Lapeyre > Concept'Care:
Extreme Bathroom Users: Lapeyre Embraces the Elderly

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A major French furniture company challenges an international team of students to redesign the bathroom experience for the elderly – and receives a product that ends up changing the way their organization approaches senior customers.

When Lapeyre approached their ME310 student team for the first time in October 2013, the marketing representative didn’t exactly expect much: “As an old adventurer in marketing, I thought I had seen it all, heard it all”, commented Jean-Philippe Arnoux, director of marketing at Lapeyre. “Putting the user in the center of my thoughts is the basis of my work.” Design thinking? Merely “a new design discipline among others, nothing new on the horizon, something fashionable.”

And indeed, the journey that Lapeyre was about to take with the ME310 team may sound winding and difficult: A company giving a challenge to a group of students, who themselves explore design thinking – often for the first time – while working in two different locations. What followed, though, was a process that showed intimate user research, intense iteration loops, a convincing final prototype, and ultimately a change in Lapeyre’s strategy of addressing the issue of accessibility. Here is how it went about.

Within the Stanford University ME310 course, companies set tasks for international student teams – in the case of Lapeyre, eight students with five nationalities at the German Hasso Plattner Institut (HPI) and the French d.school at the École des Ponts Paris Tech (ENPC). The Lapeyre representatives, intending to expand the company’s market towards the 22 million people above the age of 50 in France, challenged the team to reinvent the bathroom experience of elderly people to gain more autonomy in their houses. The challenge came with restrictions, though: The final product had to be producible in France, like all Lapeyre furniture – a principle that the company advertises – and sold for a price below 1000 euros.

ME310 is a Stanford University course on design thinking methods, which groups students from two universities with an industrial partner. Each team consists of six to eight students, located in two different countries, who are required to stay in frequent dialog with each other. The teams are then given a challenge by a company, which they work on for nine months using design thinking. During the course, the students are supported by professional coaches and faculty advisors. Starting with exploratory prototypes to foster understanding, students work towards a high fidelity prototype as proof of concept. The desirable results of all projects are user-centric prototypes that are economically viable and technically feasible.

Lapeyre is a subsidiary of the multinational Saint-Gobain Corporation. The company manufactures and distributes furniture and home improvement products to professional and private costumers. Lapeyre’s core business consists of windows, doors as well as kitchen and bathroom products. Lapeyre employs 9200 people in 10 production sites and 350 outlets, it’s annual turnover is 1,57 billion euros.

The École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, more commonly known as École des Ponts ParisTech or simply Ponts, is a public university of higher education in the east of Paris, France. Teaching and research is focused on the fields of science, engineering and technology. The institution, founded in 1747, comprises the D.School Paris, which was launched in 2012 and hosts the ME310 course in Paris.

The Hasso Plattner Institute is a university college at the University of Potsdam, Germany. It was founded in 1998 and is privately funded by Professor Hasso Plattner. The HPI offers education programs and conducts research on IT systems engineering. It contains the HPI School of Design Thinking, which was launched in 2009.

 

Design Thinking from Paris to Potsdam

Communication between the two team halves proved to be a challenge: “In the beginning, it was really difficult,” Florence Mathieu comments. A student of industrial engineering at the time, she was part of the ME310 team located at the Paris d.school. Nowadays, she is in charge of projects about the elderly at the d.school. While the students in Paris worked on the project full-time, the Potsdam crew spent two and a half days per week on the challenge – and therefore needed to be more organized, according to Florence: “They had to plan: ‘On which day do we build which prototype?’, and so on.” The students tried to stay in touch via Skype and phone calls, e-mails and a Facebook chat group – only to find a good old weekly handout to be the most helpful measure. “We were also really lucky to be able to visit and meet each other quite often in comparison to other teams.”

While a separated team seems to be an intricate prerequisite, the different locations were also insightful for the students: “I was especially surprised about the cultural and sociological differences between France and Germany even though we are neighboring countries,” IT-Systems engineering student Johannes Jaspers commented. “I think in Germany, there are fewer barriers about how you see the elderly,” Florence points out. Additionally, the two team parts were able to divide up focus points within the process and thus to produce much more prototypes and explore more possibilities.

