Airport Moving Walkway

The so-called ‘demographic time bomb’ is ticking. But is product design good enough to keep up with the ageing population?

A good inclusive design not only excludes fewer people but also reduces the level of frustration that many able-bodied people find when they’re using the same products. That’s the clear message we take out into industry.

Professor Clarkson

By 2020, nearly half the adult population in the UK will be over 50 years old. Many will face everyday challenges as a result of failing mobility, vision, hearing and dexterity. And yet products are often designed with only the able-bodied user in mind. Researchers at the Cambridge Engineering Design Centre (EDC) in the Department of Engineering have a vision – to re-educate designers to design mainstream products that are usable by as many people as possible. This ethos is described simply as ‘inclusive design’.

‘A good inclusive design not only excludes fewer people but also reduces the level of frustration that many able-bodied people find when they’re using the same products. That’s the clear message we take out into industry. Tackle the problems that lead to exclusion and you tackle the problems that lead to frustration – in that sense inclusive design is just better design,’ explains Professor John Clarkson, Director of the EDC. ‘Everybody has used products that frustrate them and also products that delight – which would you buy?’, says Dr Terry Dickerson, Industrial Liaison Manager at the EDC.

A fruitful collaboration

The third consecutive four-year programme in inclusive design, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), has just begun at the EDC, with the aim of defining a national dataset for describing people’s capabilities, aspirations and desires in their interactions with products. From the outset, Professor Roger Coleman at the Royal College of Art (RCA; has been a crucial partner. As Professor Clarkson says: ‘We have a unique project in the UK – we are an engineering design group working directly alongside a product design group. It’s this alliance that has proved so valuable.’ One of the outcomes of this extraordinarily fruitful collaboration is the development of a toolkit to promote and inform on the benefits of inclusive design.

Tools for change

The increasingly aged population makes a compelling case for designing inclusively, both in the home and in the workplace. And from a business viewpoint, the economic advantages of designing products that more people can use are clear. But where do designers and key decision makers in business begin?

The research-based collaboration between the EDC and the RCA, together with input from the product development company Sagentia, has had multi-dimensional and creative results. A principle component is their online Inclusive Design Toolkit (, sponsored by BT, which was launched in July 2007 at the Business Design Centre in London. The website and accompanying book raise awareness of the range of potential product users, give guidance to design better products, and allow designers to assess how many people might be excluded from using their product because of poor design.

A simple design change can make an enormous difference to many users: enhancing the colour contrast on the controls of a kitchen appliance not only makes them easier to locate for those with reduced vision, but also for those with good vision. The typically haphazard layout of a car-park ticket machine can cause great confusion for those who have not used it before, yet simple changes to layout and labelling can demystify the process and enable everyone to buy a ticket with ease. As a Design Council report shows (Design Index, 2005), this user-centred approach is both good for the customer and good for business.

Simulating impairment

Imagine if, as a designer, you could momentarily experience the stiffened joints, loss of strength and visual impairments that the people you wish to include encounter every day. A fascinating move towards this by the EDC has been the building of physical simulators for a range of disabilities. ‘We can’t mimic the underlying causes of disabilities, or how people adapt to them,’ says Professor Clarkson, ‘but we can give an indication of some of the challenges faced.’

Ten complete physical impairment simulator kits have now been built and early studies looking at the response of designers to ‘fast-forwarding’ age-related disabilities have been hugely encouraging as to their usefulness. Eventually, the aim is to calibrate the simulator kits so that they directly relate to specific levels of impairment. Simulation kits like these can help overcome potential disconnection between the designer and the end-user. However, as Professor Clarkson cautions: ‘This is just one part of the process to enable designers to gain more insight into diversity in the population. We strongly encourage designers to talk to actual users, engage with the people they are designing for and see at first-hand how they use the products.’

The future is inclusive

By creating software and hardware support for the challenges faced by today’s and tomorrow’s designers, the EDC is providing important engineering benefits in the UK. As we move rapidly towards a demographic shift in age, with dramatic lifestyle implications, promoting inclusive design and supporting those who will manage it is becoming increasingly important for individuals and manufacturers alike. The researchers at EDC are passionate that inclusive design needs to be a core activity – that inclusive design is about ‘removing unnecessary obstacles in everyday life’. For the ageing population, this could make the difference in helping individuals to lead independent lives for as long as possible.

For more information, please contact Professor John Clarkson( at the EDC ( To discuss commercialisation opportunities, please contact Cambridge Enterprise Ltd (

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