Nicholas Steigmann & Maiya Jensen: What Millennials Can Learn About Innovation by Designing for Seniors
This year’s winners of the Stanford Center on Longevity’s annual Design Challenge explain how working with seniors challenged their assumptions about product design and innovation itself
People often assume millennial designers only want to create products popular with their own generation, like the next wearable device or smartphone app. And while that may be true for some, we’ve personally been much more inspired by designing a product for people nowhere near our age. In the process, we also learned a lot that challenged our assumptions about design in general.
The specific product was a tool to help functionally-limited people and seniors—our submission for the annual Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge, which two of our mentors, a former researcher from IDEO and a design engineer, encouraged us to enter. We started the design process by researching unmet needs for elderly mobility, then identified a common problem: falling.
Our original plan was to create a tool that helped prevent falling. But that design evolved in ways we didn’t anticipate. Here’s why:
First-Hand Research is Key
Sometimes designers shy away from first-hand research and want to go straight to solutions, but our mentors encouraged us to embrace it, especially when working with older adults. We called numerous senior care facilities and sometimes even went door to door. We also worked with physical therapists directly during the design process, learning the key physical constraints we should take into account. Throughout this process, we learned it was important not just to listen, but to listen well—not taking everything literally, but instead, interpreting what the people we interviewed were really trying to express.
To our surprise, not only did the seniors enjoy giving us feedback, they spent time looking over our designs and commenting on them. This taught us to defer judgement and not to get too attached to any one design, because it was crucial to constantly reevaluate how the current design was used by the seniors we worked with. For this reason, it was also important that we kept our process and prototypes flexible. That required bringing prototyping supplies with us into the field, so that we could adjust on the fly and get real-time feedback.
One woman we worked with lived in the Berkeley Hills. To reach her, we’d have to take public transportation and then carry bags of prototypes up steep hills to her doorway. We would be tired from our treks, but as she tested our prototypes and gave us feedback, our morale would lift dramatically. We eventually realized this dynamic happened most often when we were able to do research and testing in people’s homes, where we could sit with them and get their feedback in a comfortable space.
First-hand research also made us realize that our original fall-prevention concept was not the one that was most needed. Our biggest turning point came when we re-evaluated what the problem really was. In doing so, we discovered we needed to re-frame the product in a totally different way.
Design Products to Reflect How the User Sees Themselves—Not How Others Do
Documenting seniors’ needs—far more than a fall-prevention solution
We had spent a long time focusing on falling and fall prevention, because those were the existing product needs on the market. The early versions of our design were focused on helping people get up from a fall.
Through our first-hand research, however, we realized there was a bigger opportunity: mobility devices that are personally empowering and can add value to elders’ everyday lives, rather than just being a safety net in case something bad happened. Most of the market is focused on “band-aid”-type solutions designed around infirmity, which only call out the user’s mobility limitations (especially when they are out with family). That didn’t reflect how the seniors we worked with saw themselves: Not powerless or disabled, but wise and savvy authors of their own lives.
This insight helped us with the final design:
Don’t Design for End-Users, Design With Them
The cut-up shoes of one senior helped us realize what our product should be
We realized that seniors’ lives and activities had been dramatically altered by their fears and functional limitations. People would stop doing activities such as gardening or floor exercises altogether. One woman we interviewed went as far as cutting holes in the backs of her shoes, so she could slip into them without having to bend down.
One of our mentors, Dr. June Fisher, told us to consider our test users and research subjects as our collaborators, helping to sculpt our product to their needs. True to her advice, we learned how users ultimately define what our tool is for, not us. We were amazed to watch people use our prototype in ways we didn’t plan on or expect. People were using it to engage in exercises that they hadn’t done in years, and carried it with them for all ground-related tasks around the house.
So in the end, instead of creating an anti-fall device, we created a tool to help seniors engage with the activities they’d otherwise been neglecting, in a safe and dignified way. The final design reflects the constraints our research introduced: A tool that was portable, comfortable, and safe to use in a variety of ways. (Our product’s final name, SPAN, reflects those goals.)
Current prototype now in final user testing
We were fortunate to win the Design Challenge for 2014-2015, and as a result, received a lot of interest in SPAN, from physical therapists to the President’s Council on Fitness. We’re now aiming to put SPAN out on the market as a real, mass-produced product, and testing our patent-pending version at facilities in California and Delaware. Whether it succeeds or not, working with a demographic far outside of our own helped us become much better designers: far more proactive and open to questioning our conceptual assumptions—and far more focused on design as a collaborative process.
The authors after winning the Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge
Maiya Jensen & Nicholas Steigmann are co-founders of SPAN, 2014-2015’s winning submission for the Stanford Center on Longevity annual Design Challenge. Follow development progress of their SPAN project at @span_mobility. This Op-Ed is republished with their kind permission.