Design sketching

Some of the most venerable names in European business are to join a research consortium which could usher in a new generation of "iconic" products for people who have difficulty using everyday items.

The consortium will aim to change this situation by providing leading companies with the tools and expertise they need to design inclusive products and services that make a real difference.

Professor John Clarkson

Starting today (Monday, May 10th), representatives from companies as diverse as Nestlé, Marks & Spencer and the BBC will embark on a series of meetings, workshops and informal project development sessions introducing them to the latest thinking and research in the field of Inclusive Design.

The principle, also known as "Universal Design", is considered to be highly desirable by global business leaders and has already been successfully embraced by a number of leading firms, such as Sky and BT.

It involves making often simple changes to product and service design which, at relatively low cost, can render them accessible to people who struggle to use the standard models because they suffer from minor impairments, such as poor eyesight or limited manual dexterity. As a result, the market for those products is increased, in some cases opening the door to millions of new potential customers.

The network is being styled the "First European Inclusive Design for Competitive Advantage Consortium". It has been set up by the UK-based Centre for Business Innovation (CfBI), in collaboration with the University of Cambridge's Engineering Design Centre, a leading centre for research into Inclusive Design at its Department of Engineering.

Organisers hope that it will mark the beginning of a sea-change in European industry, leading to the emergence of a series of products which large numbers of people find it easier to use.

"Applied correctly, Inclusive Design is really just better design," Professor John Clarkson, Director of the Engineering Design Centre, said. "Even though its significance has been widely accepted for a decade or more, there are still relatively few examples of great inclusive products on the market in Europe."

"The consortium will aim to change this situation by providing leading companies with the tools and expertise they need to design inclusive products and services that make a real difference. Some of these may go on to become iconic new products."

Other firms which have agreed to join the inaugural Consortium include Bayer Healthcare, the Royal Bank of Scotland, La Roche and Bosch and Siemens Home Appliances.

Over the course of a year, they will develop a project introducing Inclusive Design principles into their own companies. The programme will also give them a chance to meet researchers and to visit "Centres of Excellence" which have already successfully adopted those principles themselves.

Advocates argue that the potential benefits of doing so are huge. At present there are 130 million people in the EU aged over 50 and by 2020, one in every two European adults will be in that age group.

While the majority would not be classified as disabled, many have minor problems with issues such as limited vision, hearing, or manual dexterity. This makes it harder to use everyday objects, from seemingly-impenetrable packaging, to telephones with irritatingly small buttons. Certain types of service, like the public address systems at busy train stations or websites on which the layout seems to be anything but intuitive, equally tend to become more troublesome the older people get.

Evidence from the handful of companies for whom addressing these design principles is already the norm shows that getting the change right can lead to breakthroughs both commercially and in terms of customer satisfaction.

BT, for example, has enjoyed an overall sales increase of 20% since July 2008, when it launched its inclusively designed Freestyle 750 cordless telephone, introducing minor adaptations like larger buttons and simpler volume controls. Sky, similarly, has earned plaudits for creating an "Easy Grip" remote after research found that millions of UK adults have manual dexterity problems.

"The consortium represents a huge opportunity to get the latest research out there and into industry," Rob Morland, Director of the Inclusive Design Programme at the Centre for Business Innovation, said. "Each company will have its own ideas about how to make that happen, but by working together, and with our support, they will be able to apply the Engineering Design Centre's world-leading research to their own businesses in ways that might not have emerged outside the consortium format."

Research into Inclusive Design at the University of Cambridge is generously supported by KT-EQUAL, a consortium of UK researchers dedicated to extending quality of life for older and disabled people.

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