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30 Jun 2016

Designing a better world to grow old in

I spent an hour yesterday wandering around an exhibition of design projects at the Royal College of Arts in London. Their students are an innovative lot – there were plans for a toaster that sneezes to let you know when its crumb tray is full, a driverless public service car that uses minimal space as it never parks and a birth registration system to ensure Syrian refugees in Lebanon do not end up stateless.

The reason for my visit though, was an invitation to the end of year awards at the Helen Hamblyn Centre for Design. This Centre started life in 1991 to encourage inclusive design for an ageing population. Their Age and Agility Research Lab works on projects for one to two years, co-creating solutions with users. I spent some time with one of their designers, Dr Chris McGinley, who took me through their process from the divergent early stages where they look in all directions for ideas and information, how they get users to test plans against the messiness of real day-to-day life challenges and then eventually narrow down to solutions and prototypes.

The whole aim of the Centre is to promote inclusive design, which is exactly what we need if older adults are to participate fully in communities. Their project on welcoming workplaces has produced a book to help employers and architects design office space so older adults can comfortably stay in employment longer. An investigation into incontinence led to “The Great British Toilet Map” which logs public toilets online and can help you find one in the UK to meet your particular accessibility needs. And last night one of the student awards went to a design for an online service called “Odds and Ends” that helps families broker sensitive conversations about planning for end of life.

It was great to meet such a talented crowd, all looking to use their skills to solve problems for the community.

Along the same lines, the UK is starting to use new technology to solve problems around care for older adults. One example is fitting out homes with sensors that track movement. This can be programmed to send an alert if, for example, the older adult gets up in the night frequently which could indicate continence problems, or hasn’t risen by a certain time which could mean they are ill. In one unit, which was not staffed at night, the system was programmed to send an alert if the resident left the house and didn’t return within five minutes, as she tended to get distressed at night and go wandering. In this case the system supported her to stay in the home and not have to be moved to a more intensively monitored unit where she’d have less independence.

At the more homely end of the scale I was interested to read about other students who were studying a care home to try to design new technology to help residents communicate. Every day when residents of the home arrived in the dining room for breakfast there were endless questions about the weather and to be helpful staff put up a large board on which the weather forecast was written every day. Turns out the residents were just looking for conversation starters so the noticeboard had a dampening effect on chatting. The students, once they understood the need, went on to design an ingenious interactive tea set where if you moved your tea cup words that might start a conversation ghosted across the tablecloth![1]

This is the poster for a 2011 exhibition by the Helen Hamblyn Centre for Design and I think the title “The Problem Comes First”[2] absolutely captures something about all these examples of great design thinking.

the problem comes first

The thing all these projects have in common is a drive to fully understand the user and their problems before deciding you have the answer. That seems to the basis of best practice whether you are working on policies or products. And I’ve been so impressed at the many very thoughtful responses to the needs of older adults that I’ve seen while here.


[1] See for more on this and other designs.

[2] Actually it references a Danish Design Council exhibition of the same name some 25 years earlier. Enduring wisdom!