advances in technology) in the coming years, I would hope to see many
    “cool” products that address a wide range of problems and needs.

    And here is an alternate paragraph to the one used in the article:
    Engineers and designers of products made for older adults must fully
    understand their problems to accurately assess their needs by consulting with
    them, their caregivers, and family members, says David L. Jaffe, who teaches
    a Stanford University course on assistive technology (devices and services
    that benefit both older adults and people with disabilities). This design
    process provides the understanding and empathy required to address the
    challenges of aging.

    David L. Jaffe

  2. Dan

    May 30, 2013 at 9:37 am

    Thanks for your added context, David!

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