Empathy is a concept that has been talked about a lot recently. The ability to understand and relate to the people around us is something that's valuable no matter the situation. But often, to gain a profound understanding, there's really no substitute for firsthand experience. To help facilitate making empathetic connections between younger and older generations, the MIT AgeLab came up with a way to literally put yourself in someone else's shoes.

Excerpted from The Longevity Economy by Joseph F. Coughlin, published by PublicAffairs, 2017:

As obvious as it may sound to try to thrill the older consumer, in the face of a confounding narrative of aging, it can prove tricky to pull off. A profound understanding of one’s customer’s wants, needs, frustrations, and hopes is required.

Sometimes, a company can purchase this kind of deep knowledge in the form of a new team, employee, or consultant. However, it’s also possible to climb into your customer’s head through deliberate acts of empathy—an approach that can pay out surprising dividends down the line. To figure out how to cross that dividing line, however, it may be necessary to try an act of radical empathy.

The market for Mercedes-Benz’s high-end automobiles tends to skew affluent, which is to say: older. In the mid-aughts, Daimler AG, Mercedes’s parent company (at the time, part of DaimlerChrysler), was working with my team to try to figure out what their aging customer base wanted and how to provide it for them. To that end, the German automaker invited a group of AgeLab staff and students to a workshop at one of its facilities in Berlin, where engineers, designers, and marketers from both Daimler and Siemens, who was building car-interior components for Mercedes, were hoping to get together to try to understand the older customer.

Almost on a whim, my team and I decided to kick off the conference with an ice-breaker of sorts—a fun activity designed to force engineers, designers, and marketers out of their comfort zones and into the shoes of older drivers. What if, we wondered, we could dress them in some sort of age-simulation suit? It would be something along the lines of pregnancy-empathy suits or alcohol-impairment simulation goggles, which were popular teaching aids at Lamaze classes and scare-’em-straight high school programs, respectively. At the time, there were even a few goggle-and-glove systems floating around gerontologist and nursing circles, designed to mimic certain symptoms associated with old age. We decided to make a full-body version and apply it directly to the automobile experience.

We dubbed the resulting, funny-looking outfit the “Age Gain Now Empathy System.” In a remarkable stroke of luck—so fortunate, in fact, that some find it suspicious—the words came together to spell out the name AGNES.

Person wearing AGNES suit
AGNES exploring Copley Square in Boston

I was lucky enough to have on my team an exercise physiologist with close knowledge of arthritis and aging bodies who helped us come up with the individual components. These included yellow glasses, which mimicked the yellowing of the ocular lens that comes with age. A boxer’s neck-strengthening harness reduced the mobility of the cervical spine and made it harder to maintain one’s posture. Bands around the elbows, wrists, and knees gave the impression of stiffness. Gloves added to the picture, reducing tactile acuity while adding resistance to finger movements.

The whole thing was a relatively slap-dash, last-minute experiment, and yet it’s hard to overstate the impression it made. Part of its memorability was due simply to the hilarity that ensued as the Daimler, Siemens, and AgeLab team members tried to put the suit on. Perhaps what made the most profound mark, however, was the fact that after putting it on, we played the games Twister and Operation. As the engineers, designers, and marketers used AGNES—both within Mercedes cars and while playing games—they learned not only to respect the challenges their older customers unflinchingly faced every day but also to appreciate their own relative physiological functionality in a new way.

They each wore the suit, took it off, debriefed, handed it over to someone else, and the process repeated. As the day wore on, the companies’ teams identified a number of friction points potentially standing between older consumers and the excitement and delight they were paying for. Perhaps more important, these engineers, designers, marketers—even executives—were finally seeing the customer’s experience through the same set of eyes. [...] They were breaking through years, maybe decades, of institutional inertia—as a unified team.

In every case, the goal has always been to move beyond the simple transfer of information about old age: to deliver not merely cold facts but also a profound, emotional, “Aha!” moment. When people read about AGNES in the press, the focus is always on what she takes away in terms of the wearer’s physiology, but in person, AGNES’s secret weapon is the emotion she triggers in the wearer. It’s one thing to understand on an academic level that it can be tough to grow old. It’s quite another to grok deeply what it’s like to try in vain to get something done, only to be thwarted by a world of products and policies built for people 50 years your junior.

Excerpt from The Longevity Economy by Joseph F. Coughlin, published by PublicAffairs, 2017