Misconceptions about designing technology for dementia – it’s simple or it’s impossible!

dsc_0503-bw-reducedHazel Boyd, User Interface Engineer at Designability, specialises in designing technology with and for people with dementia. She wants to tackle some myths that are commonly assumed when designing for dementia.


I often hear the same contradiction from people about designing with people with dementia in mind. Some say:

“Your simple, standalone products must have been easy to design”

Whereas some tell us:

“It must be really hard to design for people with dementia”

These views are understandable when they come from people who don’t get to see the design process in action, or from those who have no direct contact with people who have dementia. Part of our role is to educate and inform people to help change those views.  There are quite a few misconceptions that we commonly hear, the most common being:

Myth #1: You can’t ask people with dementia what they think because they don’t know and they can’t tell you

This will be a shocking statement to those who work with people who have dementia. Many people with the condition are still actively enjoying life, using iPads or even writing their own blogs. However, many think that people with dementia are no longer able to give their opinions in a meaningful way because of their illness. But we know that dementia is progressive and therefore does not affect everyone significantly to start with. Those who have always been interested in design or volunteering their views may still be willing and able to continue to do that for some time. There are appropriate ways to speak with those with more advanced dementia to enable them to share their views, opinions and ideas. If product designers do not engage with their customers and product users, they are missing out on a wealth of valuable information.

Myth #2: People are all individuals so you can’t possibly design something that works for everyone with dementia

It’s true that many aspects of a person with dementia are not governed by their dementia. A group of people with dementia will have different ages, backgrounds, personalities, interests and other things.  Similarly, different types of dementia manifest in different ways and progress differently in each person. However, our research has shown that there are some common aspects of design which can work well for many people with dementia. The most common aspect that we deal with is the reduction in short-term memory, which requires us to base our products on familiar and/or obvious ideas. Designing to support poor short-term memory works regardless of people’s differences. In addition, by designing products that work for a large number of people, we are better able to reduce product costs, and help more  people.

Myth #3: That looks simple, so it will be easy to use

It is a common assumption that simple is the same as easy. In our design work it has become quickly apparent that they are not the same at all. Simple design might have few features or dials and look very easy to use. Indeed, for people who do not have dementia, they might be easy. However, many of us take for granted how we adapt when using products, and how well we can compensate for any confusion or lack of information as we find our way around something new. Reduced short-term memory limits this ability to adapt, meaning that simple may not be enough. Straightforward controls which are familiar, or described clearly at the point of use, are essential. If an object is not recognised (the new washing machine or a different TV remote control) it may never get used at all.

Myth #4: Intuitive design is no good, my Dad can’t use a smartphone and that’s intuitive

There seems to be a widely held view that some leading smartphones (for example) are intuitive to use. However, what they actually do is work smoothly, are easy to learn and match what the user wants to do. This learning is something that becomes tougher for someone with short-term memory problems. In our designs, we work hard to make sure that no learning is required and that they can always be used “as if for the first time”. We know that people with early stage dementia, or people with types of dementia which do not initially result in memory loss, can still learn new skills. However, we focus on those without the capacity to learn for our target group as their need is greatest.

These are not the only misconceptions that we come across in our design work. However busting these myths does help designers, carers and users understand why some products work well for those living with dementia and some do not.

What other myths are you keen to challenge in this area? Let us know in the comments.

Hazel was actively involved in the development of our Day Clock, One Button Radio and Simple Music Player and is currently engaged in ongoing research and development in the field of assistive technologies for those living with dementia.

[image: definition of dementia]

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