Design for All Ages

Beep, beep, beep. Pause. Beep, beep, beep.

It's Saturday morning.  We have been woken up by my older brother who is visiting from out of town.  He is trying to boil the kettle for tea on my stove. I walk into the kitchen to help. Exasperated, my brother says “I am so sorry, I was just trying to make some tea, and could not figure out how to turn on your stove.”  He’d had an unintended collision with my new electric induction stove top from a leading German appliance brand. Is this early morning mishap my brother’s fault or the fault of the product?

Too often people blame themselves when they struggle with a product. For me as a designer the answer is obvious, it’s the product's fault. Really, it’s the fault of the designers who did not research and test the product with real people in real conditions. They designed a product for themselves, on their computers, in their office and put style in front of usability. My brother who is over 50 is part of a large segment of the aging population that are not sufficiently considered in the design process.

This product has a few major design flaws:

1. The lettering and symbols are difficult to see and read. The font of the lettering is too small for someone who wears reading glasses and lacks contrast. Additionally, the font is gray on a shiny black surface, so when the overhead kitchen lights are on, there is a reflection on the glass making it even harder to see the interface.

2. The product interaction is complicated, there is no information hierarchy to help guide the user to know what to do and in what order. So even with a pair of glasses the interface is impossible without a steep learning curve.

3. The product’s meaning is lost in its overly complex user experience. Preparing tea, and cooking breakfast can be an incredible ritual, but this experience is defined by clunky digital interaction.

In user research we typically design for two types of users. Firstly, for experienced users who have lived with the product for some time and have gone through the learning curve. Secondly, new users, such as a first-time purchase or in my case a guest visiting. What we know in design, is that most people will eventually figure out a bad user interface and will learn to live with it, but why should anyone have to “learn” how to use a stove. We are not studying quantum physics, we are simply trying to cook, an activity which is as old as mankind and ought to be intuitive.

In comparison, gas ranges have a much better user experience. The user can achieve all the steps mentioned above in one go. As you turn on the gas, the user can see the feedback in the form of a flame. The longer the duration of the physical turn, the higher the number and the size of the flame. Physically turning the dial with a hand reinforces the action and feedback loop. These cues all correlate together to make something like boiling water as natural and easy as it should be. People have been turning knobs for hundreds of years. It’s part of our history and part of our collective subconscious. The visual feedback of the flame and the heat both confirm the successful interaction. In addition to the simple one step, the flame is a visual cue that we hold in our memory, like a campfire from our youth, a candlelit dinner or a home fireplace. The gas stove has a meaning we understand and relate to that is as old as mankind. The gas range is more intuitive, tangible and relatable as opposed to a digital, flat, shiny black monolith.

Here’s the catch, we need to move away from gas and to electric alternatives, and induction stoves are highly energy efficient. As we adopt new technologies it is incumbent on the designers to ensure the interface is easy and intuitive.  Drawing upon our collective subconscious helps to make a product intuitive. Referencing prior products people are already familiar with can help.

Given all these points, we did a quick design exploration of what a better induction range might look like:

Our design has large physical knobs placed on a 45 degree surface for ease of use. The knobs have large digital indicators on their faces to quickly and clearly communicate the level of heat. The stovetop itself is similar to gas ranges. From under each burner, a warm fire-like glow is emitted—directly correlated to the level of heat—so the user can intuitively adjust the temperature without even looking at the knobs.

The raised glowing burners make the stovetop feel more like a stovetop, instead of a mysterious black glass surface that somehow magically heats your food. When turned on, the burners raise from a flush surface to clearly communicate which burner is on. When turned off, the burners retract back down to make a flush surface that is easy to clean. Additionally, each burner can be easily removed for cleaning under, similar to gas ranges.

As we move to an electric world, it's imperative that we continue to reference our past in our designed experiences. If we create new experiences out of nothingness, we will quickly end up in a manufactured world of our own making that doesn't feel very human. For experiences to feel human, they must be designed for all.

I am reminded of the work I did for OXO kitchen tools and the design philosophy of Universal Design. When we were designing a kitchen tool such as an Ice Cream Scoop, we would invite an older person with arthritis into the design process. We shaped the handles to fill their hand fully, the shape was oval in section which made turning easier, and then we used a material that improved grip even when wet. We would try different designs of the scoop with this person until we arrived at a functional design that worked optimally for them, after this ergonomic study we thought about aesthetics and designed the product to be appealing to the broadest possible market. This process meant we were designing products that were intuitive and easy to use AND visually beautiful for everyone. Form did not compromise function. Don Norman introduced user centered design in the 1970’s but it was not until the 1990’s that companies began to take design seriously and adopt user-centered design in their product development process. There were only a few companies in the world that thought about the user needs so that products could be easy and  intuitive. Over the past three decades, the idea of Universal Design and User Centered design became widely adopted in both physical and digital products. This deep concern for the user and customer experience helped design-led companies such as OXO and Apple grow tremendously.

In your next project, involve the target user, but also people at the extremes such as the elderly, the physically impaired, even kids.  Applying this approach will make products accepted by all. In return respect for the brand will grow. Needless to say, I will not be buying from this brand again.

Written by Max Burton and Ben Lorimore.