Department of Engineering

Get a grip

Get a grip

Professional Engineering magazine recently published an article on inclusive design and featured the work of the Department's Engineering Design Centre (EDC). The publishers have kindly granted permission for the article to be reproduced below:

Around 80% of disposable income is in the hands of the over-fifties. Yet many companies seem obsessed with targeting young people who, as a group, don’t have anywhere near as much money to spend.

Peter Gore

Inclusive design means making products that can be used by everyone, even those with arthritic fingers or poor vision. By Lee Hibbert

Opening a carton of orange juice is so much fun these days, isn’t it? I’m sure everyone really enjoys squeezing their finger into a tiny loop of plastic, before having to pull back vigorously, virtually garrotting the tip.

While this cumbersome packaging might only be a mild source of irritation to some of us, it is indicative of a far more serious problem affecting the elderly and infirm – that too many products simply aren’t designed “inclusively,” and fail to take account of our ageing population. From jar tops that would test the iron grip of the world’s strongest man, to touch-screen mobile phones that can only be operated by the nimblest of fingers, there is a seemingly endless list of consumer products that appear to have been deliberately designed to prevent many people from using them.

According to Peter Gore, professor of practice (ageing and vitality) at Newcastle University, this is something that provokes extreme frustration among older people. “We still don’t have a culture of thinking about designing products to include the elderly, and that’s surprising really when you consider the change in demographics that has been seen in recent years,” he says.

“Most companies are aware that we have an ageing population but, when it comes to the way their products are designed, the penny doesn’t seem to have dropped. They fail to realise the effects of ageing and don’t even appreciate that the expectations of older people have changed dramatically. Many older people are still very fit and active but just need a bit of help to enable them to manage a decline in their functional capabilities.”

And Gore believes that a failure to consider inclusive design also represents a significant missed business opportunity. “Around 80% of disposable income is in the hands of the over-fifties,” he says. “Yet many companies seem obsessed with targeting young people who, as a group, don’t have anywhere near as much money to spend. Older people want functional products that look good. They don’t want products that stigmatise them.”

Inclusive design doesn’t mean designing for old people – it means designing mainstream products and services so that they can be used by as many people as practicably possible. It is a pragmatic way of broadening the potential market. The predominant issue is helping people with age-related multiple minor impairment of cognitive, physical and sensory abilities. Inclusive design is not about creating specialised products or services for older people, although these are often important and complementary in their own way.

Shower of approval

The bathroom industry has made significant efforts to meet the needs of older people. Triton Showers has worked with RNIB Access Consultancy Services to produce an inclusively designed shower product for the care market. The product (pictured) was the first to be awarded the new RNIB Reference approval, which recognises accessible and inclusive design in mainstream products.

RNIB’s process included a consultation with Triton’s designers, a full product assessment phase, and extensive user testing.

Improvements were made to the operating instructions, finish and colour contrast, font size and text design, tactile and audible feedback, and a new shower head lever design.

The shower is now deemed very easy to use by all. The strong colour contrast helps people with sight loss to identify the controls and temperature settings. The controls are easy to operate by people with reduced strength or manual dexterity.

Gore says it is fine for some companies to target their products at the younger market – as long as this represents a strategic business decision. But he says that all too often firms jettison other market sectors, not because they have consciously decided to do so, but because their design processes are ill-conceived and, as a result, their products inadvertently exclude people.

However, some companies have taken these issues on board and have got the inclusive design process down to a tee. A particularly good example of this is the Good Grips range of kitchen implements by Oxo, founded in 1990 by Sam Farber on the principle of universal design. After witnessing his wife struggle using everyday kitchen utensils due to a mild case of arthritis, he was inspired to develop a range of tools that were easy to use for the largest spectrum of people. An inclusive design process was then undertaken which resulted in a hugely successful range of ergonomically designed, trans-generational tools that set a new standard for the industry and raised the bar of consumer expectation for comfort and performance. The range now contains more than 900 products covering many areas of the home. These include kitchen utensils featuring Oxo’s trademark soft grip handle that’s non-slip even when wet.

