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Inclusive design : Products for all consumers


By David Yelding, Director of Ricability Board Member of the UK Institute for Inclusive Design
Lindsey Etchell's, Ricability's Principal Researcher



Some minority !

Estimates of the prevalence of disability have been difficult to come by because of the problems of devising an acceptable definition, and the practical problems of surveying the whole population. The first has been addressed by the World Health Organisation, which distinguishes between impairment, handicap and disability. The most recent large scale survey of disability in Britain was published in 1999. It showed that over eight and a half million people - 20 % of the population - had a disability.



Future challenges

There is a concern that technological advances could leave behind people with disabilities. Rudolf Brynn (of the Norwegian National Resource Centre for Participation and Accessibility) points out that products which specifically address the needs of disabled people will disappear if they are not compatible with electronic commerce. Smart cards are the key to the information society, increasingly being used in transport, banking, communication and health fields. It follows that card reading machines and public access facilities must be accessible, particularly for people with visual impairment and those with confusion or learning disabilities, if these groups are not to be permanently excluded from a whole range of activities.

Research carried out for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that disabled people using assistive devices found fewer websites that were easy to use and navigate than people not using these devices. Similarly, research commissioned by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) evaluated 1,000 representative websites and found that 81 % were inaccessible to many disabled people. In this journal last year Professor Alan Newell stated that digital TV 'appears to be designed by and for young, dextrous technophiles'.


Achieving change

Inclusive design is an idea whose time has come. In future the term will become redundant should design be inclusive as a matter of course. The various stakeholders can help the process along in different ways.



Consumer demand for inclusive design has yet to be felt in the marketplace. Older and disabled people have the most critical needs from a product, but they are not the most demanding consumers. Traditionally older people have tended to blame themselves rather than poor design for the difficulties they experience with domestic products every day ('what can you expect at my age ?'). On the other hand, changes to the size and nature of the population are coupled with its collective psychology. New generations of older people will have spent their formative years in a consumer oriented society, and their expectations will be different from their predecessors. They are unlikely to tolerate products that do not meet their needs and will be more vociferous in their demands.

Older people should be encouraged to be more assertive in making their requirements known. The University of the Third Age (U3A) has member groups in over 200 towns and cities in the UK, some of whom work collaboratively with graduates at the Royal College of Art in London on designing accessible products. The American Association of Retired Persons is the largest American advocacy group of older people. Orchestrated demands from such groups are difficult for manufacturers to ignore. Consumers can make a difference, particularly when they organise themselves and are ready to be involved and to participate in manufacturer's research and development programmes.

All consumers will benefit when products are designed to address their needs whatever their abilities.

- Inclusive design leads to increased and prolonged independence for older people.

- There will be a delay and a reduction in the need for adaptations and assistive products.

- Older and disabled people will have a wider choice of accessible and usable products.

- Through the economies of scale, mainstream products are generally lower priced than low volume specialist equipment.

- Products that can be used by older and disabled people are easier to use for nearly everyone else - more comfortable to use and requiring less effort.


Consumer organisations

These exist across Europe to empower people to make informed consumer choices and decisions. They provide independent, research-based, reliable information and have a thorough understanding of consumer need. However, although consumer magazines regularly report on the usability, as well as the performance, of products, relatively few carry out assessments which consider the needs of consumers with disabilities. Apart from Ricability, other notable exceptions are Konsumentverket in Sweden, Institut National de la Consommation in France, Which ? in the UK and recently Verbruikersunie in Belgium. These more critical assessments consistently show greater brand differences than the standard convenience assessments that relate only to non-disabled people. There have been improvements in the performance of domestic appliances ; it is now time for usability to become a more important factor in choice of product.

Consumer organisations influence both consumers and industry with their comparative test reports. They should also work constructively with manufacturers to improve product design and help them to consult with potential older and disabled customers.

More comprehensive programmes of product evaluations need to be carried out in the UK and in Europe, both to provide consumers with information they need in order to be able to choose, and to encourage manufacturers to provide, inclusively designed products. The results of this research need to be distributed widely to create greater consumer demand for accessible products.

