Designing for Our Future Ability


 We are ruining our future…but we can still fix it.

It’s been roughly 24hrs since Pattie Moore reduced the 2016 UX Australia audience to tears, several times, in her closing keynote in an emotionally cathartic rollercoaster.

Pattie, retold her life journey and beyond, her career in a male dominated industrial design practice, her early fight to understand the prejudices we have against the old, the homeless and the poor, first hand – disguised as an elderly homeless woman. She told us of her deep personal sacrifice for this cause. Her single-handed championing of the causes of those less able, her fight for universal and inclusive design.

This was a massive emotional wake up call for everyone in the room, and you know I think we needed it.

As Dan Szuc said in 2015, we have been asleep, walking like zombies, designing without seeing. With this one talk, I hope Patti has woken up the Australian experience design community to the problems around the future we are building for ourselves.

On a side note, I found this was personally one of the hardest sketchnotes I have ever done, trying to stay emotional stable and detached at the time was an effort of shear will power and emotional redirection. Pushing this welling up of tears and sadness of the injustice into the drawing.

The cause of inclusive design, universal design or its subset for agism is something that has been close to my heart for a long time, you might not think that, going of my recent performance. I haven’t really been banging any drum loudly of late. But that’s another story.

Several things really struck a cord with me from this talk.

Our lens is wrong on inclusive design.

We are looking at inclusive design the wrong way. We have been thinking about designing for the disability, to give access to all.

Now in principle this is good.

However we are going about it the wrong way, it’s a subtle thing. We have been priming of our minds with a bias toward seeing this part of our community as “different”, as “outsiders”, as “over there”, not in our tribe., designing around the element they are excluded from.

What we should be doing is designing for their abilities, just like we design for the abilities of everyone “able”.

In reality if you think about it everyone is “able” it just we use different abilities to produce our ableness.

When we design a website for the blind person, currently we design for a lack of vision. And tailor the experience as required, for no vision. This doesn’t consider the person, it just slaps a band-aid on the situation, it screams, that’ll do, we don’t value you much.  Move on.

For example, I’m writing this in an airline lounge, as I wait for my plane.   Now let’s look closely at the facilities of this lounges, are they really build for people who don’t all have able bodies abilities. Yeah sure there are ramps, tactical flooring, the usual toilets and staff that are very helpful.

While an effort has been made, I really do wonder if the facilities give the same convenience, the experience to “everyone” able or not.   I would love to hear from people who have first hand knowledge or experiences in this area.

We should be looking at what attributes they have supplemented and adapted with to normalise their life. Increased senses are usually the adaptation point here. The experience should be still the same, but it’s like allowing for someone with extra abilities, extra skills, almost like super powers.

But you know that’s not my main take away. Not the one that’s going to kick you out of your laziness.

 We are all going to get old and die.

While we have been busy designing products and services and generally making the experience better for our customers, we really haven’t been focusing on our own futures.   We have been designing for the here and now, the young, the sexy, the cashed up, the literate.

We have allowed a society and culture to grow up around us that has toxic elements to it; promoting and marginalising the older members of our society.

Be this from employment, provision of aged care, giving to products supporting the general day to day reduction of ability physically and cognitive function that happens when you get older. We seem to be instead developing a general viewpoint towards ignoring these people.

We, yes us, the designers, are just as much to blame, we have been conditioning people to focus on the sexy, the young, the fortunate, the healthy. Generally in everything we do and every product we produce it’s about the young and able.

We have been designing for the here and now, the young, the sexy, the cashed up, the literate.

I’m not just talking about the flashy commercial products from agency-land; besides a handful of supportive products everything isn’t really that inclusive.

For example, while we wait in a queue at the shops, we have becoming pre programmed into thinking, “let’s not get stuck behind that old lady getting these groceries, she’s going to take forever at the self checkout”.   Have developed a biases against the aged?   Do we ignore them or just get frustrated?

Ironically, we’re really to blame, we have just made it too hard for people less able, from the depth of the trolley, the height of bench, to the flow of the machine interface.

When we see older people using technology, we automatically think they are going to have problems – they just don’t get it. We step in and help sometimes, but do we fix the core problem, no we patch it.

As experience designers we have dropped the ball and kicked it far away across the crowded park. We are to blame.

