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NewsMay 18, 2017

Rethinking design with the user in mind

Students and senior citizens collaborate on creative solutions

Seniors and students collaborate in user design class.

By Georgia Sparling

Students who signed up for Lisa Spitz's new Design Thinking and Research course had no idea that their design inspiration for the semester would center on people more than three times their age.

“I think initially they were a little bit surprised by the class,” says Spitz, an assistant professor of design.

The course, mandatory for all design students, was created around the relatively new concept of “design thinking” that emphasizes creative problem-solving by putting human needs at the center of the design process.

“I wanted students to challenge their pre-existing assumptions and start the design process by empathizing with real people,” Spitz says of her students.

Businesses are looking for designers who are familiar with the design thinking process, according to Spitz.

“Having someone who is a strategic problem solver, who can work collaboratively in teams, is just as important as being a strong visual designer,” she says.

Finding Solutions for Expanding Populations of Older Adults

Design student Piper Galyean redefines creative problem-solving.
Design student Piper Galyean redefines creative problem-solving.

Students were split into teams for the entire semester, and for the initial phase of the design they collaborated with three senior citizens who were at least 65. They continued to meet with these user experts throughout the semester.

Spitz, along with design consultant and adjunct professor Deb Biggar, connected with the Institute for Human Centered Design on the class. The Boston-based nonprofit brought in three “user experts” to meet with students throughout the spring semester. During these meetings, they tasked students with figuring out a problem that affects elderly adults and coming up with a solution.

Biggar says seniors are a critical focus for designers as people continue to live longer and experience challenges. For example, some seniors want or need to take public transportation but reduced mobility puts them at risk for falling on crowded buses.

“It’s going to be a worldwide situation where, if we don’t plan for it, we’re not going to be prepared for serving their needs,” says Biggar. “We’re trying to help students think about real situations.”

Respect Your Elders

Relating to the seniors was a challenge at first, remarked several students. It also proved to be eye-opening.

“What they’re concerned about is very different than what our age group is,” says sophomore Emily Paredes. “Jeffrey [Drucker] and Stephen [Salmon] are both legally blind, but they’re capable of a lot more than you would think.”

Joan Hill, another user expert, told students about her limitations with mobility, particularly traversing uneven surfaces.

Using this information, students had to put themselves in the place of the user experts and then formulate their designs. As they brainstormed concepts and discussed them with the senior citizens, the teams re-evaluated their designs several times.

The process was meant to teach students an important part of the design thinking philosophy.

“The idea is, if you’re going to fail, fail fast. Have the idea fail quickly before you’ve spent money to create it,” Biggar explains.

Solutions, Ideas, and Suggestions

The class culminated with each team presenting its innovations. After learning from the user experts that seniors often need help with manual tasks due to reduced mobility, one team envisioned the Handi app, a mobile and web program that would allow them to enlist Handi-approved workers to perform such tasks as shoveling snow or mowing the lawn for a prearranged fee. Like Lyft or Uber, all financial transactions would be conducted through the app.

Another group sought to improve assisted living facilities by creating a more customizable home for retirees, complete with an indoor garden for those who can’t move outside easily.

Following each presentation, the user experts offered their opinions and suggestions.

Joan Hill, Piper Galyean, Ayisat Balogun and Katarina Harshbarger talk about design.
Joan Hill is shown helping teams to prioritize "problem statements" according to how relevant they are to her own life.

Commenting on the assisted living project, Salmon, an 84-year-old Cambridge resident and crossword puzzle creator, suggested providing seniors with an opportunity to interact with animals, which has been proven to better physical and mental health for the elderly.

On the topic of the Body Band, a wearable, pain-relieving band that cools, heats and pulses, Hill encouraged the students to provide more research. The septuagenarian, who has experience as a researcher and editorial assistant, told the Body Band team: “The concept is really good. I’d be interested in the science.”

Another team conceived of a grocery app through which customers could purchase and reorder their favorite brands by scanning the barcode on a product they already have at home. Drucker cautioned the team saying, “There’s no way to copyright this. Amazon is going to come calling and beat the pants off you.”

A Rewarding and Honest Collaboration

Despite having some constructive criticism, Drucker and the other user experts said working with the students was rewarding.

“I like being with the younger people, who are the movers and shakers of the world,” Drucker, a 65-year-old Allston resident, said. “They have the ideas, I have the life experience.”

Steve Salmon reviews one team's "Elder Park," with Christine Lopez Corado (left) and Stacia Pedersen (right).
Steve Salmon reviews one team's "Elder Park," with Christine Lopez Corado (left) and Stacia Pedersen (right).

Spitz and Biggar want the class to be a jumping-off point for young designers that will give them useful, marketable skills in their careers.

“I think it broadened their perspective of what design is,” says Spitz. “I’m hoping it becomes a cornerstone class that changes their perspective so they can be more successful in the long term.”