The Patient Wears Prada

tennis-ball-walker.jpgMy wife recently was suffering from a pinched nerve in her neck brought on by too much typing (she was finishing her masters thesis on design in emerging markets), so I drove her to a local medical supply store to find a neck brace. As it turned out, the store was a perfect metaphor for what’s wrong with the medical industry in the US.

It was, first off, uninviting and kind of creepy from the outside. Inside it was a jumbled mess, completely impossible to find anything on your own. One category of products bled into another and there was no labelling of any kind to help you navigate the white cardboard boxes (clearly intended for hospital stockrooms, not consumer facing shelfing). This meant you were reliant on the staff of the store to do anything, and they were pleasant enough but also generally bemused by the oversupply and lack of organization, and the random in/out of stock nature of some of it. Topping it off, the lighting was poor both in quantity and quality, there were trip hazards all over the floor, and if you happened to be in a wheelchair you’d have largely been stuck at the door as there was simply no room to move around.

Then of course she bought the neck brace and it made her look like a total twit.

When are medical companies going to wake up to the facts that a) Baby Boomers are becoming their sweet spot market and b) they won’t put up with insulting products and service experiences, whether its furniture, dining out, or taking care of their health? We are fast approaching the day when an older person will step out of their BMW while listening to their iPod, wearing Armani sunglasses and the latest Nike sneakers, while propping themselves up on a walker made up of bare aluminum extruded tubes capped with tennis balls.

 (And by the way, when I did a Google image search for tennis balls on walkers the first one that popped up is the image adorning this post. At first I thought it was a joke. Unfortunately, it’s completely serious: a company that will sell you tennis balls especially designed for walkers, yours for the low, low price of $19.95! Replacement pads are $12.95.)

My colleague at frog, Gretchen Anderson, wrote a column recently on Gizmodo that talked about it this way: “If we are what we use, then it seems the elderly people in today’s society are cranky, stupid and tacky. Of course, looking at products made for the elderly really says more about what product designers and manufacturers think the elderly are.”

As designer and educator Patricia Moore has said, we are all temporarily abled, so it’s in our own best interest to design products we’d be proud to use ourselves, and not just foist on some less fortunate soul. That soul is soon going to be of the generation that has grown up in a world that has become infinitely more design and status conscious than that of their parents, and they won’t put up with products that treat them like brainless, emotionless creatures tepidly living out the rest of their lives.