Want to feel older?

April , 2009

I read an article recently about a specialized suit developed by a lab at MIT.  This suit makes it harder to grip things, harder to walk without stumbling, and harder to see clearly.

Why on earth would anyone want to wear such a thing, let alone spend time and effort to create it?  Well, because when a young designer puts it on, he or she can see and feel for themselves what it’s like to be older.  Feeling it for oneself is so much more powerful than simply knowing, for example, the fact that some people have trouble opening jars.  Everyone who tried out the suit commented that they had no idea it would be like that.

Most of the time, it’s fairly easy to design things that are for people just like us.  The true design challenge comes in when trying to design something for someone quite different from ourselves.

I worked for many years in the automotive industry in Michigan.  While there are many very smart, dedicated and hard-working engineers there, the industry as a whole suffers some from being so insular and localized.  Those companies do a good job designing for “us” but not always a good job designing for “them”.

Lest we in Silicon Valley get too complacent, there are plenty of attitudes of that sort here too, although perhaps not yet as entrenched.

We all have a tendency to think others are the same as we are.  As designers, it’s important to stay aware of differences, and broaden our experience.  So keep reading varying points of view, live and work in different industries and different locations, and hey, if that MIT suit ever goes on the road, I for one am going to try it out!

A summary of the article may be seen here:  http://tinyurl.com/celjah
(One can see the complete article, but only with an archive account.)

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2 Responses to “Want to feel older?”

  1. May said

    Hey, what a great blog! And an excellent post. I’d be curious about your thoughts regarding the automotive industry’s design process and specifications, e.g., your thoughts on how to design cars for “them”. Is there a way to make cars that are designed with a broader customer base in mind, yet still be produced at reasonable scale and cost?

    Being a short person, I’ve often wished more cars fit me better, especially given the safety issues around sitting close to the steering wheel. (Of course, I’m thinking a little sports car would fit me quite nicely. :)

    On a related note, did you hear about the all-women design team that did the concept car for Volvo a few years ago? It was brilliant. My favorite design feature: a slot in the head rest for a pony tail to fit comfortably. Seriously, that would be a fantastic feature.

    • On designing for different sized people, that’s actually a really tough problem, because already designers are required to fit in a 95th percentile male and a 5th percentile female. And typically the only thing that moves is the seat, and in some cases the steering wheel can tip. Plus there are some constraints on how much travel the seat can have, don’t recall the details.

      On an industry, any industry, being better at designing for “them” I think the trick is to hire in from outside. Outside your company, outside your industry, outside your region.

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