The AgeLab is a multi-disciplinary research program based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It focuses on improving the lives of the over 50’s through technology, innovation and design. One of its most famous members is Agnes. Agnes has appeared on television shows and documentaries. “Age Gain Now Empathy System”, or A.G.N.E.S for short, is a suit which simulates old age for the wearer. Its aim is not just to demonstrate the physical issues such as stiff joints or failing eyesight. It generates an emotional empathetic response from the wearer.
A.G.N.E.S. simulates many of the changes that come with the end of the Third Age. It mimics mobility changes by reducing flexibility and stride length. A system of ropes and pullies is attached to the joints. It also creates a forward stoop in the wearer. A neck collar reduces rotational mobility in the neck. This is combined with a helmet which compresses the upper spine. The soles of the shoes are foam padded to mimic the impact of the loss of touch in the feet. Goggles can simulate vision changes with age. They can yellow the eyes but also reproduce more serious illnesses such as glaucoma. Finally, a variety of gloves can reduce the sense of touch and mobility in the fingers.
Lots of different companies have used AGNES to understand how to design better products and services. Joseph Coghlin runs the Age-Lab. In his book "The Longevity Economy" he describes a particularly powerful story from CVS. This is a US drug-store and convenience chain. They were particularly interested in AGNES because their customers are older than the norm in the industry. He describes how CVS managers and store designers took AGNES to two real stores in New England (much to the surprise of a few regular customers).
“I walked, constricted to look down”, said one AGNES clad CVS team-member, “and I really could not look up”. He describes how he navigated using the linoleum pathway that wended its way through CVS’s trademark grey carpeting. The good news was that stores’ low shelving also meant that wearers were able to reach all the items on their shopping lists.
Agnes began to show the power of simulating more than one change in the body at a time. CVS tended to place heavy item such as six-packs of drinks on the bottom shelves or floor to keep them out of the way. A typical older customer can lift a Six-Pack. They can bend over to reach the floor. When wearers of the suit were asked to reach down to the extremity of their range and at the same time lift a heavy weight it destabilized their balance. Understanding such interactions between the different impacts of age is part of the rationale for AGNES. Needless to say, the six packs of nutritional drink were relocated at hip height. The same thing happened when loading or unloading deep – bottomed shopping carts. Carts were redesigned to be higher and to have easier sides to lift heavy items over.
The reduced eyesight produced necessitated more changes. Users could not discriminate between the different product identifiers. These stuck out from the store shelves. Each was ten centimetres in diameter making it difficult to read at the far end of the aisle. The result was an often frustrating long walk to find a particular item. They redesigned the lollipop signs and made them more readable. They also re-organized the shelves. They were organized by topic not product. Insulin pumps, glucose pills and pressure socks were grouped together. They are all bought by diabetics and the section labelled accordingly. This reduced the number of signs dramatically
There were many other insights for CVS that were immediately actionable. CVS had nurse practitioner working in walk-in clinics. They highlighted important advice on medicines with a yellow highlighter. This was difficult to see, by the very people it was written for. The colour was changed. Backlit credit card machines were introduced. This improved the contrast of the old grey on white machines.
They built “decompression zones” at the entrance to stores. This is a common issue in all stores. Customers take a few minutes to acclimatize to their new environment. They have to get used to the change in light and temperature. During decompression customers have little time for anything else. What CVS saw were older customers grabbing a shopping cart for stability. They then put their bags in to it and changed their glasses. Only then did they start their shopping trip.
Meet Agnes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czuww9rp5f4
The Emotional Impact of Ageing
Coughlin describes how the real power of A.G.N.E.S. is in the emotions it generates. AGNES showed CVS how threatening a public, retail environment can become. Even minor loss of senses and movement created negative emotions. The shelves in CVS were not particularly high. Despite this staff, wearing AGNES, described a sense of being trapped in long “canyons”. The result was often a claustrophobic panic. This was worse if two “younger adults” walked down the aisle towards you. Their presence threatened the tenuous balance of the AGNES wearer. CVS had to redesign the stores to get rid of the canyons.
Public policy for the ageing is full of the need to maintain “independence”. The ability to carry on with ones life with the minimum amount of support. This is a virtuous circle since it keeps people healthy and active. Policy initiatives focus on making older people feel safe. Separating pedestrians better from the traffic is a classic solution. Making signposts easier to understand and helping people find their way is another. What A.G.N.E.S. demonstrates is the complexity of understanding the emotional impact of something as simple as a store.