Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Designs that are great for everyone.

To follow up on the last posts a bit, let's talk about the Moen Digital IO series of electronic shower valves and controls. These new valves put all the plumbing behind the wall except for a small control panel that can be placed anywhere in the shower area.

When we remodel showers, we often bring the shower controls to the front of the enclosure, so they are easier to reach for a caregiver or someone with a balance issue, or moving them to the back wall where they are convenient for a seated bather. This electronic controller would eliminate the need to all that additional plumbing, helping to reduce the complexity of the install (and offset some of the cost of the device.)

But you can even get them with a remote control. Moen says that it would allow you to turn on the shower from across the room, however I suspect that few people have such an open floor plan for that to make a lot of sense. However, it totally eliminates any concern about where the controls are placed. Someone with balance problems can start the shower without having to reach in, and no one needs to risk getting hit with a cold spray of water--you stand safely outside the shower, use the remote to turn it on, and step comfortably in. Whereas my old solution of locating the controls in the location that best fit the user with a limitation meant that the shower was only optimized for a single person. Now, inherent in the design is that it is optimal for every user.

This principle is taken further with the fact that the controls have 4 preset temperatures--one for each member of the family. Especially useful, for example, if you have MS and need to have a cooling shower. But it is a feature that is of wide use--my wife prefers much hotter showers than I do. While we have a thermostatic valve, with this device I would not have to readjust it every time I get in, I just hit the button corresponding to my setting.

There is even a pause function--which uses the universal "II" symbol that we see on video and music players.

I haven't spoken to the folks at Moen to see what their motivation for this design was. But to me it speaks of a innovation that is targeted to provide comfort and ease for all shower uses, and it just so happens that it will have an enormous impact on the ease with which a lot of folks who are less mobile than they used to be or who have a disability manage their ADLs.

Prices on these electronic controls have continued to decline, and while the Digital IO line is still a premium over a standard valve, it is much closer to the range at which it becomes affordable. As prices drop further, I think we will see such systems as the smart standard for our shower remodels.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Design evolution

Another set of thoughts on this theme is that as technologies and design evolve and mature, often this leads to a convergence that makes them more accessible to a wider variety of people. Certainly costs tend to decrease, making the designs more accessible. But abilities and general acceptability tend to expand as well, widening the appeal of newer iterations of a technology.

A case in point may be the evolution of what are now being called Personal Mobility Vehicles or PMVs. Today a PMV might be a scooter chair, a golf cart, or a Segway for the more adventurous. These devices are becoming ever more popular forms of transportation, either for those who lack the mobility to walk distances or for alternative forms of transport. In many retirement communities golf carts are a de facto alternative to a car. In fact, I recently read that about half the injuries on golf carts (they are rather unsafe vehicles) occur off the golf course.

Scooter chairs, on the other hand, are slower and therefore safer, but certainly have a stigma, are not always easy to manuever, and their size and limitations can sometimes make them a frustrating experience for both the rider and for ambulatory people who are sharing the sidewalk, common space, or kitchen.

Enter the modern PMV. One prototype is the Toyota i-swing. Read how it was described when displayed at the 2005 Toyota Motor Show: The single-person vehicle package boasts an individual design with a “wearable” feeling. Its low-resistance urethane body is covered in cloth to soften any impact while operating near people, and an LED illumination panel can be customized to display an image to suit your mood.When traveling in a bustling street full of people, the i-swing can operate in a two-wheeled mode that takes up little space, so that it is possible to travel while keeping pace and talking with someone on foot. When there is a need to move quickly, the i-swing can change to a three-wheeled mode, which is fun to travel in. In addition to the stick control, a pedal control can be used to provide a fresh cornering feeling, as you shift your body weight as if you were on skis.The i-swing proposes the concept of using A.I. communication to enable it to grow, learning the habits and preferences of users by storing relevant data about them.

Here, in one device, we have customization, adaptability for the user and compensatory systems (collision avoidance) so that I do not have to master a joystick to navigate safely. I have a design that is tolerant of the errors I make and sensitive to those around me.

This is another example of where application of smart design and UD principles result in a design that would be a better solution for wide range of people and applications than any of the current technologies. It's all just a prototype now, but clearly moving in a better direction, evolving the technology.

Design for the universe or the user?

I've had several good responses to my recent post on Universal Design. In particular Bill Shackleford made some good points about the derivative effects of design for accommodation.

I don't disagree that designs and technologies which start with the intent to accommodate limitations to abilities often spawn solutions providing much wider benefits. Nor am I saying that we should not try to design solutions for to help accommodate specific limitations. In fact, I have been working on a theoretical framework and typology for assistive technology that address just this dynamic. My goal is that if we better understand that at some level all technology is assistive and that its benefits can be leveraged to the greater good, we can make progress more quickly and efficiently.

But I was making a different point in my original blog. Foremost, I was saying that we do Universal Design a disservice when we only present it as a way of dealing with disabilities. When presented in the fashion, many in the mainstream will marginalize the message. And that works against creating a world with fewer barriers.

Second, Bill says:

There are many (MANY!) other examples of well designed products and systems in mainstream use that appear to have been 'universally designed', but in fact were initially targeted for persons with disabilities - to 'accommodate' them.

