Industrial design leader, GE Appliances & Lighting
Hottenroth, 43, heads GE's team as they learn how to design better appliances for older Americans.
"We hold empathy sessions to help our designers understand what the aging population goes through every day — we tape their knuckles to represent arthritic hands, put kernels of popcorn in their shoes to create imbalances, and weigh down pans to simulate putting food into ovens. We have a moving-parts kitchen that helps us build products like our wall oven, which is at a height where people don't have to stoop down or stretch awkwardly over the stove to take that turkey out of the oven. Designing for boomers is critical — someone turns 50 in the U.S. every seven seconds. They won't give up style or performance, and they won't buy something made specifically for the aging because that's not how they see themselves. But if it's easier to use and it speaks to their needs, they'll love it. And if something is easier for a 65-year-old to use, it's going to be easier for a 35-year-old to use."
-Online Extended Q&A-
Fast Company: What are the benefits of these empathy sessions? Do you conduct them only for the aging population, or for other groups as well?
MH: Many others—it’s all to get designers outside of their comfort zone, where they’re designing for themselves. The question I get a lot is, ‘what came out of that session?’ Design is not linear, but cumulative. It’s about filling up the bucket of experiences. When we do an empathy session focused on a specific group, everything we do after that will be more desired by that group. And if something is easier for a 65-year-old to use it’s going to be easier for a 35-year-old to use.
FC: What are some products that have benefited from these sessions?
MC: We have a moving-parts kitchen that helps us explore different configurations. We’ve been able to put refrigeration drawers at the point they’re needed—a vegetable drawer at the sink, for example. Induction cooktops are also really nice, because the surface doesn’t get hot—the pan gets hot. If there’s no connection between the pan and the burner, the burner doesn’t work, so there’s no risk if you forget to turn it off.
FC: Beyond empathy sessions, how do you consider their needs?
MH: We start building these scenarios and personas of different people. A couple, for example, may be redoing their home. They want to age in place, and they want to spend X amount of money to do it, rather than spending the money to move. That’s an opportunity for us. We just have to figure out how to understand them.
FC: What’s the trick to reaching this demographic?
MC: Someone turns 50 in the US every seven seconds. Life expectancy for this generation is 19 years longer than generations past. From a business perspective, designing to their needs is critical. But we don’t expect boomers to give up anything. You can’t say "hey, we made this just for you and your aging." The aesthetics have to be appropriate. Boomers won’t buy something made specifically for the aging population because that’s not how they see themselves.
FC: How do other age groups benefit from these designs?
MC: Our single double wall oven, for example, works for the boomers because it’s at a height where people don’t have to stoop down or stretch awkwardly over the stove to take that turkey out of the oven. For the younger crowd, it offers a smaller second option, which is nice if you’re just heating for one person. So ergonomically, it’s a nice configuration for an aging person, or someone young who doesn’t have a big family.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.