The Age Of Design

Baby boomers serve as a common denominator for consumer-durables manufacturers.

Between 1946 and 1964 an estimated 76 million babies were born in the United States. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Administration on Aging -- an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, this generation represents nearly 30% of the U.S. population, and in nine to 27 years, this huge demographic will be 65 years or older. As these baby boomers approach their golden years, they are expected to be on the lookout for user-friendly household products such as washers, dryers and refrigerators. This presents a challenge to consumer-durables manufacturers: To capture this lucrative market, design teams will need to create products that are easy for older consumers to use but don't patronize their age. "There is a delicate balance that needs to be addressed," explains Greg Holderfield, director of industrial design at Chicago-based Herbst Lazar Bell Inc., a provider of product design and development solutions. "You don't want to have products that you'd be embarrassed to have out in your living room, products that look cartoonish or look medical. These products have a lack of status associated with them. Baby boomers have money; they want to spend money." While the oldest baby boomers -- at 56 -- can't be described as ancient, neither are they kids anymore. Their vision is deteriorating, and they have to face the possibility of arthritis interfering with simple tasks. However, the generation that marched in the '60s, discoed in the '70s, coined the "Me" generation in the '80s and learned what an empty nest feels like in the '90s and beyond doesn't want to go gently into that good night. They want stylish products that are easy to use; products that don't scream, "I'm old!" What is a consumer-durables manufacturer to do? Some companies are addressing the aging population by designing products that can be used by all consumers. One company that takes this approach is white-goods manufacturers Whirlpool Corp., Benton Harbor, Mich. "Nothing and everything is developed for the aging population," says Charles Jones, vice president of global consumer design at Whirlpool. "They are universal products that all consumers can benefit from. Yes, an older consumer is a main benefactor, but the 12-year-old user and the middle-aged user find the products more use-friendly too." Whirlpool's philosophy is that if it makes a product that is easy to use by people with differing physical capabilities, it benefits the entire population. One such product that it recently introduced is the Whirlpool Duet clothes washer and dryer. The concept: front-loading appliances placed upon a pedestal complete with angled baskets and enlarged doors. The benefit: The pedestal -- which actually is a drawer that provides storage space -- raises the washer and dryer to a level that minimizes the amount of bending required to load and unload laundry. The angled basket and enlarged door also make for easier clothes retrieval. Designers of the Duet were influenced by a study in which they observed people who had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis using Whirlpool products. While reviewing the study, Whirlpool noted that the existing push/pull and torque forces it was using were difficult for the test subjects to use, Jones explains. Whirlpool consciously adjusted the rotary torque forces on its laundry products as a result of that study. Another manufacturer that sees an opportunity in aging consumers is Monroe, Mich.-based La-Z-Boy Inc. The company's well-known lift chair didn't start out as a direct-to-consumer product. Instead, it was a product that was offered as part of its health-care line in the 1980s. "We took the [lift chair] and moved it into our residential product line because there were a lot of requests at the time for a product that looked [nice] and could be used to [help] consumers get out of their chairs," notes Dave Westendorf, vice president of research and product development at La-Z-Boy. While La-Z-Boy doesn't make the bulk of its money from lift chairs -- the company sells about 25,000 units a year, which is just 1% of the company's 2.5 million total units sold in its residential group -- it has seen the benefits of catering to an older market. It also understands that aging consumers want quality products, and they aren't afraid to pay for them. "We designed a good, solid, durable product -- in other words it's a fairly expensive product," says Westendorf. "We didn't go price sensitive; we really wanted a product that would stand the test of time." Westendorf also notes that his company is not going to rest on its laurels. It plans to continue to develop products that will benefit the baby-boomer generation and beyond. "We have a tremendous amount of folks that are my age," jokes Westendorf. "I think we will start to target and develop products that cater to consumers that are headed into their golden years." To be sure, La-Z-Boy implements the best practice of continuous improvement and a little serendipity. The manufacturer introduced Airflex, a recliner that features a 10-motor massage function with two air pillows located in the lumbar area. Developed to relieve back pain and stiffness, the product spawned a new product, Slumber Air, which puts air into a sleeper-sofa mattress. Now consumers can sleep on five inches of air plus five inches of mattress instead of the traditional six inches of mattress and coils, says Westendorf. According to Westendorf, sales are 20,000-plus units per year, which La-Z-Boy considers a successful launch. While some benefits of consumer-durables products are passive -- a more comfortable bed is appreciated, but doesn't require the consumer to do much -- there are plenty of items that require consumer interaction. If that interaction isn't the easiest it can be, manufacturer's run the risk of losing customer loyalty. "As with a lot of products today, especially technological products, the experience is almost as important as the overall aesthetics," says Herbst Lazar's Holderfield. However, the experience needs to remain simple. Holderfield notes that manufacturers are faced with a difficult problem of adding benefits to their products that enable the marketing department to differentiate its products from the competition. "Manufacturers create a lot of interface and a lot of bells and whistles that at the end of the day the consumer is probably not going to use," says Holderfield. "One of our challenges is how to take a step back and simplify and make the basics the very best they can be." His suggestions:

  • Be aware of the size and placement of controls; how users actually interface with the product is very important.
  • Provide value-added features such as rubber keypads as apposed to push buttons.
  • Rotary knobs are very difficult for an aging population to use because of arthritis. Consumers are better off pushing a button than gripping a knob and turning it.
  • Be cognizant of typeface style and size. Consumers need to be able to read the controls in order to use your product properly.
A good example, according to Holderfield, is Sunbeam Corp.'s electric blanket controller, which Herbst Lazar designed. "That product was designed for an aging buyer. We created a figure-8 shape so that it was very different from other remotes, therefore making it easily identifiable in your bedroom. The color scheme was white so it stood out because it was brighter. The buttons were a bit oversized and tactile. And a simple, non-threatening interface. I think that's a good example of a really successful product."
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