OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

StairWalker 2.0 [Update: The Designer's Journey]

A specialized cane that provides assistance and fall protection on staircases.

Photo of Robert Smith

Written by

Who is your idea designed for and how does it enable older adults to live their best possible life by preventing falls?

Anyone with balance or stability issues would benefit from this simple cane that can be hooked over and maneuvered along a staircase handrail, thereby transforming the cane into a two-handed assist-device and fall-prevention aid.

WHY 2.0

Having identified a similar product already available on the market, work on StairWalker 1.0 has been discontinued.  StairWalker 2.0 is a related idea that addresses some of the same issues with a significantly different approach.


Home staircases represent a real and often unavoidable challenge for individuals with balance or stability issues.


This proposed system utilizes a cane with a specially-shaped handle to provide assistance to individuals ascending stairs.

The handle fits over standard handrails, leaving the body of the cane to act as a 'temporarily locked' pull-bar.

While this idea addresses strength-related issues, it also provides important fall protection, acting as a two-position grip against falling backwards down a series of steps while ascending when there is only one handrail available.

This idea can address problems that exist world-wide, and various solutions should be considered that address varying access, both economic and supply, to components or materials.


A number of products currently exist that address fall prevention on home staircases.  These range from small handheld devices to electro-mechanical systems that transport individuals from one floor to another above existing stairs.

Some of these offer features which assist with carrying belongings as well, a key issue that can contribute to unsteady stair ascents.

Prices can range from $25 to $3000 USD, or even more if an installation must accommodate a curved or segmented staircase.

Representative products:

  1. An interesting and simple device is the ‘Companion Bird’, a “T” handle that slides on top of existing round cross-section handrails.  The device is brightly colored and offers an ergonomically shaped handle with integrated bag hanger.  This appears to be among the lowest priced products.

  1. “Stair Canes” offer a number of configurations, all of which focus on the end in contact with the steps.  These range from flexible “pads” to “Half-steps”.  These either offer a “third leg” while ascending or reduce the height of each step by providing an intermediate portable riser.


  1. The “Stair Aid” is a formed tubular handle which, again, slides along a round cross-section handrail, but offers multiple grip sites and a custom installed rack to hold the device in place when under load.

  1. Another device which requires an installed custom handrail is “StairSteady”.  This device is very similar in application to early work done for StairWalker 1.0

  1. “Stair Lifts” offer the most convenience for individuals but at the highest price and most complex level of installation, requiring both mechanical and electrical fitting.  These normally eliminate any need for climbing or descending the stairs as they offer a motorized sit/stand platform on which an individual can ride.

StairWalker 2.0 is intended to fall near the top of this list, with low complexity, no installation requirements and a price that should be very low for a globally-available off-the-shelf-components solution and not more than $150 for a high-end version.


When an individual approaches one end of a staircase, they slip the handle fork over the handrail.  The individual can then pull back on the leg of the cane to assist them in climbing the staircase.

At either end of the staircase the individual can remove the device from the handrail and proceed with it as a standard cane.


The latest embodiment of the StairWalker 2.0 cane along with the illustrated User Journey were shared with individuals at a public staircase on University Hill in Boulder, Colorado.  I facilitated the testing while my colleague, Gregg, filmed.

Our first insight was that filming in a public environment can be noisy and a bit distracting.  Still, all the test participants did a great job of 'thinking out loud' and providing fresh perspectives.

Four videos are attached below:

  1. Introduction & general discussion with all three participants
  2. Part 1, Test Participant 1
  3. Part 2, Test Participant 2
  4. Part 3, Test Participant 3

Insights from the usability testing include:

  • Cane is perceived as too heavy
  • Cane should be adjustable in length (telescoping to avoid taking up so much width on stairs)
  • While providing good protection against falls down the stairs, stability in other directions would be valuable
  • When in use on stairs, the cane should be more perpendicular to the handrail (less angled)


     5. I had my parents try out the newest prototype for the StairWalker 2.0 cane.

My mother struggled to use the device as originally intended, describing the action as "...not too natural".  She believed, however, that she would do better with practice.

As with some users during earlier usability testing, she showed a tendency to hold onto the head of the cane where it hooks onto the rail.  There is a measure of security and familiarity in this behavior, indicating a natural evolution of moving one's hand from the rail itself to the device.

During testing she also provided some key insights on how she transports laundry up the steps, one of the few reasons she ever navigates the stairs into the basement.  This observation emphasized the importance of dealing with carrying objects, including this cane, up and down stairs.

My dad is a mechanical engineer with a very pragmatic sensibility.  He demonstrated an alternate gripping strategy that made him feel more comfortable and secure, essentially by holding the existing handrail with the majority of his hand and controlling the cane handle with just a finger or two.

The insight derived from this usability testing is that the handle/head of the cane could be redesigned with detents or flanged areas on the handle that could give a seat for the thumb and forefinger of one hand for handle control while leaving the palm and other fingers to grasp the rail.  These features could reduce the likelihood of a potential 'pinch point' between the handle and the rail.  The other hand can grasp the shaft of the cane to pull up the step or assist with balance.

(Alternate handgrip position)

This grip also simplifies releasing the cane at the end of the stairs as the primary hand still has a firm grasp of the rail when the cane comes off.

This testing has also lead to additional thoughts around a handle/head with a hook feature for hanging bags, as suggested by 'Companion Bird' (Marketing section, above), while continuing to refine the ergonomics of the handgrip areas.


