Designing A Potato Peeler For Everyone

December 2, 2010

OXO Food Mill, with rubberized handles and stands for ease of use

The OXO Food Mill was the easiest food mill I ever used -- no sore arms or hands from making applesauce.

I love cooking, so every holiday season my thoughts turn to Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table.  Shopping is one of my least favorite activities, but when I pass by one of these stores, I have an irresistible urge to go inside and seek the latest kitchen gadget. Some of my favorite gadgets come from OXO, a company that develops inexpensive, beautifully designed yet utilitarian products such as the Good Grips line of kitchen utensils.

I like them because they are easy to use, comfortable on my hands, and possess a clean and simple design. It was not until years later that I learned OXO is a dedicated advocate of what is termed “universal design,“or the design of a product used by, and accessible to, everyone. So that potato peeler I was using apparently is easy to hold because it has a fat, non-slip grip handle. Good for people with arthritis (which I don’t have — yet). And that salad spinner can be used with just one hand, without holding the bowl. Nice.

Maison a Bordeaux by Rem Koolhaas, a house in France built along universal design guidelines.

Maison a Bordeaux, by Rem Koolhaas (photo by Hans Werlemann)

Products manufactured specifically for people with disabilities, like wheelchairs, eye-tracking devices, and hearing aids, are examples of “accessible design” — in other words, they carry no tangible benefits for people who do not have disabilities. On the other hand, universal design, or UD, products are designed for everyone including people with disabilities. These UD products are not specifically restricted to gadgets in the kitchen — they include anything that is used by anyone, even building design. In fact, one of the most concrete examples of UD in action are long-running efforts to incorporate this philosophy into the construction and retrofitting of buildings. Rem Koolhaas’ Maison à Bordeaux is an excellent example of UD: this house in France was designed for a man who was paralyzed after an automobile accident.

That I did not realize my favorite kitchen gadgets were modeled on the principles of universal design is the whole point of this philosophy. UD products are meant to be accessible, unobtrusive, and used by everyone without even realizing that it is meant to provide access. North Carolina State University, a pioneer in UD, provides an excellent summary of UD guidelines here.

One of the benefits of universal design is its potential to reduce the costs needed to retrofit and restructure buildings and services to accommodate people with disabilities, by incorporating accessibility features into the main design. Examples include trench drains in curbless showers and stepless entrances in multifamily housing complexes.

Image of a trench drain, on the floor of a curbless shower

Trench drain along the floor of a curbless shower.

Another essential benefit of universal design, according to proponents, is to minimize the “separate but equal” stigma associated with accessibility features that, upon first look, appear to be specifically for people with disabilities. A wheelchair ramp that runs around the side of a building, with a guardrail that separates rather than incorporates, is one example of an access feature that is obtrusive and cannot be easily used by everyone. If the ramp can be meshed into the staircase, or inclines easily into the front entrance of a building in such a way that it can be used by everyone, then it is part of the aesthetics of the building, part of the main design, and is thus inclusive to everyone.

Keep in mind that universal design is a philosophy. In practice, it is almost impossible for a product or building modeled on UD principles to be used by everyone regardless of capability. However, for the universal design concept to succeed, it should be used easily and comfortably by as many people as possible, whether young or old, with or without disabilities.

From a business standpoint, universal design is a powerful way to maximize sales, by developing products and services that do not exclude any segment of the market based on age or ability.  This speaks to the long-term success of OXO, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year — a testament to its ability to leverage universal design as an effective core competency, with products that delight its customers regardless of age or ability, and keep them coming back for more.

In an aging world, led by baby boomers in developed economies, demand for disability-specific solutions has increased and will continue to do so.  This demand is further fueled by the phenomenon of a growing population of people born with disabilities who are living independently, thanks to technology and an increasingly powerful disability movement.  There is a place for accessible design that is geared toward the specific demands of people with disabilities.  Yet, as more people with disabilities share living and working spaces with people without disabilities, both groups would like to easily, comfortably and happily use the same products and services without the need for expensive duplication.  Properly implemented, universal design can reduce these resource and cost inefficiencies — a win-win situation for both businesses and customers.

Disclosure:  I do not own any shares in OXO’s parent company, Helen of Troy Ltd., or have a business interest in OXO.

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    Jonathan Karmel January 17, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    My dad had hardly any fine motor skills in his hands, a side effect of radiation treatment. He became extremely frustrated using many different products and would have greatly appreciated universally designed products. Unfortunately, most products are designed for marketing the product, not for using the product. So I guess the trick would be for a “universal design” label to have cache, like an “organic” label.

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