5 Things You Need to Know Before Developing Products for 50+ (or Anyone)

By Mark Ogilbee posted 06-16-2022 10:59 PM

Sarah Miller of AARP's Innovation Labs

A critical part of developing a new product that you want to bring to market is design thinking. Broadly speaking, design thinking is the process of learning about the needs of the consumers you hope will use your product, then developing your product so that it will meet those needs in a highly impactful way. 

This process is just as important to innovators in the AgeTech space as any other, so to gain some practical insights into design thinking and how it works, we talked with Sarah Miller, a senior innovation advisor with AARP’s Innovation Labs, who offered these following top tips. 


#1: Keep Your Audience at the Center of the Process 

Miller emphasizes that knowing your audience and their actual needs is fundamental to designing successful products. “I always try to keep people at the center of my design process. Actually, I often use ‘design thinking’ and ‘human-centered design’ interchangeably. That might not be technically accurate, but either way, the process is always about keeping the end user at the heart of everything you do.  

“Be curious. We all have our biases, and what I think people need may not be what they actually need or want. I’ve talked to hundreds of consumers over the years, and that's given me a far better idea of where they're actually at. Because everybody's journey is different, right? Every person has their own unique set of problems and situations. And I think the most challenging part is stepping out of my own biases and keeping the user — not my preconception of the user — front and center."


#2: Validate, Iterate 

You’ve ideated and distilled your concept and come up with a product you're sure people are going to love — but will your intended users share that enthusiasm? Miller advises getting detailed feedback from end users early and often. Specifically, she uses a structured interview process to gather data points to help her understand where her idea hits the mark and where it misses. 

“If I’m doing an interview for a prototype, for example, I write at the top of my interview script: ‘My goal is to understand whether this prototype is viable and interesting to this target market.’ Once you’re clear about the goal of the interview, the process becomes easier. And I try to remain curious throughout the interview, to probe a little bit in response to what the person I’m interviewing is saying or doing.  

“Then you synthesize what you learn in the interview by asking yourself, ‘What were they really telling me? What did they really mean?’ And then you iterate on that. If you’re working on a concept, maybe you change a feature up. If it's a prototype, you literally might change the process if you realize the product isn’t ‘landing’ the way you expected. Really, it’s ‘try this,’ ‘try that,’ and keep testing. The process is continually taking in feedback, synthesizing, iterating."


#3: A Formalized System Is Your Friend 
Having a systematic approach to design thinking lends structure to the process and can keep your efforts on-point. Miller describes how using the five-step Sprint Framework process developed by the AARP Innovation Labs Design Thinking team can lead to dramatic results, fast: 

“Basically, in this Sprint Framework model, you have five steps: Understand, Diverge, Converge, Prototype, Validate. You focus on one step per day, and at the end of a five-day period, you already have a working prototype that’s been tested with consumers.” 

That’s by no means the end of the process, but this or any framework can serve as a basis for additional development or giving direction to overcoming specific roadblocks. Miller notes, “You can also just apply individual elements of design thinking to find answers to specific problems. For example, if I’m stuck on some problem, I could take a cue from the Understand step and go talk to some consumers and find out what their pain points are.” 


#4: Stay Flexible 

Even deep into the process, learning to pivot — sometimes dramatically and swiftly — can be a critical skill. Such a drastic change could easily feel like a frustrating setback, but it could lead to a surprising success. 

Miller describes her experience developing a digital product for people providing in-person care, only to release the prototype just as COVID-19 and its enforced isolation hit. “We had to pivot, and it was literally just me sitting there at a loss, thinking, ‘OK, what we have isn't going to work now. Instead, how can we leverage what we have to help people who have COVID?’ And I realized there were a lot of mutual aid groups popping up for people with COVID. So my team and I ended up pivoting, and within five days we’d created a working website that was able to connect people to thousands of these mutual aid groups around the country — to help people with COVID get access to support and the supplies they needed. That turned out to be one of our most successful products. It actually turned into a national campaign, and we had millions of hits — and we built it in five days. We even had ads on TV, and I got to tell my grandma: 'That was my idea!'”  


#5: Don’t Be Afraid to Fail 

When you’re trying to succeed, viewing failure as a positive outcome might seem counterintuitive. But Miller views failing not just as an inevitable part of design thinking, but as a positive force for achieving success: 

“When you’re doing something new, everything's a shot in the dark. So what you do is you try to fail really fast and figure out what works and what doesn't work. Because being able to fail is the most important aspect of moving forward. Really good product builders want to fail fast because failure means you’re figuring out what’s not working, which then allows you to move on to discover what does. Failing doesn’t mean you’re a failure; it just means, from a scientific standpoint, ‘Oh, this didn’t work. I have data behind that. Now I can look for what will work.’ Most people don’t view failure that way, but really, it’s a gift.” 

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