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Universal Design as a Revenue Generator

When designing products, inclusivity is one of the major challenges. In order to determine the specifications of a design, designers must define an intended user population. In most commercial design cases, this is same as defining a customer segment. The extent of inclusivity a design offers is directly related to the desired level of accommodation required by the customer segment.

Depending on product type, design stage focuses on customer preferences and both human and environment associated physical restrictions. The notion of producing a complete design with the right degree of accommodation becomes crucial particularly when designing for elderly populations.

According to US Consensus Bureau’s 2014 Current Population Report, between 2012 and 2050, the United States will experience considerable growth in its older population. In 2050, the population aged 65 and over is projected to be 83.7 million, almost double its estimated population of 43.1 million in 2012. The baby boomers are largely responsible for this increase in the older population, as they began turning 65 in 2011.3 By 2050, the surviving baby boomers will be over the age of 85.[1]

Consensus Bureau Figure 1

This generates a customer segment that most of the time requires special accommodation in order to accomplish activities of daily living (ADL). From advanced home systems that transfer over time to become more assistive as the inhabitants of the house grow older to exoskeletons that reduce the task demand of ADLs, there is a living, breathing industry aiming to capture this growing customer segment.  The trends for selected developed countries for elderly individuals are as follows:

Consensus Bureau Figure 11

This optimistic tableau, however, has a pitfall for designers. When Ford tried to sell SUVs in Europe, they overlooked the fact that cities in Europe had narrow streets, fewer parking spaces and European customers were a little different than the US customers. The Europeans preferred more efficient, smaller cars over large SUVs. Ford initially failed in the European automotive market as they failed to identify the needs and the preferences of the European population.

As different regions create different customers segments with different preferences and physical attributes, in order to capture the majority of the customers from the elderly population around the world, products are obliged to be inclusive and sometimes allow customizations in varying levels. An example of creating inclusivity is to determine the required physical attributes, the anthropometric measures that need to be incorporated in the design for the customer segment.

As an example, let’s think about the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines. The height of the machine must allow a wide range of individuals (different gender, age, build etc.) to transfer on and off the machine with ease. Thus the designer must determine an optimum height to accommodate the target user group. This can be achieved with a basic statistical approach.

The anthropometric measures required in this case are the hip and knee height. The data is usually available online or through corporations. Assuming that the human attributes follow a known distribution, in most of cases a normal distribution, a designer can find minimum and/or maximum threshold height for the anthropometry to base its design on. These threshold values are determined to include a specific percentile of the target population.


This is a common concept used for the counters in banks, emergency buttons, stair heights and many other everyday objects to accommodate individuals with varying physical attributes. However, tailoring products to specific customer segments is more challenging and can be more costly (as opposing to the economies of scale); however, it pays off in the long run as the product becomes more preferred among the customer segment due to its good fit. (Think about S,M,L,XL clothing)

Long story short, with the growing customer segments come new opportunities; however, in order to seize the opportunity, it is important to understand the needs and the preferences of the customers and to ensure a fit between the product and the individuals starting from the design stage. The growing elderly populations around the world pose a significant and rewarding challenge for designers and corporations that aim to create value.

Barbaros Serter
Driven by his passion to solve problems and his love of challenges, Barbaros studied Industrial and Operations Engineering program at the University of Michigan. Graduated in 3.5 years from this world's 2nd best IOE program, now he is pursuing his Masters again at the University of Michigan, focusing on International Finance and Business Management. Working in various positions ranging from product development engineer to investment analyst, his passion for challenging complex industrial problems makes him steer towards strategical consulting.

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