Pt 2. Design Research & Health: Empathy for Aging Populations

photo of my late grandma, Dorian Brown, who created an innovative dance/movement therapy program for Parkinson's patients.

*Note: this post and the previous one are inspired by John Thackara's In The Bubble: Designing In A Complex World.

A few days ago, I wrote about how design decisions can foster or hinder community (and therefore personal) health. When I say health, I don't only mean creating more patient-centric healthcare, but also designing our lives - spatially, time-wise - to make room for healthy behaviors and shift the focus from reactive to preventative care. In other words, designing not for consumption but for interaction.

If the future of health & well-being depends on the everyday, like Thackara and so many others  have argued, then as design researchers with an eye for innovation, we must understand humans' everyday reality. For me, this is where qualitative research comes in, particularly the ethnographic method. 

A great, tangible example that Thackara writes about is the (often forgotten) aging population:

The simplest way to think about design for old people is that 'they' are 'we.' Pirkl uses 'transgenerational' design to bridge the physical and sensory changes associated with aging (122).

In other words, innovation researcher Pirkl has developed methods to facilitate empathy, one of the most important tools for researchers. Interestingly enough, as I jotted this note down, I got distracted with an article from the New Yorker from the "Un-invent this" section about the idiocy of high heels. The author, Mary Karr, writes that high heels, after a long dormant period, were made popular by male designers like Dior. She goes on to viscerally describe negative (and longterm) effects she and many others have from stilettos, "named for a dagger." The precise history of high heels and their usage may be more nuanced and not as simple as "man poorly designs something to inflict upon women," but you get the point. Having been designed without empathy in mind, these shoes have, arguably, become a disaster for their users (primarily, but not exclusively, women) who experience a wide variety of foot, hip, and back problems from their extreme design.

Similarly, design decisions made "for" elderly people without considering their actual needs often creates pain - emotionally and physically. Isolated buildings with windy staircases, houses with too many front steps, or even tiny, tiny text that's hard for aging eyes to read can lead to frustration and even sadness. Some organizations recognize that this is a problem. Thackara writes that the European Design for Ageing Network has created slightly-altered products to assist with aging-related difficulties. Some of these include:

...packaging that opens without the need to slice it (and potentially one's hand) open with a knife; clothing that is easy to wear and maintain but still looks good; chairs that are easy to get into and out of; houses that can accommodate changing space and equipment needs; clear signs and labeling on buildings, vehicles, and products in shops; cups, door, handles, light switches, supermarket carts.... (122).

These innovations benefit all of us since, even though we in the West like to conveniently push this fact aside, we are all at this very moment, practically speaking, aging and therefore dying. Even as the world speeds up at a lightning pace in this "information age," some basic, fundamental realities of our bodies and mortality remain the same. Thackara writes, "Elders have and embody knowledge and insights that cannot be learned from a textbook, website, or business school,"  so, why aren't we tapping that knowledge base? Besides, as countless studies have shown, isolation is a major "pain point" for elderly populations. Therefore, understanding this populations' needs, and taking their lives and wisdom seriously, relates to another question, as Thackara puts it: "how to enable older people to be more 'present' in their communities." Besides, he rightly explains, "Social contact is more important for people of all ages, not just elders, than first-aid systems and fancy wireless distress-call systems." So, health in this case is innately holistic: not only about physical symptoms, but also emotional and spiritual well-being through connection (123). 

While empathy, in my opinion, is key to great design research, I believe there is a fine line between being empathetic and projecting your own interests and realities onto others. This is why organizations often hire outside agencies to do user research: if an employee lives and breathes a certain product or service, they are likely to have a skewed view of its use and who they believe is using it. However, even if you are hired as a third party, with projects that are personal and particularly ones that are exciting or feel more like "passion projects," it's even more important to remain open to your actual findings versus what you want to uncover or subconsciously believe to be true. 

When it comes to health-related design research projects, this can be tricky, especially if you want to push what you consider a forward-thinking health agenda. The next post I write will be about remaining neural & ethical when conducting user research, specifically using the ethnographic method. I will also weave in "nudge theory" and behavioral economics as I promised I would do in this post (whoops, see previous post, "Inspired by Distraction," for excuse :) )