Design Thinking: A Better Way to Gain Empathy for Our Elderly Users

Design Thinking: A Better Way to Gain Empathy for Our Elderly Users

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Illustration of Elina’s Aging2.0 | Berlin talk by Giovanni Ruello (@Jovatsuni)

[This is a post by Elina Zheleva a presenter at Aging2.0 | Berlin (11/21/13].

Not long ago I was invited to the first Aging2.0 event in Berlin, to speak about design thinking and our experiences in gaining empathy for older people at the HPI School of Design Thinking. Here’s an edited version of what I said – essentially 2 easy lessons to keep in mind when designing solutions for older people. You can also check this beautiful visualisation of my talk by Giovanni Ruello.

1. Aging suits are there for a reason

For those who don’t know the term – aging suits are made-to-wear suits that allow you to experience the physical impairments that come with age. Getting in the shoes (or in this case in the suit) of an older person is a painful yet eye-opening experience, and will change the way you design for older people forever.

There are many aging suits on the market and if you are in the business of designing solutions for the elderly, you should invest in buying or renting one. They are perfect for testing products, but also very powerful tool for gaining empathy for the physical condition of older people in the early stages of your project. So, if you are just starting or if don’t have the budget to afford an aging suit, I highly recommend that you build one on your own.

During my talk I showed how at the HPI School of Design Thinking, we made one in less than 30 minutes using the following basic materials:

  • bubble wrap to simulate glare and vision decline,
  • earplugs to imitate hearing loss,
  • cupboard to restrict movement in the neck,
  • milk boxes used as weights to simulate wrists and arms weakness,
  • elastic rope to restrict movement in the lower limbs.

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It’s a miniature expense in terms of time and money, but a valuable investment in the success of your project. Which leads me to something I didn’t mention in my talk, but is quite important – not all older people are the same. Focus on the specific pains that your target persona is experiencing and design for her. Don’t design for everybody.

2. Spend time with older people

The aging suit is an important way to gain empathy for the physical condition of older people, but it won’t tell you how they really feel. In my talk I spoke about two aspects of empathy gaining – gaining empathy for the physical condition and gaining empathy for the emotional state. Move vs Feel. I wouldn’t normally separate them, but often when I look at products, services or programs designed for elderly people, I see some or other aspect overlooked. In order to avoid this, you should really spend time with older people – this is the best way to understand how they really feel, not just how they move.

The good news is that older people like to talk. At least this was our experience from a recent challenge we had at the HPI School of Design thinking – to redesign the public restroom experience. In this challenge we focused on three groups of people – families with kids in strollers, travellers with luggage and older people using walking aid. We found out that the interviews with older people took three times longer than with the others.

As a design thinker one question that you constantly ask yourself is Why? Why older people like to talk to us and spend time with us? Are they lonely, have nothing to do or have more stories to tell? Well, I let you figure it out for yourself. I promise, it’s an exciting journey.

And while on it, observe these three details:

  • People: Who are the people in their lives? How many are they? How often do they see each other?
  • Places: Which are the most frequently visited places? How do they make them feel?
  • Things: Which are the things/gadgets in their lives? What is the purpose they serve?

Compare your findings to your own life. Don’t be afraid, sketch it (like I did) and look for the differences, or the things in common! I’m sure you’ll get to some interesting insights, but most of all, I’m convinced you’ll find yourself designing with more empathy than before you started this exercise.

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3. Design for people not for age

My point is that whenever you design for older people, don’t reduce older people to simply a category of people with physical impairments. Of course these have to be taken into account, but try also to zoom out and see the context in which older people live and how your solution fits into it and even improves it.

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Oh and something else – don’t look at aging as something that happens in the distant future. It actually starts at the age of 30. So, zoom out one more time and think of preventive solutions.