Designing for Ability, Not Age

My background is in both product design and ergonomics. That background is somewhat unique because, surprisingly, these are two separate areas of study.

Dan Formosa

You would think there wouldn't be a divide between the two, that they would be synonymous: How can you design something without understanding the wide array of physical and cognitive factors pertaining to the people who will be using it? Yet most design programs don't even touch on ergonomics or biomechanics.

This probably explains why so many products and packages we encounter on a daily basis are so difficult to use. It's hard to design something that needs to be opened or operated by hand if you don't know how your hand works; or without understanding the physical mechanisms of the various challenges many people face -- arthritis, for instance. I have spoken to literally hundreds of designers around the world. Most were never taught even basic mechanics of the body.

"Inclusive Design," also known as "Universal Design," describes an approach that considers everybody, designing for a wide spectrum of people. It's usually associated with designing for older people, an issue that's especially top of mind when you consider demographic trends and the rapidly increasing number of older people in many countries.

Having long been a proponent of the idea of "design for everyone," and with an array of items I have designed that reflect this approach, I am often asked to speak at schools and conferences, conduct workshops on design at companies, and write about the topic. In the next three months, I'll be speaking with companies and at conferences in the United States, Australia, Japan, and Hong Kong specifically on the idea of designing for everyone. But when invited I usually need to inform the organizers that I never use the terms "Universal Design" or "Inclusive Design." And I never design packages or products for older people.

The reason is that it's a much better idea to design for ability, not age. Designing for age brings up so many unreal stereotypes that it's often detrimental to the effort. Also it surprises many that if you design a package to accommodate people with arthritis (for example), you will be helping as many younger people as older people. There may be a higher percentage of older people with arthritis, but there are more younger people in the population. In terms of actual numbers the distributions of physical challenges across the age spectrum are much flatter than many would expect.

Designing medical device packaging to be physically easy, and incorporating features such as high-contrast readable type and good audible and tactile cues, is an excellent idea. But it's not an "older people" idea. These packages will benefit people across the entire age spectrum.

The bottom line: There are certainly attitude and lifestyle considerations that can differentiate the current generation of older people -- who differ in many ways from any previous older generations we've seen. But you can see why, in terms of physical design, it's more inclusive to consider ability, not age.

How do you design with ergonomics in mind?

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Dan Formosa, Ph.D.


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