While having contributed to a number of OpenIDEO Challenges, this current challenge on fall prevention really resonated with me.

I live in Colorado, USA where houses often require numerous staircases to accommodate architectures that cascade down mountainsides.  I have parents and friends that could benefit, plus, after having a knee replaced, I have also had to deal with walkers and canes and struggled with flights of stairs while worrying about falls.

(Day after my knee replacement, 2016)

Combining my first-hand experience of the problem with a passion for designing with and for engaged individuals, made the idea of collaboratively designing a system to help physically challenged individuals navigate staircases particularly appealing.

The earliest idea was to transfer the utility of a standard walker to staircases, thus the name ‘StairWalker’.  I felt that by designing a system to address potential falls for private homes, I could extend the time aging people could live in them.

I was aware of stair lifts, but knew them to be expensive with complex installation procedures.  The hope was that StairWalker could be a relatively low-cost system, and one that could be easily installed as a replacement to an existing handrail.

That StairWalker still required individuals to ascend or descend under their own power seemed a valuable therapeutic physical activity promoting strength, coordination and, ultimately, increased independence.

(First 3D sketch of idea- a cardboard tube)


(First 2D sketch of StairWalker concept illustrating folding capability, support from a second handrail and internal braking)


A number of excellent comments steered early concept development for StairWalker 1.0.

Thoughts around geometry of the handlebar (Erin Campbell), the importance of robust braking in the event of a fall (Gregg) and clearance for others who might use the stairs (Zandri Kuun) prompted details incorporated in the first prototype.

(First prototype)

Early usability testing (Participant 0) exposed the issue of the ‘last step’ as an individual transferred from the StairWalker to a top or bottom landing.  Shaping and hinging (Kevin) the handlebar to address this were both investigated in CAD.

There were a number of valuable suggestions about the clutch/brake mechanism (Kevin, Gregg, Colin Lynch, Laith Al-Shiekh Hassan, & Amin Swessi), including ratchets, centrifugal clutches and mechanical clamps.

A valuable link forwarded by Bettina Fliegel introduced me to a number of products which could inform the StairWalker design.  One of these was StairSteady(TM), a system very similar to the StairWalker concept and already available in the UK.  To avoid potential intellectual property issues, work on StairWalker 1.0 was discontinued.

Not wanting to abandon the challenge, but needing a new idea, I went for a long walk…

Somewhere on the far side of a neighborhood lake the idea for transforming the installed handrail assembly into a portable cane with similar handrail-locking features came to mind.  I had enough worked out in my head by the time I got home that I was able to build a rough prototype from copper plumbing fittings and pipe I had left over from an earlier project.

Back in the game with StairWalker 2.0!

(First copper prototype of StairWalker 2.0)

Since that point, the design has continued to benefit from numerous comments and suggestions from the OpenIDEO community.

Michael DF, Kevin and Kumi all had suggestions around modifying the device to pad and protect both the handrails and the user's hands.

Comments from Kate Rushton, Joanna Spoth and Lillian J Warner all motivated me to pursue questions with potential end users about not only the practical experience of using the device, but equally important, the emotional side of the experience.

Follow-on Usability testing has exposed additional opportunities and the design has gone through four prototypes to date.

(Second prototype of StairWalker 2.0)

(Usability testing with third prototype)

(Usability testing with fourth prototype)

One embodiment of this idea offers a solution for anyone, anywhere in the world where simple iron plumbing fittings are available.  This approach was inspired by Sally James' comments about focusing on more globally-accessible solutions.


(A potential global solution consisting of Off-the-shelf components)


Another version suggests a path towards a manufactured product.


(Key features for a more commercially-oriented version)


The potential for StairWalker to help people exists because of the involvement of dozens of OpenIDEO contributors.  For me, the camaraderie shared along the journey has been the real joy.


What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

Prototype a system with the emphasis on a robust and simple device that can explore hand positions and control while supporting representative loads.

What skills, input, or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Design suggestions or refinements. Machine-shop services or materials to support building the prototype.

How long has your idea existed?

  • 0-3 months

This idea emerged from

  • An Individual

Tell us about your work experience:

I'm an Industrial designer with new product development experience in multiple industries.

How would you describe this idea while in an elevator with someone?

Home staircases represent one of the most dangerous fall hazards to individuals with balance or stability issues. The goal for this device is to allow a simple cane to be hooked over and maneuvered along a staircase handrail, thereby transforming the cane into a two-handed assist-device and fall-prevention aid.

How does your idea demonstrate our Criteria of Affordability?

By developing a number of related solutions utilizing different materials and fabrication processes, this device can be made appropriate for users and staircases worldwide.

How does your idea demonstrate or plan to demonstrate scalability?

The hope is that by focusing on simplicity of design, this device can be fabricated anywhere in the world.

How do you plan to measure the impact of your idea?

Interest from AARP, health and insurance institutions, and the design community as well as enthusiastic acceptance from end users.

What are your immediate next steps after the challenge?

Facilitating continued design refinements necessary to make this a truly feasible (engineering), viable (business) and desirable (user-centered) product for multiple, global markets.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Beatrice Rescazzi

Hi all, is this project still going on? I am interested in contributing with some ideas. Hopefully, useful ideas.

Photo of Robert Smith

Hi Beatrice,

This project has completed, but OpenIDEO has many others ongoing which you can check out.

Good luck!


Photo of Beatrice Rescazzi

Thank you for your reply Bob, I will check for more projects :)

View all comments