Research Phase: How to understand the Elderly

    Understanding the problem: a map of activities in the bathroom.

To understand the posed challenge, the students conducted a market analysis by desk research and interviewed experts in the field of elderly psychology and physiology, such as nurses, doctors, and ergotherapists. Trying to immerse themselves into the physical situation of elderly people, they built their own grand age accelerator or tried one at an exhibition. The team also interviewed the actual users: the French students were able to talk to the inhabitants of an elderly house in Bry-sur-Marne, a suburb of Paris, where they would also return regularly for testing.

The results of their research were depressing: Elderly people don’t like to see themselves as such, because their significance in society is fading. They suffer from disabilities and lose autonomy in their own homes. At the same time, their environment is not adapted to their needs: “In France, there are already 22 million people who are over 50 years old but only 6% of the households are adapted for their changing needs,” the team concludes.

People prefer to disregard and hide the impairments of old age until they are finally forced to accept growing old because of a nuisance too great to ignore. Products made for the elderly furthermore reflect their conditions, they tell the users that they are old – an unpleasant stigmatization the team terms ‘mirror effect’. “An older generation friendly bathroom equals a disability-aware bathroom in practice,” Johannes explains.

 

Physical Limitations Loss of autonomy due to an increase of disabilities in a non-adapted environment
Psychology People rejecting the idea of being an elderly person and of having to adapt something in their lives to their age; stigmatizing products
Society People of grand age lose their place in society

 

The Morning Routine

Wanting to establish how they could improve the bathroom experience for elderly people, the team returned to the field and tried to observe the morning routine of their users. The bathroom routine is an intimate and private procedure, though: It turned out to be easier to follow close friends or relatives through their daily course of action in the bathroom than strangers. Florence observed her own grandmother, Jacqueline, and noticed some significant habits. Jacqueline would wander between the bathroom and her bed during her morning routine, needing to sit down for tasks such as applying crème on her feet. The team realized that all needs and problems they had come across in previous research were linked to Jacqueline’s problem: the lack of a piece of furniture that would allow a comfortable morning routine at the sink.

The team identified two problem areas in the bathroom that they wanted to tackle: The procedure of washing oneself, and the daily ‘sink routine’ of getting ready in the morning (e.g. brushing teeth, combing hair, applying make-up et cetera.) The students then established six needs of elderly people doing their sink routine.

 

Need 1        Elderly people need to be able to sit in the bathroom because they get tired and feel uncomfortable easily
Need 2 People need to store water sensitive items on a dry working surface
Need 3 Users need to  store items temporarily on a open working surface in immediate reach
Need 4  Elderly people need to be able to reach the storage space from the sink because their accessible zone is reduced
Need 5 Users need bright, symmetric lighting in their bathroom
Need 6 Elderly people need to see themselves from up close and from different angles

 

 

A List of Requirements: The ‘Wizard of Oz’ Prototype

Based on their findings, the team established the core needs of the elderly in the bathroom – and cross-checked them with the existing offer on the bathroom market, eliminating needs to focus on. “I actually think that generally, one should avoid to do the benchmarking too early in the process, or otherwise one could go into the field biased,” Florence argues. The cross-checking advanced the team’s work, though, when they realized that the need of reaching storage space from the sink (Need 4) was not yet fulfilled by furniture on the market, and that none of the offers managed to satisfy all of the detected needs within one solution.

The classic dressing table inspired the team: Usually found in 18th century bedrooms, it fulfilled many of the team's requirements.

The classic dressing table inspired the team: Usually found in 18th century bedrooms, it fulfilled many of the needs spotted by the students.

 

None? Looking further, the students came upon a piece of furniture that could fulfill most of the needs – but until now, it was mainly found in 18th century bedrooms and had no access to running water: The classic dressing table. This analogy inspired them to create ‘a place in the bathroom that offers a sink, a comfortable seating position, storage and a working space and good accessibility of the items needed.’ Thereby, they planned to reintroduce functionalities in bathroom furniture, an area in which innovation is primarily seen in design and aesthetics.

