Designing for Baby Boomers and Beyond

Universal design accommodates all user limitations.

The Gizmo can opener is one of Applica's universally designed products.

This electric blanket controller from Sunbeam, designed by Herbst LaZar Bell, aims for an approachable form and intuitive design.
The oldest members of the baby boom generation are now coddling grandchildren, enjoying retirement, and, inevitably, finding their appliance needs in a state of flux. Consumers who are 65 years of age and older now number 35 million—a market larger than the combined populations of New York, London, and Moscow. Meanwhile, the elderly—those 85 years of age and older—represent the fastest-growing demographic group in the United States. The groups’ combined magnitude represents a generous slice of the consumer market and a worthy pursuit for appliance manufacturers seeking to target their products to the largest possible consumer niche.

However, when designing appliances for older consumers, a paradox emerges. Aging baby boomers have spurned large-buttoned telephones and other appliances obtrusively designed for their limitations. Instead, they want products that convey a sleek, modern aura, while remaining easy-to-use and straightforward. Appliance designers are left with one solution: Design products for universal use.

“I don’t believe appliances should be designed for older individuals,” says James Pirkl, principal, Transgenerational Design, Albuquerque, N.M. “Appliances, like all products, should be designed for a transgenerational population—people of all ages and abilities. Such products are compatible with those physical and sensory impairments associated with aging and which limit major life activities.”

Additionally, because the “older consumer” represents such a large swath of the populace, designers find it difficult to lump them into a single market. As longevity increases, the older consumer market is separating into two groups: baby boomers and the elderly, each with its own demands.

“Baby boomers have a better understanding and appreciation of technology than the older generation that preceded them,” explains Greg Holderfield, director, industrial design, Herbst LaZar Bell, Chicago. “They’re more accepting of advancements in products. They don’t say ‘my mother used this kind of product, so this is what I have to buy.’ They have a younger attitude.”

With increased longevity comes in-creased life experiences, including ex-posure to technology. The result is a less traditional market of graying consumers who are comfortable with computers, PDAs, and cellphones. Thus, creating universal designs that appeal to all consumers is the best means of designing pro-ducts for older users.

Greg Volan, principal, Volan Design, Boulder, Colo., agrees.

“A key premise of good product design is that it must successfully address the needs of its users,” Volan says. “A coffee maker or a washing machine that provides a poor user experience for older users is just as likely to produce the same results with younger users.”

For example, Volan adds, a remote control that has been designed with superior ergonomics to enhance ease-of-use will likely prove attractive to both older and younger users.

Stuart Naft, industrial design manager at Applica Consumer Products Inc., Shelton, Conn., notes that appliances should be designed to accommodate a range of limitations, including lack of mobility or reduced vision. As a result, manufactures can appeal to a broad market.

“Controls should be easily read and understood, easy to turn, with larger knobs, and designs should communicate major functions, rather than secondary functions,” says Naft.

An example of such a product is Applica’s Ergo line of small kitchen appliances—a handmixer, cordless can opener, electric knife, and food chopper. The products were tested on older consumers as well as consumers of all ages and designed to optimize the appliances’ handle configurations, handle angles, balance, weight, and functions. The chopper won runner-up status in this year’s Appliance Manufacturer (AM) Excellence in Design Competition, Portable Appliances/Personal Care category (See May issue, page 33). The motor is mounted in a housing which sits above the chopping bowl. The housing provides a natural holding position with soft durometer grips on undercut areas fitting closely to the main body and the center of gravity. In operation, the user’s hand falls comfortably over the speed-control buttons while holding the housing in place. Additionally, form follows function so closely that operation is intuitive.

One of Applica’s newest products is the Gizmo, a hands-free, cordless can opener designed to address older users’ limited mobility. Rather than relying on a hand grip, the Gizmo employs a body grip, whereby the can opener is inserted onto the can and then released.

To reduce back strain, Whirlpool's new Duet washer and dryer is raised on a pedestal.


One need that is expressed across all demographics, but particularly among older users, is simplicity. According to Brent Bailey, design director, Viking Range Corp., Greenwood, Mass., “The aesthetics of a product must convey what a product does. While consumers want products that do a lot, they don’t want products that are difficult to understand and operate.”

One such product, designed with older users in mind, is an electric blanket controller from Sunbeam Corp., Boca Raton, Fla. Designed by Herbst LaZar Bell, the controller offers a soft, approachable shape with tactile buttons.

“If you look at successful products, they’re very straightforward in their interface,” Holderfield says. “Designers and marketers and manufacturers build in all these features so that they can create buzz and achieve a higher price point for their product. A product may have 10 features, but consumers only use three of them. In such cases, designers have over-complicated the product.”

Considering specific needs

While not aimed specifically at older consumers, the process of universal design requires a close look at the needs of aging consumers. During a study by Syracuse University’s All-University Gerontology Center, the Center for Instructional Development and the Department of Design, Syracuse, N.Y., Pirkl developed a list of guidelines for designing transgenerational products:

  • Provide cross-sensory redundant cueing for all alarms, signals, and controls (combine an audio signal with a visual indicator).

  • Offer redundant modes of operation utilizing the next larger set of motor movements (finger to hand; hand to arm; arm to foot).

  • Establish constant display/motion relationships (left to right and foward/up to increase; backward/down to decrease).

  • Provide definitive feedback cues.

  • Reduce the complexity of all operations by minimizing the number of tasks.

  • Strive to make the task movements simple and understandable (clockwise for “on” or “increase,” counterclockwise for “off” or “decrease”).

  • Place critical and frequently used controls within easiest reach, clustering controls on basis of priority.

  • Prevent accidental actuation of critical controls.

  • Provide adjustable product/user interface.

  • Design for use by a variety of populations.

  • Design beyond the basic physical/ functional need to enhance the user’s independence and quality of life.

  • Design to facilitate physical and cognitive function, thereby encouraging the user to practice and improve by making operations easy and enjoyable.

Charles Jones, vice president, global consumer design, Whirlpool Corp., Benton Harbor, Mich., typically focuses on three goals when designing for the broadest user base possible: visual acuity (sans serif typeface for nomenclature, as an example), controls (larger knobs to accommodate limited range of motion), and reduced pull and push forces in components such as doors. Whirlpool’s new Duet front-loading washer and dryer is raised on a pedestal to reduce back strain and muscoskeletal fatigue. The pedestal also provides storage space.

Because the needs of older users are many and varied, some manufacturers design products exclusively for their use. Eldertek LLC, Columbia, Md., provides computer training courses for the elderly, particularly those who reside in assisted-living facilities. Robert Anderson, president and CEO of Eldertek, says, “The most important design considerations are ease and simplicity of use, large and bold print keys and symbols on keyboards, ease of manipulating mice (we prefer trackballs), large fonts and icons on operating and applications software, and large monitors, at least 17 in. for CRT monitors and 15 in. for LCD monitors.”

Additionally, Anderson reports that seniors prefer all-in-one integrated packages, including computer, monitor, and printer. “The senior market is growing rapidly and needs more and better designed Internet appliances,” adds Anderson.

Perhaps the best appliances that have been designed with older consumers in mind are those that grant their users an increased level of self-sufficiency and quality of life.

“Older individuals look for products that give them independence and freedom,” says Kent Ritzel, executive vice president, Metaphase Design Group, St. Louis. “They want products that are easy and comfortable to use. And they also want products that feel and look good.”

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