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Q&A with Gus DesbaratsCreated by Charlotte in Q&A's
Gus Desbarats, Chairman of design consultancy TheAlloy, and the Chairman of British Design Innovation, talks to Grannynet about designing products, particularly those aimed at the more mature user. Gus is one of the world’s leading Industrial-Designers in the technology sphere.
You’ve designed so many brilliant products that have become part of our everyday life. Which are most proud of?
Hard to pick out a single one, but my design for the original BT Relate range of corded phones (designed in 1990) reset the benchmark for comfort and usability in corded phones. Over 20 million were shipped.
In my mind, the purpose of innovation is to improve user experiences, so the user experience has to come first. A lot less innovation investment money would be wasted if only this important cause and effect was more widely recognised!
You are considered an expert in the needs of the mature user. What are the three most important things you’ve learnt about this market?
So called ‘mature users’ appreciate modern beauty as much as anyone, they are just more demanding on the practical side. All consumers young and old benefit when this mainstream customer challenge is properly addressed. Companies should never ever directly target the segment on the basis it is ‘mature’ ‘old’ or ‘senior’ because this kind of thinking inevitably leads to patronising approaches.
There is no single ‘old’ anyway. There are cohorts, with very different lifestyles, and critically, different usability instincts. This trend isn’t just confined to old people it extends all the way down to children who consume information totally differently to parents. The real usability issue isn’t about ‘old’ vs. ‘young’ anyway, it is actually ‘by engineers for engineers’ vs. ‘by designers for people.’
Tell us about your involvement in the design of the products for older users.
Although we have designed many products for older users, our work for BT has involved us extensively in this area. Access to telephony has to be inclusive, so we get full backing for a very diligent approach. The key is a design process that gets the younger designers who are doing the creative work to really empathise with the audience. We get those designers to do a lot of in-depth interviews and in situ observation work. When they are back in the studio we have special ‘impairment simulation’ gear they can wear to get the full immersive experience of declining eyesight, hearing and dexterity which ultimately affects us all at some point. This helps to keep the empathy focus practical so the emotional creativity can be free to follow a more instinctive path that includes modernity and beauty as well.
So which products impress you?
It’s a cliché but I’m a great fan of good grips. Emporia Telecom is doing a good job in mobile. And, although the Kindle can be improved in many areas, it is a great demonstration that older users will go for modern technology if it offers a better experience. The fact that so much modern technology isn’t more compelling to older consumers is a cruel indictment of mainstream innovation culture in the technology sector.
What makes them such a good choice for the older market?
The kindle allows you to ‘get books’ instantly without needing to travel to the shops, or access the internet via a PC. Any number of books weighs no more than one and users can select the print size they want for maximum reading comfort. These are all important benefits for older users, but the Kindle is never ever overtly ‘pitched’ at that audience. The same goes for ‘good grips’. On ‘hand tools’ like potato peelers good tactile ergonomics create a much more satisfactory user experience for everyone than the hundreds of cheap, bad devices out there.
What is going to make a big impact on our lives in the future as older people?
I believe the biggest impact will come from us. The baby boom generation won’t accept the idea of slow inevitable decline; we want to do more to improve the quality of the second half of our lives. We will demand new services. Entrepreneurs who get this will get rich. Those of us who are fit will help those of us who are less so. The 1960’s revolutionary mindset is alive and well.
When Broadband Communications is combined with huge improvements in usability it will deliver new richer social interactions, between generations and in new virtual communities that complement and reinforce our natural ones. The other big impact will come from better information on nutrition (e.g. anti oxidants), exercise, new social norms and the odd treatment that slows down ‘cellular degradations.’ These will improve activity levels and quality of life significantly. 50 is already the ‘new 40’.
We can’t help but squeeze in a question about your cider making – why cider?
My wife, Isabel, and I fell in love with a view. This came with 300 apple trees (planted by Loyd George). It seems wasteful not to do something useful with at least a few of the apples! It is also a great excuse to have lots of friends around in the autumn to help with the press. It gets the kids away from the Wii, and ‘Orchard tending’ keeps me away from technology for a few precious hours every week all year round.
About Gus Desbarats
Gus Desbarats is one of the world’s leading Industrial-Designers in the technology sphere. Over a 25 year career Gus has created or directed many hundreds of designs leading to tens of millions of mass-produced products, and commercial and critical success. He has also built and leads a successful design consultancy that is one of the Design Week Top 10 UK Consultancies and works with the likes of BT, Thomson, Toshiba, HP, Virgin Atlantic, Dixons.
One of Gus’ first positions was with Sinclair where he worked on the design of the world (in)famous Sinclair C5 electric car and early laptops.
Gus has led the design of instantly recognizable iconic products such as BT’s telephones (since 1990), Baby Monitors and the BT Home Hub, Original Source toiletries, Virgin Atlantic’s seating and HP PDAs. His award winning work has won many accolades, including 9 Design effectiveness awards, an Oscar for technical achievement and selection for the permanent collection of both the British Design Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
BDI is the trade body representing leading industrial designers, service designers and innovation professionals. It promotes their creative expertise, knowledge and experience. Its members’ assignments and interventions on behalf of both large and small clients have generated billions of pounds in revenues through the creation and exploitation of IP in domestic and global markets.
TheAlloy is one of the UK’s most successful design consultancies and has been trusted by many global multi-billion dollar revenue companies to direct and manage design strategy across all divisions, often within exclusive total outsourcing relationships. Every six seconds, someone somewhere buys a product designed by TheAlloy.