RESNA 27th International Annual Confence

Technology & Disability: Research, Design, Practice & Policy

June 18 to June 22, 2004
Orlando, Florida

Improving Accessibility of New Mainstream Consumer Products Through Participatory Development

James A. Leahy, Joseph P. Lane, & Douglas J. Usiak
RERC on Technology Transfer, University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14214


This paper details the use of Participatory Development (PD) by the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technology Transfer (T2RERC) in partnership with mainstream consumer product companies. We have implemented PD for the express purpose of integrating accessibility and usability features into new mainstream consumer products. Examples illustrate the enormous capabilities of Fortune 500 companies to rapidly and thoroughly distribute and market more accessible products at affordable prices.


Participatory development, product development, focus groups, accessibility, market broadening


Historically, manufacturers of consumer products have made product design decisions without factoring in the needs, wants, and expectations of the full range of end consumers. This process leads to ineffective products in the marketplace, new product failures, and product abandonment. Failure rates for new product introductions vary by industry but range from 30% to 90% (1). In many cases, the primary cause of these failures can be traced back to a point early in the product design process where significant device user information failed to be collected and analyzed prior to the initial fabrication of the device.

The T2RERC's experience supported by product development literature, confirms that companies perform primary market research in the form of surveys or interviews with consumers regarding their device's initial concept (2). This primary research is effective in identifying current problems, ascertaining a need for the device, and obtaining price point and purchase intent information. However, this method does not identify the key design and functional features of the device from the consumer perspective. As a further limitation, once this primary market research is accomplished and a prototype device fabricated, companies do not go back to the survey participants to critique or refine the device.

The T2RERC is using a practice we call "Participatory Development" (PD), which we define as product development that incorporates the perspectives and efforts of people with functional limitations. For the past decade, NIDRR encouraged the adoption of Participatory Action Research (PAR) in principal and practice (3). The T2RERC sees the new principle of PD as the logical extension of the well established PAR principles, particularly in the context of technology transfer and commercialization programs. Mass-market companies still view products for people with disabilities as niche markets that are too small to address, since they understandably need to satisfy the broadest market possible (4).


We target Fortune 500 companies, the largest and most influential sector of corporate America, to achieve the maximum impact on manufacturers of all sizes. We interject our PD project within the existing product development plans of selected corporations. In conjunction with these corporations, we select a mainstream consumer product being developed by that corporation that will most benefit from improved functional design. Consumers outline the design and functional features for the next generation of a product, while leaving the actual feature incorporation to the company.

The design process follows three specific steps to achieve the above objectives: 1) Corporations are identified, and offered free access to consumers through focus groups and surveys provided the manufacturer is able to commit to an 18-36 month development and commercialization window for any new product; 2) in conjunction with the corporation a product concept is selected; and 3) consumer focus groups are held to secure PD input. We rely upon the WNY Independent Living Project's (WNYILP) database of consumers, prescribers, and caregivers to recruit the appropriate participants with disabilities relevant to the proposed products. We also recruit individuals who comprise a 'representative sample' of the US population.

Alpha Focus Groups are used in research to generate hypotheses, gather information, or to compliment more quantitative analyses. Alpha focus groups are the first groups conducted for a particular product or topic focusing on concept definition and priority setting for product design. Four or five Alpha focus groups, each consisting of twelve to fifteen participants, are necessary to identify product requirements. These groups use mixed rather than uniform samples, so that all participants are exposed to various relevant perspectives. The parameters of using at least fifty participants, using mixed samples, running four focus groups, meets minimum industry standards for validity and reliability. The T2RERC follows these parameters as being optimally efficient and effective.

Our Alpha Focus Groups are an open forum discussion led by one of the WNYILP's experienced focus group moderators. There are three primary topic areas: 1) The current status of the technology area being discussed from the participants' perspective, in other words, how do consumers currently address the need being discussed; 2) the description of what their ideal product to perform that function would be; and 3) an evaluation of product concept designs. The later includes a review of product concept models prepared for the groups. To determine the current status and consumer satisfaction levels with their product function techniques and devices, the participants are asked to provide background information on a variety of topics involving the product. On the topic of ideal product, participants in the focus groups are asked to provide the attributes of what they perceived to be the ideal device to perform the function. Following the consumer evaluation product design models, purchase intent and price point questions are asked of the participants for both the Conceptualized Ideal Product and for the concept models shown.

The information gathered from the groups is analyzed and a report is formulated for the manufacturer focusing on a listing of specific design and functional features identified by our consumer focus group participants. The manufacturer, to the best of their ability, incorporates these features into their Beta prototype, which they provide to us for further refinement at our Beta Focus Groups. Beta Focus Groups primarily allow the refinement of a product's appearance through a critique of key design features of a prototype. They also provide an opportunity to rank a product's function and design features previously identified in concept definition focus groups. Beta focus group participants are a representative sample of the Alpha focus group participants. Two Beta groups of twelve participants each are sufficient.

Beta groups generate quantitative data on the previously collected qualitative information as applied to the prototype being evaluated. Basically, they answer the question as to whether or not a prototype addresses the top function and design features articulated by the consumer. The Beta group results are relayed to the manufacturing company in a concise and timely report. In effect, our Beta focus groups choose the final overall design and functionality of the device.


The T2RERC's Supply Push program's recent successful experience with Fortune 500 manufacturers demonstrates the value of this approach. Our work on Black & Decker's Lids Off' TM automatic jar opener spanned four years and had two desired outcomes: First, they introduced a more accessible and usable new kitchen appliance into the mainstream consumer market, resulting in broader market appeal (5). Second, they altered their internal protocols for conducting market research on other product lines. Our initial discussions with B&D in early 2000 led to the assignment of an internal B&D product development team in November 2000. Our Alpha & Beta focus groups along with B&D's generation of prototypes consumed the year 2001, culminating in the fabrication of a final pre-production prototype. In early 2002, off shore manufacturing commenced with an initial product release of 500,000 units in early 2003. Formal product release of the Lids Off' TM , with T2RERC's involvement, occurred in June 2003. The initial release for the first production run for the Lids Off' TM was so well received that B&D is already in the second production run. Initial sales prices on the Internet were at a price point of $49.00 per unit. Introduction of the product on the Internet and at brick and mortar stores, such as Target in the summer of 2003, maintained the initial price point of $49.00. With Wal-Mart's introduction of the product on its web site and in its' stores in October 2003 at a price of $34.88, the other retail outlets have lowered their price to $39.99.


Through the T2RERC's Participatory Development project, mainstream manufacturers can broaden the consumer market for their new products, by introducing more accessible and more usable functional designs. This market broadening can be accomplished at little additional marginal cost, because the design will be incorporating the necessary functions and features at the earliest stage of product development. More accessible mainstream consumer products translates into larger markets, creating economies of scale that permit lower price points as shown in the Lids Off' TM example.


  1. Peter, JP (2002). Preface to Marketing Management . New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.
  2. Blaszzyk, RL (2000). Imagining Consumers. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  3. Whyte, W.F. Editor (1991). Participatory Action Research . Newbury Park: Sage Publications.
  4. Appliance Manufacturing , November, 2001.


This is a publication of the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technology Transfer, funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the Department of Education under grant number H133E030025. The opinions contained in this publication are those of the grantee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Education.


James A. Leahy, Joseph P. Lane, Douglas J. Usiak,
Co-PI's RERC on Technology Transfer,
Center for Assistive Technology,
University at Buffalo, 322 Kimball Tower,
Buffalo, NY 14214.
Phone (716) 829-3141
Fax (716) 829-2420.
Email -

RESNA Conference Logo