RESNA 27th International Annual Confence

Technology & Disability: Research, Design, Practice & Policy

June 18 to June 22, 2004
Orlando, Florida

Transgenerational Design and Product Differentiators in Product Development

James A. Leahy, BS
RERC on Technology Transfer, University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14214


This paper presents the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technology Transfer's (T 2 RERC) approach to increasing the usability and accessibility of today's mainstream consumer products. It explains terms and methods that, in our experience, increase the likelihood of successfully licensing prototype devices with improved usability and accessibility features, to mainstream manufacturers.


Transgenerational design, universal design, product differentiators, product development


In the 1998-2003 funding cycle, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the Department of Education's (NIDRR) priority for the T 2 RERC included an initiative to engage mainstream companies in the development and commercialization of products that included an assessment of the principles of Universal Design (UD).

In our dealings with those companies the T 2 RERC encountered hesitancy, on the company's part, to invest resources in licensing and bringing UD products to the marketplace. The principles of UD do not specifically state that a product has to be designed for use by people of all ability levels (1). However, some corporations perceive a UD product is to be designed for use by all which connotes a plethora of ancillary and redundant components each adding unnecessary additional cost. This perception becomes a corporate stigma that UD products are too costly to produce, and result in higher retail prices and a lower market share for a mainstream consumer product. Since product cost, profit, and market share are primary drivers in corporate thinking, it is important to counter the perception of UD devices held by communicating a positive business case for designing more accessible mainstream consumer products.

If we were to use the term UD in our discussions with these corporations, the cost/benefit stigma arises. Mainstream corporations design products for the mass market and are very cognizant of the 80/20 Rule (Pareto Principle). Corporations rationalize that 80% of the features their products should possess can be attained at a reasonable cost. Manufacturing a UD product incorporating those last 20% of the needed usability and accessibility features can be extremely expensive, resulting in a higher retail price their product must now carry. Companies may only wish to seek incremental improvements to their products. However, those incremental improvements may drastically add to the usability and accessibility of their products for thousands of consumers.


So how does one persuade manufacturers of mainstream consumer products to add usability and

accessibility features to the next generation of their products? Our work has revealed three rules for approaching and engaging companies in negotiations:

Know What to Say and What Not to Say . We know what motivates corporations (lower product cost, increased profit and increased market share). Corporations know there are millions of baby boomers rapidly approaching their senior years and they wish to garner an increased market share of this prospective business. Graying, affluent, baby boomers, who are tech savvy and receptive to product advancements, are changing the traditional consumer market for the elderly.

Knowing the corporate attitude towards UD, the T 2 RERC has found it beneficial to speak of Transgenerational Design (TD) rather than UD when making presentations to company executives. TD, a term coined by Dr. James Pirkl, is a "knowledge based design strategy that produces products, packages, graphics and environments that accommodate physical and sensory impairments associated with human aging and which limit independence" (2). TD products are designed to be used by people of all ages and ability levels. TD piques the interest of corporations trying to tap into the aging Baby Boomer market.

In conjunction with TD, Product Differentiators (PD) is a term that also piques the interest of corporations (3). PD's are features that sets one company's product apart from their competitors products. It's something a product offers that the competition's product doesn't. Product parity doesn't garner sales from the competition. Companies are seeking novel useful features to incur conquest sales, to increase their market share. Companies want to differentiate their product from their competitors. When used appropriately, the terms TD and PD entice corporations to invest resources in product refinement.

Know How to Say It or how to address the corporate audience. We have found that all dealings with a corporation must be done on a positive, constructive note. You want to be perceived by all levels of the corporation as a resource, not a threat. Keep in mind that your organization and device are competing against internal product development teams for limited corporate resources. Along with this positive, constructive attitude that must be maintained, there are certain Do's and Don'ts that must be addressed in a presentation to a corporate audience. Don't just design a product, present it to a corporation, and expect it to be well received by all levels. Internal company designers feel threatened or challenged by this external product submission because it is their job to develop new products for the corporation. Do present the corporation with a working prototype and a listing of design and functional features important for the new product. Do present the features and functions within the context of customer requirements. Encourage the company to validate your findings with an appropriate mix of potential customers. We have found that consumer interaction, during the early and late stages of the new product development process, increases the likelihood of product success in the marketplace. We emphasize this point in presentations to corporations.

This approach provides a working foundation on which to build a relationship with the internal corporate designers. They can now showcase their creativity and design expertise in a constructive manner for their corporate superiors. By giving the internal product developers latitude in the design of the product, you are having them develop an ownership attitude towards the product. Do understand company designers may have internal constraints, so don't criticize previous designs or products from the company. Do learn what new features or technology cost today and how much these features will increase the cost of the final product.

Lastly, Know When to Say It. Learn about the companies you are contacting, their industry and the players. Who are the innovators seeking to compete with industry leaders? What and when are the industry trade shows? How do companies in this industry introduce new products? What are these companies' product development cycles? The presenter must become schooled in the appropriate industry segment to be able to present a product at the most opportune time. Missing a corporate product development window may place a project on hold for up to one year within a corporation. Engage company representatives early in the process. However, don't attempt to have all the answers. No one knows competing products, and the market for those products, better than the company that has been operating in that market for years.


The T 2 RERC has used the business oriented terminology and methodology described above in product presentation and development work with mainstream consumer product companies. We have provided market information and consumer wanted design and functional feature information to key Black and Decker (Applica, Inc) personnel on both an automated jar opener design and a toaster oven design. Our experience with Black & Decker resulted in their design teams and managers embracing the concepts underlying our collaborative projects. The work accomplished by both organizations has resulted in more usable, accessible, and highly successful mainstream products being designed by this corporation. We have, in effect, raised the design bar for these types of consumer products. The T 2 RERC is replicating this process with White Rodgers on a residential thermostat design and with other companies. The end result of the use of this terminology and methodology is the acknowledgment of companies that there is a need to produce more usable and accessible products for broader, more inclusive markets and that satisfying this need will result in their own higher corporate profits.


The bottom line is current incremental usability and accessibility improvements in mainstream consumer products can be attained now at a reasonable cost while technology progresses and becomes cheaper. Using the aging baby boomer population as a catalyst and combining it with the methodology and terminology (TD & PD) described in this paper, RERC's and other organizations can work with companies to start this evolutionary process. Having corporations routinely make these improvements in their products to increase their market share and profitability will allow us to eventually attain our goal of having all mainstream consumer products attain the principles embodied in the concept of UD.


  1. Mace, Ron, et. al."Principles of UD."
  2. Pirkl, James. Transgenerational Design: Products for an Aging Population. John Wiley & Sons, 1997
  3. Chamberlain, E. The Theory of Monopolistic Competition . Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press,1933


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, Co-PI,
Project Administrative Officer RERC on Technology Transfer,
Center for Assistive Technology,
University at Buffalo,
615 Kimball Tower,
Buffalo, NY 14214.
Phone (716) 829-3141
Fax (716) 829-2420.
Email -

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