With this long list of requirements, the team went for a ‘Wizard of Oz’ prototype: A magic sink that talks to the user and fulfills all of their wishes. From there on, they gradually iterated their prototype, simultaneously focusing and improving it.

Iteration Loops

    A ‘Wizard of Oz’ sink that allowed users to ask for (and receive) everything they need during their morning routine.

These are just some examples of how the team iterated their initial prototype to test and improve certain functions.

Prototypes Testing Set-Up Insights Learnings
Step 1: The Dark Horse Prototype A ‘Wizard of Oz’ sink that allowed users to ask for (and receive) everything they need during their morning routine – even newspapers or food – while sitting on the toilet. The possibility to sit down is very useful for usual bathroom activities. Users do not wish to take on further activities (such as having breakfast) in the bathroom. Users do not wish for voice interactions with bathroom furniture. Users do not wish to sit on the toilet for morning activities. Focus on the chair/table possibilities.
Step 2: Round Shape Prototype A bathroom table with a round, turning surface, allowing to push the sink away and use dry surface. Users like the concept of easily switching between dry and activities at the sink. Users feel that round shape is ‘avantgarde’ and not desirable, though. The round shape wastes a lot of space and necessitates a special design of the water supply, which would be expensive and unreliable. Try a shape that needs less space
Step 3: Corner Solution Prototype a table designed for a bathroom corner with an embedded rotating sink. Corners in bathrooms are often already occupied. Difficulties with the technical implementation (concerning water supply) remain. Bathroom design and furniture is very conservative: try more traditional shapes.
Step 4: Slim Wedge-shaped Prototype a slim table that allows easy access with chairs and wheelchairs, storage room at both sides of the table can be covered with a sliding panel. Users liked clean design and easily accessible functionality. Sink and working surface was criticized as ‘too small’. The prototype chair (a regular office chair) seemed unfitting and alien in the bathroom. Chair needs to be integrated in the dressing table.
Step 5: Table with integrated chair a table solution that offers space for an integrated chair as well as wheelchairs. Drawers offer storage, the sink can be covered with sliding panels. Overall concept is approved, but details need to be added and improved. Add adjustable mirror and power socket.
Step 6: Chair Iteration Prototypes Several prototypes to improve the chair, including a stool versus armrests to facilitate standing up, cushions for an upright seating position, and the possibilities of rolling versus sliding the chair. Users prefer a chair with armrests, cushions, and small wheels.  Finalize prototype with according chair.

 

The Final Prototype: A Product For All

Based on their iterated prototypes, the team finalized their concept and built a CAD model of the furniture. At this point, their industrial partner was involved strongly again: Two students of the team visited a Lapeyre factory to support the company’s engineers at transforming the concept into an industrially manufactured prototype. They had to consider the aspects of the possible technical feasibility in a short time frame, the price limit and user needs. On top of that, some elements of the prototype – like a chair – had never been manufactured by Lapeyre before, which proved to be a challenge. For other parts of the furniture, existing solutions from the Lapeyre catalogue could be reused.

The final prototype, designed by the ME310 team and manufactured by Lapeyre.

The final product, designed by the ME310 team and manufactured by Lapeyre.

 

The final sink table prototype, then, comprised six element areas:

Sink Table Prototype Elements
Integrated Seat: Retractable seat providing a comfortable, active seating position. Chair can be removed to offer space for a wheelchair
Sink and Tap: Sink height is accessible from both standing and seating position. Extensible faucet offers possibility to wash upper body at the sink.
Working Surface: Working surface can be slid over the sink to offer large dry working surface
Storage Space: Drawers at the right side of the seat offer storage space in accessible zone. Additional space is available beneath the sitting surface.
Mirror and Light: Large mirror that can be moved in all directions; light source above the mirror
Power Outlet: Integrated power outlet for electricity supply

 

What makes the the team’s sink table special is its non-stigmatizing design and transgenerational accessibility. Many products for elderly people are designed in a way that clearly labels them so, and fear (of accidents or injuries) is often used as a trigger to buy these products. The Lapeyre team’s prototype, in contrast, is aesthetically appealing and its functions are not exclusively tailored to people of old age.


“Elderly people are the extreme users of the bathroom.”


