Design Education: Learning from Older Adults

During the Fall semester of 2012, students of the School of Industrial Design studied at the Wesley Woods retirement community, learning from older adults.  The studio, under Assistant Professor Dr. Claudia B. Rebola, focused on the full cycle of designing products, from problem definition to design iteration and prototype deliverables. Students were provided an in-depth understanding of how to design products using Universal Design principles as they worked to develop interactive products for older adults. Universal Design promotes, among other things, product design that is usable by virtually anyone, regardless of their physical ability.

 Students participated in presentations, lectures and in-class discussions, readings, and formal project reviews. But the most important accomplishment of the class was the opportunity for students to spend extended periods of time with both the products being designed and their intended users. Students visited the Wesley Woods Towers retirement community in Atlanta once a week to spend time with the residents.

 Students pursued a “contextual” design process including observations of older adults dynamics in the community, and engaged in activities with them such personal interviews and conversations, and even games, music, and other activities. Throughout the semester, students applied the knowledge they were learning from older adults into the design of technologies to support the daily activities of residents. Students considered older adults’ basic needs (i.e. nutrition, wellness, socialization, security, cognition, to mention a few) and how these can inspire new design concepts. They sketched ideas, analyzed research results through affinity diagrams, and developed mockups of concepts and prototypes.

 While designing interactive products, students applied the seven principles of Universal Design: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use. In order to support the teaching, School of ID professor Jon Sanford showcased students’ examples of universally designed products. In addition, some of his other students helped the studio class by providing feedback. Students also got feedback on their designs from Brian Jones, Project Director of the Wireless RERC Building Student Capacity project and Director of the Aware Home Research Initiative, and from experts on design for aging from the “Design and Technologies for Healthy Aging” (DATHA) Coalition Initiative, including Scott Morrison from BrightStar Care.

 At the end of the semester, students designed seven universally design solutions that are integrated as a system employing a common brand identity. Solutions under the brand name “S*AGE: Simplifying Aging” included a new system to monitor water intake to help older adults remain hydrated; a community-based event planner system to encourage older adults to participate in social events; a home system to design resident spaces to make them feel at home; an ambient technology device to bring the sense of nature to the resident units; to mention a few. Solutions were showcased at the Wesley Woods Towers gaining awareness from residents and staff of the community. According to Prof. Rebola, the course was a great success, as students learned to design products for the user, around the user and with the user. She emphasized the importance of iterative testing and feedback from the residents in the community.     

 This advanced design course was sponsored in part by a Federally funded laboratory at Tech, the Wireless RERC, one of several national labs that explore the use of technologies for people with physical, cognitive, and other limitations, including older adults. Wesley Woods Towers, established in 1987 and component of Emory Healthcare, is a retirement home community in Atlanta specializing in providing the facilities and care needed to allow older adults to fully enjoy the benefits of senior living.

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  • Wesley Woods retirement home 2012