“The Oxo grips are an excellent example of inclusive design,” says Gore. “They weren’t designed for people with arthritis – they were designed for everyone. And this impacted profit, because it meant they could be sold into a much bigger market than they might have been.

“There’s no doubt that we are still at the innovator/early adopter stage of the inclusive design market and there remains exciting market potential. But the majority of companies haven’t got there yet. There are still not many products available. That’s because big organisations are conservative and step-changes such as this create fear.”

So how do companies go about embedding inclusive design into their product creation processes? How can it be so firmly instilled within people’s thinking that understanding and responding to diversity within the population becomes a natural way of operating?

Those are questions that have been pondered by some sharp minds within the Engineering Design Centre at the University of Cambridge, which has spent several years developing an online, free-to-use inclusive design toolkit. The resource is aimed at helping companies to get a better understanding of customer diversity, and how they can build these considerations into the design of mainstream products to better satisfy the needs of more people. The toolkit is layered so that there are a series of steps that can get companies started and deliver tangible benefits, which can then be progressed to greater depth.

“It is one thing convincing people of the need to adopt inclusive design, but actually doing something about it is something else,” says Ian Hosking, senior research associate at the Engineering Design Centre. “The toolkit is really there for people who understand the case for inclusive design and want to do something about it.”

Essentially, there are three key stages where inclusive design needs to be considered during the product development process – during the exploration, creation and evaluation phases. The toolkit puts in place a robust problem-solving process to help companies achieve this. Hosking says that, typically, companies fail to identify the fundamental need that they are trying to address during the exploration phase of product development, and this leads them to jump ill-prepared into coming up with a solution. “Often that need is not clear – research shows that if you ask people what they want there is often a big difference between what they say that they want and what they actually need,” says Hosking. “People are often quite poor at articulating what the underlying needs are, and as a result there’s often a superficiality of understanding.”

It’s good to talk... especially when you can hear the person at the other end properly

Telecoms giant BT has worked with the engineering design centre at the University of Cambridge and is committed to the use of inclusive design principles throughout its product design processes.

The first product produced using the inclusive design toolkit was the Freestyle 700 handset (pictured). Initial concepts, along with consumer consultation, came up with criteria for the phone, which formed the basis of what it looked like and how it operated. BT used inclusive design techniques to ensure that the phone was easy to dial, with large comfortable keys, and easy to read, with high contrast and large characters. Thought was given to ease of hearing, with a comfortable ear bowl, volume adjustment and inductive coupler for digital hearing aids, and a lower frequency ringer was adopted to make it easier to hear. The phone has no icons and no abbreviations, and has keys with single functionality. There are also large, separate keys to start and end calls.

Since its launch in July 2008, sales of the Freestyle 700 have surpassed expectations. The inclusive design has also minimised product returns, thereby improving profitability, despite higher manufacturing costs.

During the creation phase, other problems can arise. He says that often companies “fixate” on one solution, usually one that offers the path of least resistance. The toolkit helps firms to employ techniques that broaden out creativity so that a greater number of inclusively designed solutions are considered.

And, at the evaluation stage, Hosking says that firms frequently get so close to the new design that they have been working on that they can easily lose objectivity. “So, evaluation is critical in bringing objectivity,” he says. “It’s about coming up with the right level of rigour without becoming bureaucratic and cumbersome.”

The toolkit is undergoing further refinement and enhancement, and a new version of the software is available at The Cambridge Engineering Design Centre is also involved in industrial projects, with telecommunications companies particularly interested in adopting inclusive design principles.

“Touch screens on mobile phones offer a lot of opportunity because they are highly configurable but there are challenges about a lack of familiarity and inherent structure, particularly for older people,” says Hosking. “The mobile phone industry is a fast-moving target – so we have to keep understanding what the needs are for the older population as its products and services evolve. That’s something that we are proactively looking at.”

Have your say

Do you have a bug-bear about a product that you think is difficult to use? And, as an engineer, how do you think its design might be improved to make it more inclusive? Email your gripe to and they will compile a list of the worst-offending products on their website.

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