Ollie Phelan of Versus Arthritis writes about the importance of the end-user being at the heart of design

Design Council
Oct 17, 2019 · 5 min read

Good design touches our lives every day. From the cars we drive to the beds we sleep in, the equipment and products that we use have been designed to make our lives easier. But often design decisions fail to consider those with physical limitations — and people with issues with physical mobility, such as arthritis, often bear the brunt of these decisions.

Christine is one of these people. “I wouldn’t consider myself physically disabled,” she told us, “but arthritis impacts on almost everything I do. I haven’t had a bath in two years as I can’t get in and out of the tub. I struggle with anything where you have to apply pressure through the thumbs or wrists.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Inclusive design can make the difference.

The workshop

Earlier this year, The Design Council, in collaboration with the Institution of Engineering and Technology, Versus Arthritis and the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design delivered a two-day design led workshop for the Department for Health and Social Care and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Opened by Caroline Dinenage MP, Minister of State for Care, the workshop brought together a wide range of perspectives to collaboratively use design to explore three selected challenges of living with low dexterity: getting in and out of bed; getting in and out of a bath; getting in and out of a car.

These are activities many take for granted, but for people with low dexterity like those with arthritis, they can be daily mountains to climb. Research by Versus Arthritis shows that 55% of people with arthritis struggle with at least two activities of daily living — simple things like bathing, dressing, cooking. Tackling these challenges is central to affording people dignity and independence as they age.

The workshop participants came from a range of backgrounds, with each group comprising of people with lived experience of low-dexterity, engineers, designers, experts and clinicians.

Rather than jump straight into solution mode to these challenges, a design approach supported people at the workshop to take a step back to explore the real problems experienced by people living with low dexterity and mobility and to discover insights on what this means for everyday living. From these insights grew the shoots of creative ideas.

Framework for Innovation

These ideas were nurtured and prioritised, and the top themes were developed into the beginning of a design brief. A ‘plug-and-play’ bathroom where components could be switched in and out to adapt to the changing needs of the inhabitant. An adaptable, accessible flatpack bed. Participants came up with creative and innovative ideas that provided real insight into the challenges faced by people with low dexterity and the solutions that could be designed.

Inclusive Design

What became very clear early in the workshop was how people were not interested in designing special products for people with special needs, which can often be stigmatising but rather supporting better products for everyone. This principle of inclusive design rose to the top very quickly.

Inclusive design is a process whereby ‘designers ensure that their products, environments and services address the needs of the widest possible audience’. Rather than designing for the average human, inclusive design supports designing for the benefit of the greatest number of people possible. It is this principle that is key to designing for an ageing society — creating services and products that anyone can use. Indeed, this design approach often results in products that are better for everyone, regardless of their ability. We should expect inclusivity as the new normal.

The end-user should be at the heart of design

Central to inclusive design is the user-voice. Christine was one of several people with arthritis who attended the workshop.

“Inclusive design is crucial. You have to step away from the idea that it’s “older people” having a problem and start looking at a universal problem and therefore a universal solution.”

“A lightbulb moment for me was where we were breaking down the sequence of actions that take place to actually get in and out of the car. I shared my own experience of this. It really made me realise that it’s the people on the ground with practical experience or professional expertise, who should be involved in the design of new products.”

It is only through involving people with lived experience that designers can truly pinpoint the exact problems they are trying to solve. Getting out of bed may seem a straightforward challenge, but which aspect of this causes pain? By involving people like Christine, product and service designers glean real insight and create products that truly tackle the challenges of an ageing population and are viable for marketplaces across the UK and beyond.

Emerging insight

The workshop was brief but the insight we extracted was rich.

We learnt that it is pain that many people struggle with most. Simple activities like sitting or sleeping became intolerable. How can we design products that remove the spectre of pain?

We learnt that users want adaptable products. Forget clunky handrails that take up half the bathroom, people need items that work for changing circumstances or conditions. How can we design products that adapt to the needs of their users?

Most importantly, we learnt that people want desirable, stylish, mainstream products that anyone would want to own. People do not want to settle for medicalised, stigmatising equipment. How might we meaningfully include the user-voice and design inclusively for all, rather than the average?

The funding opportunity

The ISCF for healthy ageing was recently launched. With £98m available to support ideas that will extend 5 years of life. This is a fantastic opportunity for businesses, social enterprises and charities to harness the powers of innovation and design to provide better solutions for people like Christine.

At the launch of this fund it was heartening to see the value of design recognised as a core part of the solution and key to ensuring all project have people in later life at their heart. To find out more about the fund go here:

The Design Council keenly welcome the design driven approach espoused by the Healthy Ageing Challenge Fund. If you need support in thinking about how you can lock design into your bid, please get in touch with: Dr Ambreen Shah ambreen.shah@designcouncil.org.uk

To learn more about the impact of home adaptations on the quality of life for people with arthritis, and how we can improve access to these products, read Versus Arthritis’ policy report and recommendations here: or contact Oliver Phelan o.phelan@versusarthritis.org.

Design Council

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We champion great design. For us that means design which improves lives and makes things better. http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/

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