Design colleges

The number of postgraduate courses in design colleges is increasing, after pioneering work by the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and Central Saint Martins School of Art. The Royal Society of Arts New Design for All Competition has been in existence for over 15 years and has had a profound effect on young designers. These are important developments because they engage the interest of young designers and the community in general. Competitions along these lines need to be encouraged and funded.

Designers should be provided with the information and expertise they need to put inclusive design principles into practice. Some progress has already been made. For example, academic and design firms are developing new theories and practices about involving a greater range of consumers in product development. The EPSRC funded project I-design has developed and disseminated tools and guidance for design managers. Design Aid, produced by Central St Martins College of Ability and Design, is a tool based on interviews with 600 disabled people and provides insights into the lifestyles, attitudes and aspirations of different groups of disabled people. The RCA run an annual competition aimed at encouraging designers to produce prototypes of inclusively designed products. Examples of this approach can be seen in Building Sight, guidance produced by the Royal National Institute of the Blind, and in a Transport and Road Research Laboratory investigation of vehicle design. The Design Council has proposed that such information should be collected and collated so that it is available in a consolidated form from a single source.

We consider that all undergraduate courses in industrial design should include ergonomics and inclusive design principles in their core curriculum ; currently very few do. The courses need to :

- emphasise the value of and provide user involvement in product design,

- provide a real understanding of the diversity of consumer capabilities,

- encourage and facilitate the use of a wide range of existing research,

- provide a network of associates from different disciplines, such as ergonomists and engineers,

- promote a culture of designing products that are easy to use by the majority of consumers as well as being attractive and desirable.

In addition, teaching materials to support the teaching of inclusive design need to be developed for supply to design colleges and for inclusion in design and business management courses.

There are no statistics on the number of designers with disabilities in the UK, although the number is thought to be low. Design colleges need to take active steps to encourage disabled people to train as designers. This would raise the disability awareness of both colleges and designers.



Some manufacturers have taken the principles of inclusive design to heart and the number of case studies and examples of good design are increasing. These range from the simple (easy grip kitchen implements, electric plugs with a holdable handle, big button telephone) to the complex (the TRXII taxi, which has a ramp, interim step, induction loop, light-to-operate illuminated door handles). FIAT saw inclusive design as a cultural change which completely revolutionised the way they considered the design of vehicles from the outset.

However as Ricability's product assessments have consistently demonstrated, many manufacturers still need convincing. The commercial arguments for inclusive design are mostly based on the fact that the population is getting older - but there are other factors.

- Demography certainly show that this is a vast not a marginal market.

- Inclusive design can be built in from the start of product conception at no or negligible cost ; it is retrospective provision or adaptation that is expensive.

- Inclusive design does not mean designing for absolutely everyone but for as many people as possible.

- It does not strangle innovation - in fact industry will need to develop innovative solutions to make their products usable by more consumers.

- A redirection of thought is required, not of budget.

People need to be at the centre of the product development process. Manufacturers should involve and consult with representatives of disability organisations and other consumer groups to ensure awareness of user characteristics and needs. Disability, consumer and other organisations should provide practical help to make it easy for manufacturers to consult with their potential older and disabled customers. They need funding to be able to do this.

In addition designers in industry require clear practical guidance in strictly practical terms, with optimal and acceptable ranges for particular and commonly found features of major products, such as switches or rotary controls. That said, the approach is to go further than minimum technical specifications to seek creative design solutions.

It will be easier to get inclusive design on the agenda if business schools educate the future strategic planners on the business case.

- The DRC points out that there are 8.5 million disabled people in Britain with a combined annual spending power of £40 billion, and that people aged over 50 have a combined annual income in excess of £160 billion.

- Inclusive design is marketable to a wider audience.

- Companies that consider the needs of older and disabled people open up new market opportunities.

- Excluding potential purchasers is clearly bad business.