Certainly there are. But that is a statement of current reality, not necessarily the ideal process. If from the start we had addressed the needs that Bills examples address with an orientation toward how the solution could more widely benefit, we might have gotten to that end state sooner. And I would be willing to bet that there are many things designed to accommodate a disability that have fallen by the wayside because they were obviated by better designed, more universal solutions.

Scott Rains pointed out a term "inclusive design" and I like the phrase "user centered design" which is one that resonates with Bill's comment that he begins his design process thinking about his users, not design principles. But this points to an inherent tension--are we designing for a specific user, or users in general? If we are talking about a product where a person has a range of options or the ability to customize, I think that user centered design is the way to go. Or when it is a group of people for whom you have a clear insight about common usage patterns or abilities. However if we are talking about multi-use situations and public spaces or common areas, UD principles are undoubtedly something that should guide the process from the beginning.

All of this off course flows into what motivates people to actually innovate or design--maybe the best designs will always come from the individual desire to create something that solves a personal need or desire. But nothing in that is hurt by increasing an awareness that the best designs are at some level universally applicable.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Universal Design is not just about disabilities.

Blogger Shyamala is an industrial designer. In her recent post ( she does a nice job of illustrating a number of universal design principles through the thoughtful creation of three personas with disabilities. It’s well done, but does seem to miss one of the key aspects of universal design. UD is not simply about making things useful/usable by people with disabilities. Really excellent examples of UD improve usage for all people. From a picture of the Toyota prototype that she shows it is obvious that this would be a more usable design for someone with mobility issues. But I am 6’ 4” tall and am forever sitting down in a front seat, not realizing that my wife has moved the seat forward and banging my knees and twisting my back in the process. Sure, it would be nice if I learned, but I don't, and sometimes I have to say that it's not apparent that the seat is forward from a quick glance early in the morning. Also, this design looks like it would provide easier access to the back seat—something that full sized adults or school kids with heavy backpacks would benefit from. I can relate how this would be helpful to folks with impairments—I’m thinking of the times I’ve thrown my back out, when getting into a traditional front seat is a nightmare—but a good design like this is helpful for a much wider audience.

As Shyamala points out “Universal design is the concept or approach to be more precise, of making any design accessible and usable by as many people as possible, irrespective of the age, situation and ability.“ However, typically this gets relegated in practice to “designs that are good for people with impairments or disabilities.” When this happens, we all miss out and the UD message is weakened.

The reality is that many designs are what they are because of historical technological limits or for no better reason than a lack of comprehensive thought being applied during the design process. Also at play is the consumer preference for low price over quality of design and construction, even thought the two are not inherently in conflict. I think affordability should be the eigth UD principle.

When we focus only on accommodation, rather than universal benefit, we unfortunately undermine the full promise of UD. As unpleasant as it is, the reality is that things that are seen solely as accommodations for those with disabilities will wind up being marginalized by a large proportion of the population. On the other hand, if the same designs are seen simply as “easier to use” they will get wider appeal and acceptance. Best to think of UD as a movement to create a more functional, flexible, intuitive and forgiving environment for all of us. If that were achieved, the need to make physical modifications to homes would be greatly decreased.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What's that box? Senior social networking??

What's that box to the left here, the one with the vintage photo of a guy scratching his chin? Its a Twitter gadget, showing my tweets. Might sond abit personal, but so it is, believe it or not.

I'm still not sure that Web 2.0 apps like Twitter will ever amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world (other than to make it crazier) but then again, they may be just the ticket.

Check out this article in the NY Times about social networking for the senior set.

I foresee tweets from the cruise ship. Tweeting family to say that all is well. A Twitter based device that sends an alert tweet if I don't press it on a regular basis. At least the grand kids would know about it.

Actually, while I expect Twitter won't last in its current form, and that little Twitter box over there will go away someday, I am a strong believer that technology will ease many of the burdens of age, and psychological isolation is certainly one of them. It's certainly not a panacea, but internet based socialization can certainly be a great boon for those who have limited ability to connect in other ways. Indeed, just like some youths and younger adults find it more easy to connect in a virtual world than a real one, there are probaby a lot of seniors who would sit isolated in a room full of people but who find that they have youthful, renewed ability on the social network.

What lesson will they learn?

As we boomers age and take first hand seats watching how our older friends and our parents handle the journey, I wonder what lessons we will really learn. Many times, we have customers who call us out to discuss a plan for an aging or disabled relative, only to have the person’s condition worsen before anything can be done. Often, the loved one passes away. In some cases they have spent years dealing with frailty and diminished ability, with an environment that creates stress or unhappiness, but when they finally decide to take action, it is too late. In the current economy, this is happening more and more.

In just the past month, we numerous examples—a family that made some urgent modifications and bought a portable ramp that never got out of the box because their loved one died. A family who wanted to make home better for their father who was in their 80’s—he passed away just before we were to visit the home. He was surrounded by his grandchildren and passed quietly in his sleep—isn’t that how we would all like to go.

One lesson, the one I would like to see, is that we need to be proactive in order for adaptations to our homes to provide value. But I’m sure many others will see a lesson of “why bother.” Perhaps this will be resignation that the latter stages of our life will be short and not worth taking precautions for. And that will be true for some. But for many more, life could be safer and more gratifying if we plan ahead. Not just for things like walk in showers or masters on the main, but for basic requirements for sound roof, durable flooring and efficient HVAC.

As a generation, which will be the lesson we most often learn—act, wait or not bother at all?