Saturday, May 8, 2010

Product Hits and Misses: Universal Design Edition

In honor of the LEND program from which I just graduated yesterday (!!), I've got one more seminar topic to pay forward.

So for quite a few years, the vegetable peeler of choice in my kitchen has been the Good Grips peeler from OXO. It's got a comfy wide handle, it's sharp as the dickens, and it slices off a nice thin reliable peel every time. Been using it for years.
Good Grips Swivel PeelerWhat I didn't know until recently was that this product was originally designed to make vegetable-peeling more comfortable for people with arthritis -- as well as everyone else. Now, if they'd viewed and advertised it solely for the arthritis market, it would have been a tiny little adaptive niche item, sold in special needs catalogs, nobody who didn't have arthritis would have thought to buy it and even those who did would be aware of a certain stigma of using such an item ("sigh, it's a great product but it just makes me feel so old!") But that's not what they did. They had the foresight to realize and capitalize on the fact that what was good for arthritis in this product would be good for a whole lot of people, with or without vegetable peeling challenges -- and they've got a whole line of highly popular kitchen utensils now.

The Good Grips peeler is a fine example of Universal Design.

Universal Design is defined as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." The concept rests on seven principles, which are spelled out in detail at the Center for Universal Design at NC State University. I'm going to list just the principles and their basic definitions here:

Principle One: Equitable Use -- The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

Principle Two: Flexibility in Use -- The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

Principle Three: Simple and Intuitive -- Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

Principle Four: Perceptible Information -- The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.

Principle Five: Tolerance for Error -- The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

Principle Six: Low Physical Effort -- The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

Principle Seven: Size and Space for Approach and Use -- Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.

We had some interesting small-group work in the seminar, each table of students analyzing a group of products that were placed on our table, and then making forays through the building to critique design issues from the perspective of case-study scenarios -- if you were a person with certain challenges and needed to do a certain daily-living sequence of tasks in the building, how does the current setup help or hinder?

It made me think of some everyday products and some recent experiences with Joy.

Consider these two battery-powered toothbrushes:

The Dora-toothbrush on the left, from Colgate, is the first one we tried when we decided to try the battery-powered toothbrush thing with Joy. It was a good success. She can turn it on and off herself with minimal support (the pink buttons just above Dora's head), and likes the feel of it in her mouth.

However, eventually it wore out, and when I went to get another one (I think I'd forgotten which store I'd gone to), the Colgate/Dora one wasn't there. So I grabbed the one on the right, the Little Mermaid from Oral B.

Not a good move. Not only was the toothbrush kind of ugly -- the lithe form of the Little Mermaid doesn't lend itself well to wrapping around batteries! Look at the on/off switches -- the on switch is right between her clam-shell bikini, while the lower button approaches her maiden-bits. Why didn't the designer dude (it HAD to have been a guy) just put the on-off switches horizontally, press the right clamshell for on and the left for off -- but I digress. More importantly, the buttons were hard to push. Joy couldn't summon that extra force, and got very frustrated with it. In addition, the bristle-movement was more extreme, and if you didn't get the brush into your mouth right away (and Joy's not that fast with it), it would fling little bits of toothpaste around.

Big universal-design fail on the "low physical effort" principle, plus being ugly and kinda demeaning. We went back out and sought Dora in particular. Accept no substitutes.

Here's another example from our everyday life -- the door handles of our two vehicles.

Our Honda CR-V, which we've had for 10 years now:

Joy cannot yet operate this handle. It takes a pretty sturdy pull, and you pretty much have to wrap your hand around the handle to do it. (Principle 6, low effort). It also doesn't pull straight out, but pivots such that the right side stays in place and it's really the left side that you're pulling out (Principle 3, intuitive).

Fortunately things are better from the inside, when it comes to pulling the door shut:

Look at that nice long snaky handle, with multiple places and heights to grab and pull. You could even use that holder-space lower down as a place to pull if that were more comfortable for you. (Since we have the child-lock on at all times, the door-open handle from the inside doesn't enter our calculations at this point). Joy does well at pulling the door closed, though it's kind of a heavy door and does take some effort.

Then we have our new car, the Honda Fit that we got just about a year ago. With this car, Joy can let herself in.

The handle pulls up, pivoting along the entire top length, with a minimum of effort. As long as you get your fingertips under, you don't have to wrap your hand or anything.

But oh no, what did they do to the inside?

There's only one little place to put your hand and pull. And it's only at one height, which isn't a good height for Joy because she's buckled into a car-seat by the time she needs to close that door. Fortunately she can do it if she stretches. And the door pulls easily, which is a plus. But why couldn't they have provided options, like the long snaky inside pull-bar did in the CR-V? (Principle 2: Flexibility in Use.)

I want to leave you with one final statement here, something that one of my LEND-trainee colleagues quoted in his final Leadership Presentation the other week. The quote applies to systems of health care, and it struck me as really thought-provoking, implying the applicability of universal design for systems well beyond toothbrushes and veggie peelers and car door handles:
Delivery models that work for populations with special health care needs will have applicability for everyone.

It's not just about what's good for special needs. It's about what's good for ALL of us. Universally.

To all my readers -- thank you for providing a sounding board and the opportunity for me to reflect on this year's LEND experience. This has really been a pivotal year for me in moving toward what I want to be when I grow up! :-) The journey continues, and it's so good to have so many people sharing that journey with me.


TherExtras said...

That last quote, priceless.

A lot of OT work in this post.

Aw, come on! You could call her ugly ;)


JoyMama said...

Heh. Didn't realize I'd repeated myself. Oh well. Actually I find the original Disney Ariel character kinda cute. But she makes an toothbrush.

JoyDad said...

Speaking as a guy... If I had designed that toothbrush, her right boob would have turned it on, and her left boob would have turned it on. Because that's what boobs do...

Thanks, I'm here all week.

JoyMama said...

At least now I know what to write about if I want my husband to leave a comment!

Viktoria said...

Great, great post. I'd love to add toilet handles to the list! India loves to flush the toilet and look inside the bowl to see what's happening, it's just some of those handles are so hard to push.

DolphinHugger said...

So now that the LEND plate is out of the rotation, will you be spinning any new plates? Or getting more breathing room with spinning old plates?

JoyMama said...

Victoria - good point about the toilet handles. Of course they make 'em hands-free (automatic sensor) for the commercial market, but that's super-expensive and has its own issues if you're not making a "typical" sequence of actions while using the facility. Or if you have a kid with sensory issues who fears the flush without warning... Maybe the sensor should be pointed to the side, so you could trigger it with a wave, but your motions while doing your business wouldn't be affecting it. I may also have another post at some point about situations in which different people have opposite needs from a product. Which makes "universal" even more of a challenge!

JoyMama said...

DolphinHugger - I do have a potential autism-related gig this summer that would layer on top of my library job like LEND did this year. If I can solve child-care issues. After that, it's even more up in the air, but LEND has definitely opened up future-trajectory possibilities.

Barbara TherExtras said...

Looks like Disney needs some experienced design help. (Talking to JM, NOT JD.) When you get that job, JM, please consider hiring me as a consultant. How about product design and the opposites-needs be the topic of our next co-post?

JoyMama said...

Barbara -- Oo. Joint post on product design and opposite needs! I like. Will e-mail.