By 2030, as many as one in five Americans could be over the age of 65. With these changing demographics, designers will have to rethink some of the devices that are meant to make older people’s lives easier.
Take the walker. Most available products have small, rickety wheels that rattle when they’re taken outside—which can cause pain for people with arthritis. Many walkers don’t have braking systems that are easy for older hands to use, which can be dangerous if the person tries to sit on a device and it starts to roll away. Another common problem: Many walkers don’t fold up well, making it difficult for an older person to put them into a car and further limiting their already restricted mobility. Walkers also tend to lack aesthetic consideration, a vexing oversight for people who don’t want to see themselves as disabled.
A new prototype from students at the ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles addresses these issues in one sleek concept. Called Lio, the prototype is the result of extensive ethnographic research. The students Margaux Reynolds, Jikke van Giffen, Skyler Coppenrath, and Alberto Esses spoke to users, physical therapists, and caregivers and visited one of the largest rehabilitation centers in the country. They even tried using walkers themselves.
As a result, Lio focuses on functionality, performance, portability, and aesthetics. To ensure that the walker could be used outdoors easily, the designers made the wheels larger than what you find on most walkers. They also made the front wheels bigger than the back ones. They found that using bigger wheels overall meant that it was easier to traverse rough surfaces and go up and down curbs.
Additionally, the prototype has a 3D-printed suspension system to reduce rattling. This element of the walker is made of a flexible silicon material that’s marked by cutouts to absorb the shock of traveling outside on bumpy terrain. The material is also light, making it easier to lift the product.
The students also needed to tackle the issue with braking. Reynolds explains that most walkers today use a braking system that’s similar to that of a bike, but older people can have trouble gripping a brake tight enough for it to be effective. And given that many walkers have a seat so that users can sit down on if they’re tired, the brake has to hold steady—otherwise, the users, already unsteady on their feet, could lose their balance and fall. So the students engineered an electrically assisted braking system so that all the user has to do is push a button.
Along with ensuring the walker’s basic functionality, the team also wanted to improve its portability. Today’s walkers typically only fold in half, which makes them flatter but doesn’t reduce their overall footprint or make them easy to handle. So the team devised a way for the product to fold in half twice, so that its folded size is only a quarter of its unfolded size. That way, people who need help walking won’t have as much of a problem putting the walker into a vehicle. In turn, they may feel more independent.
The final element of the design is the aesthetic piece—something that on first glance might not seem important. But that’s not what the designers found during the research process. “There’s a surface stigma,” Reynolds says. “People see themselves differently, they feel crippled, they’re not cool, they’re not desirable. The way they see themselves gets changed through the use of the walker.”
They also discovered that users would often see their walker like a cast, decorating it with stickers and other materials to make it their own. To give users more choice over the physical appearance of Lio, the students designed Lio to be a modular system—many of the parts can be made in different colors and styles that they envision future customers could select either online or in a store.
The design team is now starting to think about how to turn their prototype into a real product. Reynolds says one company is interested in partnering with them so far but declined to give more details.
For Reynolds, who’s primarily interested in design strategy, focusing on the elderly market is a huge opportunity for designers. “There’s so much low-hanging fruit,” she says. Why shouldn’t designers be solving the problems of their 73-year-old selves?