How do you approach universal design?
We’ve learned to expand the definition of product usability to include accessibility. Good usability transcends all of our limitations. For example, a notification light can be a redundant form of feedback. Traditionally, it’s been a buzzer. The fact that I can look across a room and see where the oven is in the preheat cycle, that’s a benefit to everybody. If you happen to be hearing impaired it becomes a way to break through an obstacle.
This seems to mirror a larger trend toward customization.
At one time [the only appliance options] were white, black, or stained wood. With the advent of connected appliances, you can suppress certain features based on your need—it has nothing to do with one’s ability; it has to do with [preferences]. Connectivity will help expand the possibilities.
How does research figure into your work?
One tool is FirstBuild [GE’s innovation lab and microfactory], which has the ability to rapidly prototype and test concepts. We are also engaged in a project called the Complete and Healthy Kitchen in Florida, with a prototype called the Intelligent Home. Having consumers actually interact with it over a period of time goes a long way in delivering meaningful solutions. It beats the old focus groups.
One of the leading barriers to aging in place is being able to prepare a meal. We’re using the HomeLab at Georgia Tech as a platform to develop concepts, put those in front of the users to get feedback, and then go through the traditional iterative design process.
What are the next steps in universal design?
The days of any one entity delivering a solution are limited. Think about kitchen design: There’s the layout, the appliances have to be designed properly, and, let’s face it, information services are going to play a large role in the future. It’s going to require a more holistic approach.