Product development for seniors: keep it simple, but don’t stigmatize

Ergonomic remote control for Bruno stair lifts

Today’s seniors are no longer your stereotypical beige-clad oldies that have retired from life; ’hiding behind the geraniums,’ as the Dutch say. The modern senior lives longer, is more independent and active and is relatively digitally literate on both smartphone and tablet. “There has been a shift in the way seniors interact with products, especially here in Europe,” says Marcel Plug, designer Look & Feel at MMID. “However, designing for an older target group requires a particular approach. Our motto for that approach is always: Keep it simple.” 

In the last 25 years, MMID has gained a lot of expertise and experience with developing products for seniors; from an alarm transmitter to a stair lift, and from an assistant for getting in and out of a car to a digital reading magnifier. Recently, the American company Bruno asked MMID to update the look and feel of an ergonomic remote control to be used with their entire product line of stair lifts. Kris Lampe, Senior Electrical Engineer at Bruno, says Bruno is delighted with the new design: “This project is a success because of the close collaboration between Bruno, MMID, end users, and other stakeholders. The new remote control was well received by the market.”

Senior suit

The user is always central to MMID product development: who is our user and how does this person interact with the product, which in this case was a remote control. “MMID was very receptive to input from end users,” says Kris. “A prototype of an early concept was tested by target customers. The ergonomics of the design were updated based on their feedback.” Marcel: “Starting at around 60 years of age, strength in the wrists, palms, and fingers diminishes. During configuration and execution, you have to take into account that user motion will be simple and relatively broad.” To experience the range of motion, strength and reach of people of 60 years and older, MMID has a so-called senior suit, consisting of elements such as ankle and elbow weights and a body vest and gloves, simulating stiff joints and limited range of motion.

Intuitive

Another important feature in product development for seniors is that the products must be very intuitive to use. “We have chosen to go for two large buttons that will move the stair lift either up or down. This feature can be employed with minimal force and insight, as the buttons are connected, and the necessary action is clearly indicated. It feels logical. The remote has also been significantly reduced in size, so it is now easy to handle.” The differences between the new and previous remote control designs are apparent, says Kris. “The styling and ergonomics of the new remote have been greatly improved. A LED light guide was incorporated into the new remote to complement the upgraded design.

Contrast effect

Besides diminished muscle strength, another important factor to keep in mind as a designer is limited vision. A lot can be accomplished with proper contrast effect, explains Marcel. “Of course, the biggest contrast is realized with black and white, but in this case, we’ve chosen to go for softer tones; white and gray. We were looking for a certain neutrality in the design and look and feel that will fit the interior design of the various end users. But this isn’t always desirable. The contrast effect must support the operation of the product and help the user understand the motion required to operate the product.”

Stigmatization

Marcel explains that designers sometimes tended to go too far in simplifying products meant for seniors. But a shift has taken place in the way seniors interact with products. “Naturally, we take the ergonomic aspects into account, but products looking like Fisher Price toys are too stigmatizing for this target group. Digitization has reached the senior population, and these days they are used to smartphones and tablets. It really is a matter of finding the right balance. You can’t just put a touchscreen in their hands and assume they will blindly know what to do.”

Pure and broad

“As a designer, you have to be aware of what a senior can handle regarding controls and spatial aptitude, and we know that the motions, shape, and volume need more space. Motor skills are limited, its best to not have dual interaction controls. The motion has to stay pure. Otherwise, you will overload the user with information. The primary function of a product has to be unmistakable,” says Marcel.

Continued independence

MMID is well equipped to deal with this target group. Our general philosophy is that we take the main purpose of the product as a starting point to figuring out how it should function. The user will tell us how a product should be used. “Tell us the obstacles you’re experiencing, give us your feedback, and we’ll develop something that will make your client happy,” says Marcel. “The work is gratifying. You are adding value by delivering products lessen the burden of care, reduce stress and promote independence. You are helping people living a happier life. That is a lot of added value. Seniors are genuinely grateful and happy when they can stay independent for longer. And that makes me happy in return.”