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StairWear [Updated 5/29 - Final models, process videos, website, pitch deck]

Custom, bespoke steps that fit over existing stairs, providing more space for the foot, more grip and better visibility for elders.

Photo of Michael O'Sullivan
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Who is your idea designed for and how does it enable older adults to live their best possible life by preventing falls?

Anyone with stairs in their home. As people grow older, many have to move home as they can no longer use their stairs, or they are forced to live downstairs. Stair lifts are expensive, take time and expense to install and maintain, and, worst of all, users become dependent on them. It's important that people continue to exercise as they grow older, and using stairs is a great way to do this. These products make the stairs easier and safer to use, enabling users to live their best possible life.

The first section details our product, while the second section details our process and plans for future development and testing.


Brief overview

Note: For a more extensive background, check out the original.

Inspiration: Our inspiration for this idea comes from two sources in particular. 

First, team member Louise recalls how her grandmother has had two bad falls down the stairs in her home as the steps are too small for her feet. She and her husband now live downstairs while their carers live upstairs. 

Second, a local architect who provided a lot of help with this project told us about how his mother had to look for a solution last year when she could no longer use her stairs. The best solution offered to her by health insurance was to live downstairs and build an extension onto the house, and they would only partially fund this construction.

Our Product: Stairs can cause elderly users and people with disabilities to fall, they can prevent them from going upstairs in their home, and they can often force the elderly occupants to move out. This is especially true in older homes with steep stairs and small steps, and for steps that visually 'blend into each other' (carpet designs/wood make it difficult to differentiate between steps). As people get older and their sight and depth perception worsens, they can find it difficult to see the different steps, reducing their confidence and increasing their risk of falling. 

StairWear offers a suite of custom-fit accessories that fit over existing stairs/steps and provide:

  • more space on each step
  • better grip
  • improved visibility

Though we originally planned to focus solely on indoor stairs, it quickly became apparent through our research and testing that there is a huge demand for a similar solution for outdoor steps. We also realized that not everybody will have space to expand their stairs, or may not want the full product, and so we designed StairWear Grip Strips - a simple, elegant solution that provides extra grip and improved visibility (even at night, thanks to white glow material).

While our proposed solution may appear simple and obvious, it has only been made possible with recent advancements in digital fabrication technologies (3D printing, laser cutting, CNC cutting, etc.), parametric modelling, and cloud-based decentralized manufacturing. This combination, known as 'Mass Customization', makes it possible to produce custom-fit products at a mass manufacture scale and price. Team member Michael is a PhD researcher for an EU 2020 project which aims to create a platform that allows users to create custom products and have them 3D printed locally. We strongly believe that this same approach can be used for making people's stairs safer, as each set of stairs is unique and so requires a custom fit.

StairWear User Journey 




StairWear Wesbite


StairWear Pitch Deck


Please also see attached Business Model Canvas.

StairWear Back-End (Logistics), Building Codes, Product Timeline & Industry Feedback

Please see the documents on the topics above in the 'Attachments' section.



Our team held a brainstorm session to thoroughly map out our known problems with existing stairs and to see how our solution addresses these problems.


From here we were able to put together a list of questions we needed answered. The key outcomes are provided below:

  • Who is our customer (person who buys the product)? Is it our end-user (person who actually uses the product)? Is it a family member/carer? Or healthcare providers?
  • What is the market demand (international)?
  • How do people use stairs? What are their feelings towards using stairs? Why?
  • Is our proposed customer experience desirable? (everything from shopping and installation to everyday use and maintenance)
  • What are the technical design challenges/issues?
  •  Any other barriers to adoption?

User testing and ethnographic research

To answer the above questions, we referred to the IDEO Method cards and used the ones best suited to our needs. You can view our process here. Methods used include observations, simple prototypes, day-in-the-life, and semi-structured interviews, among others. We carried out this cross-cultural research and testing with:

  • Potential end users
  • Family members of potential end users
  • Care givers and nurses
  • An Occupational Therapist
  • Post Doctoral Researchers with PhDs in designing technology for elderly users
  • Architects
  • Construction experts
  • Manufacturing, Production and Civil Engineers
  • Other designers


You can view the full document here, and an overview of the key findings is provided below:

  • People  love the idea and would be willing to buy if it existed
  • Also a lot of demand for this product on outdoor steps
  • Improving the visibility and being able to easily identify different steps is extremely beneficial
  • Even if some customers don’t have the space to add much room to each step, the product is “definitely still worth it” for the added grip and improved visibility.
  • Our biggest design challenges relate to securing the product to existing stairs and ensuring that there are no tripping hazards
  • Professional assembly/installation may be required for added safety, but should only take an hour
  • CNC cutting is a possible alternative to 3D printing that should be explored


From our research findings we created two personas for reference throughout our iterative prototyping and testing phase.


Valuable input from IDEO community

- Would be useful for outdoors. One community member even shared the idea with two seniors in their 80s who provided great insights and recommendations

- Consider lighting, even using glow-in-the-dark material

- Advice on methods for securing the product to existing stairs (Adhesives)

- Could incorporate tactile markers for the visually impaired (like bumps on a sidewalk)

- Advice on stairs/interior styles and how our product should be influenced by these, rather than looking like a mobility aid

- Useful links to scientific papers on the optimum step height, the best handrail shape and size, etc.

- The product would also be useful for kids and even pets

Design Guide

We created a design guide of ‘needs’ and ‘nice-to-haves’ to help us focus our iterative development. We focused on completing the list of needs first, and found time to incorporate many of the nice-to-haves, though the last two had to be sacrificed in order to provide a safer, more consistent service.

