Inclusive design and smart technology for household appliances have the potential to boost the independence of older people and those with sight loss and other disabilities, new research suggests.

Two new reports, Inclusive Design – expert views and Smart Appliances and the Internet of Things, released today by consumer research charity Rica and sight loss charity Thomas Pocklington Trust, call attention to the need for inclusive products – those that are useable by the widest range of people. With an eye on future trends, the studies also highlight the potential benefits of emerging smart technology for older and disabled people, including those with sight loss.

The present research follows the findings of a consumer guide on Choosing central heating controls and saving energy, which revealed that many people with sight loss are unable to control their heating or cut their fuel bills, for the simple reason that heating dials and switches are not accessible. Another guide, on Choosing cookers, ovens, hobs and microwaves, based on real-life experiences of people with sight loss, emphasised the inaccessibility of many products. These practical guides highlighted to manufacturers the importance of designing products that are useable by all.

Many barriers still exist in making inclusivity a reality. Interviews with 20 experts from manufacturing, design and retail reveal that, although inclusive design principles are understood within the white goods and heating controls industries, manufacturers still have some catching-up to do. An interviewee from Electrolux admits that “no explicit tests for old or disabled people” are carried out on their products, commenting that the ages of screening lie between 25 and 65.

For the majority of manufacturers, the inclusion of disabled people into the user-centred design process has been minimal at best, and at worst is seen as tokenism. The design, build and retail of inclusive technology also present other problems. Because products are promoted as aspirational, marketing presents a key challenge, as few aspire to old age or disability:

“We cannot say there is a washing machine for elderly people; we cannot sell these washing machines in this way. So we have to do it a little bit differently – this is a more ‘traditional’ washing machine.”
– An interviewee from BSH Home Appliances, from the ‘Inclusive Design’ report

However, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Former students of design schools are entering the workforce with a knowledge of inclusive design. An ageing population highlights the need for inclusive design policies, putting them on the political agenda. Change will also happen organically as increased consumer awareness of products creates more choice.
The arrival of smart appliances expands the horizon. With a projected value of over £25 billion by the year 2020, smart appliances will soon become the largest global market sector. As modern life will increasingly rely on the ability of such products to communicate with each other – the ‘Internet of Things’ – all of the issues of digital inclusion and exclusion will be felt in the home. The heating controls market is already changing, with forward-thinking products such as the new Hive Active Heating 2 thermostat from British Gas, designed with inclusivity in mind and easily regulated via a smartphone app. As demand increases and active appliances populate a home network, communication via a smartphone with voice output can now give control to people with sight loss, provided that apps are well-designed and accessible.

The Internet of Things has the potential to revolutionise the use of kitchen and heating appliances for those with sight loss and other disabilities, as well as for older consumers:

“Manufacturers are starting to, but [do] not necessarily fully understand the purchasing power of people who have different ages or different abilities… they’re still seen as niche markets.”
– An interviewee from The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, from the ‘Smart Appliances’ report

Products designed for use by as much of the population as possible are beneficial to both consumers and producers, and they move the industry away from a perception of niche markets. As designers, manufacturers and retailers step forward into the brave new interconnected world of the Internet of Things, Rica and Thomas Pocklington Trust now urgently call for manufacturers to engage disabled and older people throughout the entire product creation process, shaping the development of this game-changing technology.

For more information please contact:
Chris Lofthouse, Rica 020 7427 2467
Thomas Pocklington Trust Press Office 0203 463 0806

Editor’s Notes:
The new reports are here: ‘Inclusive Design: manufacturing, design and retail expert views’ and ‘Smart Appliances and the Internet of Things: trends and impact for disabled and older consumers’

See also the Rica consumer guides Choosing cookers, ovens, hobs and microwaves and Choosing central heating controls and saving energy.

Rica is a UK charity providing independent consumer research and information, with a focus on older and disabled people.

Thomas Pocklington Trust is a national charity for people with sight loss. Its research programme commissions and funds social and public health research initiatives to identify ways to improve the lives of people with sight loss.

Find the Press Release PDF here.