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I’m a strong advocate of Universal Design. This is the practice of designing products to be usable to the greatest extent by everyone, regardless of age or ability. It is also known as Inclusive Design or Design for All. 

I’m an advocate, not just because it’s the right thing to do, or because it makes commercial sense for products to be usable by the widest possible population. It’s because it can make products better for the target users themselves. A good example is the continued success of OXO Good Grips in the otherwise commoditised kitchen durables category. Or US discount retailer Target’s ClearRx pill bottle with an intuitive label and easy to use package that makes prescription medication easier and safer to take. Or the first generation Ford Focus, famously developed using a “third age suit” – and subsequently a best seller as a result of its broad appeal with younger drivers and families too.

Over the last year I’ve been struck by one category in particular where the Universal Design approach, and perhaps even design-thinking entirely, seems lacking – products made for the parents of young children.

It seems as though the designers of these products targetted parents with eight limbs: enough arms to hold a wriggling, screaming child, bend into a car and move three (or more) car seat straps out of the way (and probably a toy or two) before wrestling the child into the seat, all whilst trying to keep hold of the car keys! I call this phenomenon ‘Design for Octopus’.

Perhaps Universal Design missed this market because consumers are time-poor and distracted. Or is it difficult to test early prototypes with children, so manufacturers don’t get design feedback until it’s too late? Or are parents simply too tired to complain?

Whatever the reason, the category (and my house, it seems) is full of examples:

  • The baby sling with the fastening placed inaccessibly between your shoulder blades in the center of your back;
  • The safety buckles in a high chair or buggy (stroller) that parents can’t reach once they have sat their child down and the buggy storage baskets that are inaccessible while a child is in their seat;
  • The kids’ first shoes that need two parents to put them on. Given toddlers don’t tend to put on their own shoes, why do we design them just the same as adults, with the fastenings on the front?
  • The pressure-fitting baby stair gates (no screws in the walls) that actually create a trip hazard for parents and grandparents with a “support bar” across the step – and this is even more dangerous in the dark.  Never mind the challenge of opening a stairgate below you with one hand while holding a wriggling child that you’ve carried down the stairs in the other two…;
  • Its also not just consumer durables: I'm as much of a fan of Calpol (children’s Paracetamol) as the next parent, but the syringe supplied with most bottles complicates the delivery experience: the large size compared to an uncooperative child’s mouth and the unpredictable action, means the medicine is just as likely to end up on your child’s pyjamas as in their mouth.

This is not rocket science. Couldn’t a toddler’s shoe have the opening and fastening on the back so it doesn’t require co-operation from the child to curve their foot, or even extra hands from a passer-by?  Wouldn’t a stairgate be safer to use if it didn’t present an obstruction even when open (and yes, it's possible for pressure stairgates)?  Or if we must have an obstacle, what about highlighting its presence with a luminescent warning strip to make it clear at night?

There are simple solutions to each of these challenges. As a parent, improved safety and usability is a benefit that I would pay for, and I’d guess that it also represents a substantial opportunity for innovation and competitive advantage.

I’m passionate about the category and also about the potential for applying Universal Design more generally. If you have examples of similar challenges that you’ve come across, or you’d like to hear my ideas and solutions for these products – please do get in touch !

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