Someone somehow got the idea that people don’t care about style and image as they grow older.
That’s a bunch of hooey, particularly where baby boomers are concerned. And the household gadget industry is taking notice.
One of the biggest trends at the 2016 International Home + Housewares Show in Chicago was inclusive design products (aka universal design) that are so attractive and practical that they appeal to both millennials and baby boomers.
Marsha Everton, of AIMsights Group in Lemoyne, Pa., and Bryce Rutter, of Metaphase Design Group in St. Louis, were featured speakers at the March show. I was unable to attend but interviewed both by phone.
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AIMsights educates corporate clients about consumer trends with boomers and millennials, the two age groups driving home product sales. Metaphase provides clients with research about the ergonomics and design of products that interact with the human hand but also impact emotional well-being.
Boomers are aging in place and want to do it gracefully. They also have the highest level of disposable income in history and an awareness of what constitutes good design. They have little tolerance for lousy products.
Until recently, Rutter says, companies have not done a good job of designing products for older adults with what he calls the “dignity factor” in mind.
“My own father, who is 90, refuses to use a walker or cane because of stigma attached to it,” Rutter says. “So I bought him an English walking stick with an ebony shaft and a brass handle, and he uses it all the time. It’s not a cane in his mind, it’s a walking stick with class.”
Now, he says, designers are asking, “How can we design a product that works well but also performs in a way that makes them feel good about it.”
Metaphase Design Group, he says, goes into people’s homes to find out where they have pain and friction points when using housewares so their corporate clients can design for them. But they also try to determine what’s not meeting their emotional needs.
“We try to figure out how to get them excited about buying a product and using it,” he says.
That might mean bigger, rubberized handles on kitchen tools to make them easier to grip, like Oxo’s Good Grips vegetable peeler, which was a forerunner in the universal design trend. Since then, Oxo has expanded the Good Grips line to include more than 1,000 products for several areas of the home.
Boomers and millennials also share traits that impact their buying decisions.
Millennials are just starting out, living in apartments and beginning to define their lives, Everton says. And they like having fewer but higher-quality products. Meanwhile, boomers tend to downsize and simplify because “it’s a lot of work taking caring of all that stuff.”
“Things have to earn their way into their home,” Everton says. “And if you’re an aging boomer, you want to know it’s going to work 10 years from now.”
Another facet of the inclusive design trend, she points out, is getting back to basics.
“Somewhere in the 1990s we began moving into an endless array of choices, and quite frankly it was a disservice,” Everton says. “It made it too hard to choose. And you started thinking, ‘Could I just have something with an off/on button?’ In the interest of having something new, that whole trend started.”
The resurgence in popularity of the cast-iron pan, she says, proves that consumers want simplicity.
“Nothing sears a piece of meat better than a cast-iron fry pan,” she says. “The millennials started discovering it and telling their parents about it. The millennials have taken us back to our roots. They’re willing to look back to the old tried and true.”
Rutter agrees, adding that as technology increases, manufacturers tend to over-design products.
“But not everyone wants a coffee maker with timers and clocks that need to be reset every time the power goes out,” he says. “It often looks like you could control a nuclear reactor. Complexity is one of the things that frustrates end users. You shouldn’t need the manual. The thicker the manual, the worse the design.”
Says Everton: “There’s no one who is happy 100 percent of the time. But you do have little moments of pleasure, and these moments can come with something as simple as a well-designed trash can. It doesn’t have to be a big, fancy, highfalutin thing.”