Involving the elderly in design

Putting faces to end-users early in the design process is changing the way designers and organisations are approaching products aimed at Singapore's growing elderly demographic. Arti Mulchand reports

Faced with the problem of an ageing population in many countries, companies are developing technologies to make caregiving for the elderly easier.

But, as one eldercare centre has found out, the challenge is in getting the seniors on the same page. Some dementia patients, for instance, simply will not wear wearable trackers.

This was just one of the issues that surfaced in an ethnographic study on the elderly and technology published in October, called Empathetic Technology For Ageing.

"It is easy to say: let's track the elderly with wearable technology. It seems easy to use and could solve a problem. But while the young welcome it because it feels trendy, older people don't see it as part of their lives," said Mr Jeremy Sun, general manager and design director of Orcadesign Consultants.

Mr Sun was co-lead of the study, commissioned by DesignSingapore Council's Asian Insights & Design Innovation (AIDI) unit. The other co-lead was Mr Ryan Chen, founder of design and innovation consultancy Overspective.

Researchers shadowed 22 people aged between 55 and 92 for eight hours a day over a six-month period, capturing their interactions with family and friends and conducting interviews. They also interviewed four experts, including managers of eldercare centres and sociologists.

The data gathered - which spanned everything from the daily lifestyles and aspirations of the elderly to how they used technology - was used to create 12 "archetypes" of elderly people that now guide co-creation workshops for designers, healthcare providers and technologists in Singapore. It sheds some light on the business opportunities that exist in the elderly space.

Participants in these workshops are often surprised by the gulf between existing technologies and the habits of older Singaporeans, said Mr Sun.

He observed that for dementia patients, something "invisible and natural", like a brooch, may be more palatable than something worn on the wrist.

"Just having the technology is not enough," he concluded, adding that companies hoping to cash in on the silver dollar often miss this point.

"Companies take mobile phones and make the buttons bigger, then say they are for the elderly. But those phones make people feel old and stupid. Companies need to create solutions from the perspective of older people, and not just involve them retrospectively."

Getting a grip on the segment Empathetic Technology For Ageing was one of two ethnographic studies initiated by the DesignSingapore Council last year.

Its ongoing workshops also draw insights from the other study - Design For Ageing Gracefully - which was conducted by design consultancy Experientia as part of the council's Rethinking Health And Wellness For The Elderly project.

The project was done in collaboration with the Health Ministry's Ageing Planning Office.

In the second study, insights gleaned from 24 interviewees between the ages of 55 and 85, and information on how they and their caregivers interacted with public health institutions, were used to create eight "personas" for elderly consumers and suggested models for how they would behave.

The study points to problems due to the fact that most systems are designed for generic users and not specific people, said Experientia's president and founder Michele Visciola, 55, who led the study.

"Medical institutions are science-oriented and do their best to improve the medical part of the service, but they are inconsistent in addressing typical cultural expectations… They need a more holistic approach that considers the 'real lives' of people and not just their symptoms. They need to be more patient-centric," he said.

There is also a need for better social infrastructure and community-based support, he suggested.

"Patients are no longer just passive recipients of solutions. The 'payers' want to be listened to and to decide what solutions are good for them before they accept new things in the market. That's a trend that is emerging worldwide."

The findings of the second study have been incorporated in the Health Ministry's ongoing Action Plan For Successful Ageing. Both studies also guided participants during January's Designathon 2016 - the country's first national design marathon.

As Singapore ages - by 2030, one in four Singaporeans will be 65 years and older - knowing how to design more effectively for the elderly segment becomes more critical, said Mr Jeffrey Ho, executive director of DesignSingapore Council.

"Healthcare players, particularly hospitals… want to design for effectiveness and level up from efficiency," he said.

The council is now also broadening its focus to look at consumers with disabilities, and using design to promote more opportunities for engagement and participation.

"This ultimately achieves improved outcomes, better care and lower costs," said Mr Ho.

Food for thought While the DesignSingapore Council has had its eye on the healthcare sector since 2011, it has been only more recently that the needs of the elderly have come into sharper focus.

The council's success in using ethnographic research to garner insights into Asia's food industry led the team to consider using the same approach to design better solutions for seniors in 2014.

"In our interactions with local companies, we find that they look at data and make numbers-driven decisions. But if you can put a face to the people using the products and understand their daily lives, you can gain more market share," said Mr Ho.

Deep research also brought to the fore disjuncts between how products were designed to be used and how they are actually being used - or not used.

A visit to a Thai home, for example, revealed that rather than using sauces as suggested, one home chef was creating "bespoke" concoctions of his own - indicating a market gap for a sauce product that also allowed creative cooks to experiment.

Similarly, the rich ethnographic data gleaned by the DesignSingapore Council studies has turned assumptions on their heads, whether in relation to financial independence or daily needs.

"As a process, we need to move away from 'designing for' and towards 'designing with' seniors," said Mr Ho.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2016, with the headline Involving the elderly in design. Subscribe