7 Most Inspiring Products for Old People are Great New Products for You, Too.

IMC’s hometown hosted the Louisville Innovation Summit last week  Aging care is a growth industry for Louisville (headquarters for companies like Kindred, Signature Health, Humana, ResCare, etc.), and this conference exposed these companies to some outside thinking on the topic.

My favorite presentation came from Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer of IDEO. In the opening night’s keynote, Bennett explained why IDEO has “doubled down” on the aging population.  He also offered 7 Principles, 7 Inspirations, and 7 Questions around this topic.

I want to describe the inspirations (most of them the kind of great products that IMC loves to make happen), but I also want to explain why I think they inspire us. 

I have seen many presentations about products that will serve the aging population (I’ve even given some myself), and I’m always left with the impression that even dedicated and brilliant thought-leaders are talking about a demographic that lives on another planet.  The elderly are isolated by their conditions, but they are also isolated by our refusal to acknowledge that they are us, just a few years further along the spectrum we call life.

In middle age we don’t have any problem thinking we are the same person we were when we were 20, but we have a really hard time seeing that we are also the same person we’ll be when we are 80.  And that doesn’t just make us treat older people like Martians; it makes us design products that they might not actually need or want.

The most successful new products for old people  are generally the most successful products for just about everyone else: products like the iPad, and Facebook, and Skype.  Rather than bright-colored walkers and monitoring devices that turn a grandmother’s house into a low-security prison, designers should be coming up with products that transform the lives of all generations and the values we all share.

Seven Inspirations and how they serve all people (or don’t)

Here are the 7 Inspirations that Paul O’Neill cited, and my own thoughts on whether they successfully appeal to all ages:

1.                 Nissan Cube

Bennett described how Nissan’s boxy vehicle serves the needs of older people – with features like seats that pivot our of the door and lower themselves to the sidewalk – without making a big deal of it.  But it’s also a well-designed and practical vehicle for 50-year olds – and their kids. Unlike the PT Cruiser, whose retro novelty quickly screamed “I am not old!,” nothing about this product says “designed for uncool strangers.”

2.                 Chipotle

Bennett showed the brilliant animated video produced by Chipotle, in which Willie Nelson’s cover of Coldplay’s “Back to the Start” accompanies the story of factory farming, and a company that grows by rejecting it.  I can’t think of a better reminder that our core values are shared by consumers of all generations.  This video makes grandparents, parents and children all want to eat at Chipotle – and maybe even eat there together.

3.                 Maggie’s Cancer Center 

I did not know about this British concept until Bennett’s talk, but it inspired me with the reminder that design can change our lives, and that healthcare can offer healing experiences as well as treatment.  Maggie’s Cancer Centers are beautifully designed treatment facilities in Great Britain where everything from the architecture to the placement of chairs in bathrooms reminds people that cancer patients are not just numbers, but people we love and respect.

4.                  Raku-Raku

I’m not sure I agree with Bennett about this clever Korean phone.  Like the Jitterbug phone in the U.S. (though a lot cuter), this product makes smartphones accessible for old people.  While telephones should be usable by people with reduced agility (and limited tech experience), I worry that products like these perpetuate the idea that the aged are cute but clueless technophobes.  Young people will always know more about technology than older people, but that doesn’t mean our products should reinforce that fact.  Before we know it, the “elderly” will be us – which means a generation of people that has never lived without technology or smartphones. And I’ll bet that Apple has already sold more iPhones to people over 80 than companies that design special “old people” phones ever will.  Make your phones easy to use by all people, and they will be used.

5.                 Lively sensors 

Home monitoring is a big need for old people and the middle aged people who worry about them, but many companies have assumed that 80-year olds will welcome intrusive monitoring of their daily lives just to keep their children happy.  I’ve never met such an old person, and these companies seem to assume that old people stop feeling the way people feel all of their lives.   Would you like to have your every movement monitored at home?  That said, we all have concerns about things that happen in our homes, and Lively sensors  offers products that a 50-year old himself might want: like a monitor that lets you know if your stove is too hot, or your house is on fire.  Almost all of us buy home monitoring equipment (from smoke alarms to burglar alarms), and maybe the health monitoring innovators need to develop a product for the 50-year old first, and then age it up from there.

6.                  Eldercare/Orphanage in Iraq 

Bennett told the genuinely inspiring story of a U.S.-funded project in Iraq – a country with great needs across all generations: an orphanage that also provides eldercare .  Our desire to help people is a human desire, and not one that is not age-specific (why do we isolate the homeless from orphans, and orphans from their elders?), and it turns out that the best way to help people in need may be to let them help each other.  Bennett shared an inspiring video that tells a story how love and design can reinforce human dignity.

7.                    After Cicely

Bennett began his talk with a travelogue.  On an IDEO trip to China, he found himself transfixed by the early-morning exercise of old people in a park: no, not tai chi, but ballroom dancing.  The free spirit of these dancers brought tears to Bennett’s eyes, not because he hoped to feel that way when we was old, but because he hopes to feel that way now.  By isolating old people and their needs we forget how inspiring they can be to those of us who know (at least deep inside) that we are headed their way.  Bennett also shared clips from a deeply moving video, “After Cicely,”  that is about palliative care in Asia – but really about death.  It sounds morbid, but it is moving, and it left me with a reminder about marketing: the most successful new products will always inspire our highest goals, and what we ultimately seek as we prepare for our final chapter is not much different than what we seek today.

I’ve always been surprised that often marketers and designers feel so removed from the consumers who are their partners.  And it’s hard to connect with others if you can’t find part of them in yourself.

That failure to connect seems sharper than ever in the world of serving the aging population, where the best way to generate business, loyalty and growth from aging consumers may be recognizing that they are not so different from yourself.

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