Nationally we have the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act. This is the first piece of civil rights legislation in the UK that has given disabled people legally enforceable rights. Since October this year, subject to tests of reasonableness, all physical barriers have had to be removed from buildings ; generally providers of goods and services of all kinds cannot provide inferior services to disabled people. It applies to management and operational issues, such as how a service is provided, and policy and practices. However the Act does not cover product design.

This is because of the complexities of drafting a workable law which would take account of the diversity of impairments and the range of products it would need to cover. However there is comparable safety legislation. This comprises a general requirement for products to be safe, but since the way this is achieved varies between product types, the legislation is backed up by product-specific laws and standards. Legislation on inclusive design could be supported in the same way.

Another route to legislation is through Europe. The EU has several anti-discrimination initiatives. For example, the General Product Safety Directive (2001/95/EC) aims to ensure that products are safe for all consumers, including older and disabled people, by means of risk assessment evaluation. Similarly the Low Voltage Directive (1973/23/EEC) states that electrical equipment can be marketed only if it does not endanger people's safety, although consumer organisations are currently trying to have clauses that exclude the safety of disabled people removed from the standards that support the Directive. The Electronic Communications Framework Directive (2002/21/EC) contains several provisions on the obligation of national authorities to ensure that users, including disabled people, derive maximum benefit in terms of choice, price and quality. The Universal Service and Users Rights Directive (2002/22/EC) contains several provisions on access to universal telecom services for people with disabilities.

A significant recent development is the issue of the Public Procurement Directive (2004/18/EC), Article 23 of which encourages public authorities to take into account inclusive design requirements in public contracts awards whenever possible. The EC's DG Enterprise and the US Department of Commerce have launched a US-EU collaboration in the field of information technology standardisation relating to regulation. There is an American law - Section 508 - on Public Procurement of ICT products which requires all ICT procured, developed and maintained by US government agencies to be accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 provides benchmarks and places the responsibility of reaching them on industry. As a result American industry associations have helped to develop the necessary technical specifications and standards. This model could bring great benefits to European consumers if followed here.



There is also inclusive design activity within national, European and international standardisation. Product standards cover performance, conformity and safety but the majority are voluntary rather than mandatory. Nevertheless manufacturers of consumer products build to them across the world, so standardisation that encourages inclusive design is likely to result in improvements. To date few product standards have addressed the needs of older and disabled consumers - indeed as mentioned above too many specifically exclude their needs. This situation should now change with the development and publication of guidance for standards developers on addressing the needs of older and disabled people in standardisation. These awareness raising and informative guidelines have been published by both the international and European standards bodies. This is a significant step forward, not least because inclusive design issues can be flagged up in all future discussion on new and revised international and European standards.

At British, European and international levels, standardisation bodies have set up horizontal working groups to oversee standards work that specifically relate to disability issues. In addition there are relevant standards, such as CEN EN 81-70:2003 on accessible lifts, and working groups developing and revising standards, particularly in the field of accessible ICT, such as CEN TC224 on machine-readable cards. Of particular interest is the draft BS 7000 on design management, which applies to business practice and if followed will make inclusiveness good practice in industry.

Consumer organisations and representatives are aware of their responsibility to represent consumers of all abilities and to encourage the standards committees to address the diversity of their needs. Disabled people and disability organisations should take all opportunity to participate in the development of standards.



Designs that exclude people are fast becoming unacceptable to most consumers. In addition to the social case, a convincing business case can be made for designs which meet the needs of a greater proportion of the population. The inclusive design movement has gained considerable momentum in recent years. Conferences on the subject occur at frequent intervals. More and more designers are finding that an understanding of how previously marginalised people use their products provides an impetus for sometimes revolutionary improvement. Academic institutes are providing a theoretical and practical basis for research and development based on closer contact with consumers. Some businesses can give examples of spectacularly successful initiatives, where attractive and easily usable products have led to marketing success. The time has surely come for manufacturers to respond to the challenge of inclusive design in the knowledge of increased market potential. So this is only the beginning of the cultural change needed. We all have a part to play in bringing this about - governments, businesses, the design community and consumers. Watch this space.

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