“We realized that elderly people are the extreme users of the bathroom,” Florence explains. A product that solves their usage problems will ultimately profit every bathroom user. “We get feedback from all kinds of persons for our solution: ‘It’s amazing for children’, or ‘When I put on my make-up I really like to sit down.’”

 

 

Bringing Concept’Care to the Stores

Critics complain that many design thinking student projects tend to end with an inspiring concept that never makes it to the market. For this team, things went differently: The Lapeyre representatives were convinced by the testing results and the final prototype – and persistent enough to go through with the implementation of an innovative new product.

Florence partly attributes this to the close cooperation between the design thinking team and Lapeyre: “We tried to get involved with the company partner as much as possible,” she explains. Early on, the team opted for a furniture solution “because it just makes much more sense for Lapeyre”. Furthermore, the students often checked back with Lapeyre representatives to ask for their opinion on prototypes. “We weren’t trying to make a concept that’s great for the user but can never be implemented,” Florence says. Team colleague Johannes feels that sometimes, there were moments where ideas were discarded in advance out of fear to be too ‘crazy’. “We may not have made quantum leaps with our prototype, but we also did not outpace our partner – and in the end, this was the right approach for Lapeyre,” he concludes.

The compromises the team had to make with their final prototype sometimes resulted in solutions that were not the best – but the only ones achievable for a certain price. “During every step we considered desirability, feasibility, and viability,” Florence explains.

To put it in stores, Lapeyre renamed the student-dubbed Intemporel as Concept’Care – “Intemporel”, coincidently, was already branded as a door within the Lapeyre line. By now, Concept’Care is available for purchase in the Lapeyre catalogue and 130 stores all over France.

“Some people say design thinking is about developing a crazy idea that no one ever had,” Florence explains. “But for me, our solution shows the beauty of design thinking. It’s when you hear: ‘Why did this not exist before? It’s so simple!’”

From Concept’Care to Vita Confort: A participatory concept store

The Concept’Care furniture resonated well: Media stories about the product keep getting published, even one and a half years after the ME310 presentation. Florence estimates that about 85 newspapers, online platforms, radio or TV stations reported about the project. “In France, it was a revelation that a big company such as Lapeyre tackled the subject of the elderly,” she says. For Jean-Philippe Arnoux, director of marketing at Lapeyre, the process leading to Concept’Care underlined the need of including elderly people: “A new approach to address one of the challenges of our society should be welcomed: the challenge of an aging population.” According to him, it is the duty of manufacturers and distributors to create the conditions for a mass market of both comfort and accessibility.

For Concept’Care, there is still an obstacle in this transformation, though. A vital characteristic of the furniture is that it supports the needs of elderly without looking like a product for the elderly. “It’s difficult when the Concept’Care is presented by people who don’t understand that philosophy,” Florence says. The next task, then, would be to re-design the buying experience for the elderly.

Lapeyre might just have taken a step into that direction. The company has used the Concept’Care product line as a door-opener for implementing a new strategy of approaching the issue of accessibility – for elderly people, handicapped people, and everyone else as well. In October 2015, they opened a concept store in downtown Paris called ‘Vita Confort’, where they present accessible bathrooms with non-stigmatizing design – such as the Concept’Care or a douche with a seat, the Facilot. The 280m² shop facilitates the discovery of products with sound guidance for blind people, a simultaneous translation device in sign language and sound amplification for hearing aids. The facility includes a space for meetings and conferences, where employees conduct workshops with elderly people from the neighborhood to learn more about their views on crucial subjects. Lapeyre plans to open two more Vita Confort shops in France during the first quarter of 2016, and forty more in the next three years.

“The Concept’Care was a start to change the strategy,” Florence points out. Lapeyre was already looking to the market of elderly people before the ME310 project commenced, but the insights that came with the development of Concept’Care gave them a new vision: During the ME310 course, the Lapeyre representatives discovered a unique aspect of design thinking methodlogy. As Jean-Philippe Arnoux put it: “If placing the user at the heart of our development processes is not novel, this manner of listening, understanding and integrating the user in prototyping is radically new.”

This article was co-authored with Florence Mathieu from the d.school Paris and d.school Paris dean Véronique Hillen.

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