The problem can be as simple as in those meetings over the design, when we should have dug in our heals in and been the noise difficult person. Instead we just sat back and designed for the everyday tech literate 30 year old. We took the easy road, that’s okay it’s human nature. Have, we really provided the company a benefit for “all” their customers, I don’t think so.

Don’t believe me, I have a challenge for you. Next time you are out and about, shadow some older people (60+), watch them very closely, I can guarantee they are going have issues with all sorts of situations.   Even better go up to them, help them out and maybe start a conversation, as experience designers you may learn something.   Hopefully you are seeing the problem.

What makes it worse, that is our future, we are training junior designers to be like us and not push the aging members away.

We have a toxic throwaway society.

Sadly it seems like now we have reached a situation that if you are over 50 you are considered washed up and pointless.

Has our society become the dystopic future for the young giving us only 15 seconds of fame, then our life is effectively over.

Now this may have been acceptable when your life expectancy was around 68, and you retired at 65; but with today’s modern medical advances people who are 50 today could be facing a future life expectancy of 100+. That means we are throwing away a chunk of our society at middle age.

God help you if you get to retirement, it’s even worse, unless you are working, that’s another issue.

We just want to shuffle them off to an aged care facility. Now these places are staffed by very caring people, that are completely overworked, and under resourced; they do their best. But really it is society (us) that is to blame. We are just pushing the aged away, away to a place to stagnate and die. If we don’t like a problem, give it to someone else, outsource it.

And you know what makes this very personal – this is the exact situation that I’m in right now. Am I marginalized, washed up?  Is my life over?

I’m putting my hand up, I don’t like or want this future.

Just as we have discrimination for race, sex we are facing a subtle discrimination and marginalization of the aged.   Tell me, how many Experience Design and Service Design firms have practicing staff over 50, besides the founders, I’m curious, anyone out there?

Why do we have this problem, is it fear of replacement, lack of understanding, assumptions on lack of flexibility / adaptability in the workplace, bad leadership, age being an authority figure.

As experience design professionals, we seem to have restricted and blinkered our views, we have reduce our empathy to the silo around us, to just the age and type of people in our tribe. And let’s be frank here it’s mostly people under forty, the old crew like me are small in number.

What can we do about it?

First off, it’s simple, stop, let’s understand it. Then we can fix it. We really do have the skills, techniques, frameworks and methodology to really affect change, so let’s do it. Put aside these pointless app and corporate hack-a-thons let’s try and solve a real complex problem.

We need to look around, really see and listen to the older people around you, do you have a real mix of old and young friends. Do you know the stories of the homeless, the aged, the old guy on the bus, that you pass every day.

Look at what projects are you working on, what job are you doing. Is it just meaninglessly work, polishing a product to increasing a share price. Are you just robotically doing experience design or are you creating experiences that will make a change to society.

Do you ignore this problem, when you encounter it, and just whisper lip service around inclusive design. Have you become that inhuman and non-empathic seeing but not really seeing what is happening around you; just sleepwalking.

We are building this future, our future; and that scares the crap out of me. We are reaping what we sow.

Or are you making a difference, even in small ways, for everyone, the poor, the tech illiterate, the aging and those with different abilities.

If you aren’t, why not, seriously, why not?

I understand, you have to earn a living.  However in most places we as experience design professionals, are in demand. It’s a sellers market in experience design, at the moment.  Most places want our skills, but can’t find the right people. Are you using that to send a strong cultural message to effect some change.

In most businesses the boardroom has given us a seat at the table, we just don’t know it, it’s up to us to take it up and ask those hard questions as to why not.

You know what does make me chuckle on this problem, you and me, we are building this future, our future; and that scares the crap out of me. We are reaping what we sow.

But it doesn’t have to be that way; we have the skills, the power to stop it.

Sure some people aren’t going to like it, but you know most business just following stupid decisions time after time, repeating a poisonous culture and don’t think on the big picture, as experience designers we do, let’s show them how, take them on a journey to a better place, a step at a time.

Let’s design for peoples ability, design for our future, and kill this problem dead.

I really do think we have the possibility to turn this around, if we all just push have one little change at a time, after all the design is the details.

It’s our future, let’s build a better experience for us and bring the world with us.

Let’s fix it.

First published on Linkedin Pulse and Medium August 2016 

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