Fabrication Methods

A lot of research was carried out into figuring out the best method of actually making the StairWear products, and a lot of experts in architecture, design and engineering were consulted. The two main options were 3D printing and CNC cutting. Michael attended a course on CNC cutting and spoke with the instructor about the project afterwards. Eventually we decided that we would use 3D printing, at least initially for the Grip Strips and StairWear Outdoor, and would likely consider CNC cutting the best option for StairWear indoor (it's important to note that CNC cutting can utilize the same logistics as 3D printing). The 3D printers will use a large nozzle for quick printing, similar to ones used for 3D printing houses. This is possible as the shape required is not very intricate.

Iterative Development

We carried out quick, iterative development with more end users, engineers, physiotherapists, interior designers and architects. This helped us refine the product design and create the website. We found that the primary user of the website is likely to be a family member or carer of the person receiving the product, rather than the user themselves. However, we decided to utilize universal design principles and tested the website UX with a number of individuals of different ages and capabilities, as we believed this would help us create a truly simple interface.




Iterative Development (Results)

What our iterative testing and Open IDEO contributors helped us achieve:

- A range of products under the brand name of 'StairWear' would be best. This would allow us to accommodate everyone as some people will not have space to add on to each step, but would like the added benefit of grip and improved visibility.

- Incorporating glow-in-the-dark material should be an option for customers who would like extra visibility at night. Using LEDs or a light source being developed by other teams in this challenge would be really great in the future, but outside of our scope for this short challenge.

- The product will have to be screwed/bolted to existing stairs on each step and must not cause a tripping hazard. We came up with a solution for this (see video of cardboard model). Also, while we really wanted non-professionals to be able to order and install the product, we were advised that a professional should take the measurements and install the final product. It adds a small amount of extra time and cost to the process, but is worth it for the added safety and accuracy of fit.

- Team member Natalie spoke with other interior designers and architects and put together a document on this (see Style Guide attached).

- Lots of research on building codes and contacted several experts in the area. While many believe it shouldn't be an issue, we put together a document outlining how these codes could potentially limit StairWear Indoor (see attachment on building codes).

Website and Physical Models

See videos above for how we built the models and website, and see SlideShow for final website. There is also an InVision link to the site here:

Future Work

We would  like to put StairWear Grip Strips into a pilot test as soon as possible (in the coming months). Once the product is proven, it could be produced in short batch production (a mix of injection molds and 3D printed inserts for increased production efficiency, while still allowing for custom sizes). We would like to simultaneously carry out tests on StairWear Outdoor, trying out different support structure designs. We would like to collaborate with experts in the area of CNC cutting and woodworking for further development and testing of StairWear Indoor. See Product Timeline attachment for further details.

Future for our Team

Michael has two years left in his PhD, with the option to take a Masters in one year instead if a project like StairWear receives more validation and support.

Louise is finishing her course in Digital Media Design and is excited to continue developing the UX for StairWear.

Natalie will be continuing her freelance design work and will be consulted with frequently as her advice on business has been invaluable to this project, along with her interior design perspective and her efforts in validating StairWear internationally.

Others have expressed interest in joining the team (Business, Engineering and Human Factors backgrounds)

We are excited to continue collaborating with the Open IDEO community who have provided brilliant ideas and invaluable motivation and support throughout the challenge.

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

We showed the idea to potential customers, their families, care-givers, construction professionals, etc. to see what they think about it. We worked with the local makerspace on the technical side of things and with a local nursing home on the customer experience type of things. We followed IDEO Method cards appropriate to our project, from scale models and paper prototypes to fly on the wall observations and 'day in the life' role plays. We discovered that there is a lot of demand for StairWear.

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

It would be fantastic if people could run the idea by potential customers, their family members, care-givers, etc. If anyone would like to 3D print a scale model to help them explain the idea to people, we can provide the CAD file to do so. We would also love to hear people's thoughts on the best route to market for a product like this? How can we get people to install this product before they need it?

How long has your idea existed?

  • 0-3 months

This idea emerged from

  • A group brainstorm

Tell us about your work experience:

I am currently doing a PhD in New Product Development Engineering and have BSc in Product Design & Technology. I am a co-founder of a community that develops open source 3D printed prosthetics, and worked with a medical devices company. Louise is a photographer and a Digital Media Design student.

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

Stairs can cause elderly users and people with disabilities to fall, they can prevent them from going upstairs in their home, and they can often force the elderly occupants to move out. Stairwear offers a suite of custom-fit products that attach onto existing stairs/steps and provide: - more space on each step - better grip - improved visibility

How does your idea demonstrate our Criteria of Affordability?

The only existing solution to overcoming stairs is a stairlift. These are time and cost intensive to install and maintain (upwards of $15,000 for good ones). Stairwear is a cloud-based platform that utilizes an on-demand supply chain. By tapping into existing networks of manufacturers, delivery and construction services, rather than building new factories, storing product, etc., we can vastly reduce typical production costs and provide more affordable products - average purchase estimate: $350

How does your idea demonstrate or plan to demonstrate scalability?

Stairwear utilizes an on-demand supply chain network. No product is kept in storage, rather they are produced on-demand to each user's specification (number of stairs, extra space needed, etc.). This allows for a much less risky business venture, which can be rolled out in one area and can easily scale up by means of decentralized manufacturing (tapping into existing networks of 3D printers, CNC cutters, delivery and construction services and material suppliers).

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

On-going testing with all parties that would be affected by this product service system: - End users - Construction services - Delivery services - Digital fabrication services - Material suppliers - Health Insurance companies - Local authorities

What are your immediate next steps after the challenge?

To recruit team members that balance out the skill set of our team. We currently have skills in product design, new product development, 3D printing and UX design. We need people in engineering, business and healthcare, and are already consulting with suitable and interested candidates.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Teo John

Hi Michael,

Congrats for being selected as one of the top ideas.

With admiration,

John Teo

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