6 September 2006

From designing for the elderly to designing for social inclusion

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Elderly people and design
‘Designing for the elderly’ is getting trendy again.

Newspapers are filled with stories about Europe wrestling with dramatically falling birthrates and the problem of an aging Italy, and America’s top investigative tv programme, Frontline, will be showing a special documentary on the modern realities of aging on 21 November (with possibilities of online viewing).

Facing a similar situation in Sweden, the Department on Design Sciences of the Lund Institute of Technology just launched a research programme on ‘Elderly People and Design’. Also the UK Design Council has launched an ageing project.

While the problem of an aging population is definitely a major social, cultural and macro-economic issue, and the Lund research approach is very sound with its emphasis on user experience analysis and participatory design, we believe however that an approach of designing just for the elderly is too narrow and therefore possibly problematic.

In a time that people are getting older and older, many over 65 have the physical and mental capacity of people that are twenty years younger, engage in demanding professional endeavours and personal activities, and would hate to be called ‘elderly’. They might have a different time horizon than younger people but they are not less able.

An additional issue is that many of the problems that some elderly face are not unique to them, but also affect e.g. the disabled, parents with strollers, young children, people who have temporary health problems, caregivers, etcetera.

Rather than narrowly focusing on the elderly, a broader ‘designing for differences’ approach can help make sure that everyone can use certain products and access certain services. This also has a social advantage: people don’t feel excluded. We therefore advocate a social and enabling approach of ‘designing for social inclusion’.

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