Scent makes Sense – In this project, I will create a new product for the elderly who are suffering from the deterioration of taste, in order to improve their wellbeing and quality of life.

01> Introduction

According to the “Hong Kong population projections 2010-2039” published by Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department, In 2008, the population of elderly persons aged above 65 is 12.6%, In 2039, the percentage will increase to 28%. That means one fourth of Hong Kong population will be aged above 65.  Therefore how to maintain good quality of life of the aged has becoming a big issue, as well as a BIG business opportunity.

  Quality of Life (QoL) is a phrase used to refer to an individual’s total wellbeing. This includes all emotional, social, and physical aspects of the individual’s life. [1] The concept of successful ageing or healthy ageing consists of three components [2]:01. Low probability of disease or disability;02. High cognitive and physical function capacity;03. Active engagement with life.

In short, to maintain good quality of life is to stay healthy and can enjoy and participate everyday life without undesired restriction and hesitation. Dining is one of our daily activities that contributes to the betterment of all three aspects of QoL. We have family dinner and social gathering with our friends; delicious foods make us feel emotionally delighted; and food provides energy for our physical requirements.

However ageing will lead to the deterioration of different senses and will inevitably affect the quality of living of the elderly, and this problem is becoming more and more dominant when our population is aging. Research of Cunningham and Brookbank noted that the threshold levels for the four primary tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, and sour do increase in elderly individuals. [3]. Schiffman also mentioned that sucrose threshold of people from 52-85 years of age is three times higher than for people 15-19. [4]

This change in threshold levels greatly affect the health the elderly, we have experienced the situation that elderly consume more and more salty spicy food and sweets, and do not realized that the amount has already approach a dangerous level which leads to high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

What can be done to improve the quality of life of elderly?

This project tried to create innovative product answering this question, through the iNPD process and conceptual development.

02> Identifying opportunities

According to the “Hong Kong population projections 2010-2039” published by Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department, In 2008, the population of elderly persons aged above 65 is 12.6%, In 2039, the percentage will increase to 28%.

Financial condition of the aged has improved a lot since in the last decade, and will continue to improve in the near future. This is partly due to the general social trend of retired protection scheme, MPF policy and increasing practice of individual insurance- saving scheme. Over 50% of them have secondary education or above, besides, one-third of them are having different kinds of retirement protection, compared to around 16% of those aged over 60.

The elderly is financially more viable; more educated than the previous generation, and are more concerned about their quality of life and wellbeing.

To identify this particular social group as the major target group, we need to know what are their real want, need and desire? According to research and observation to existing products and services, there are health-related product with heavy medical implication in them such as blood pressure regulation, calcium supplement; physical devices such as wheel chair, stick; they are either product that solve medical problems or products that tackle disabled problems. But seldom cater for emotional needs of the elderly. To have a better understanding, more research and analysis is needed.

SECT factors

As mentioned in previous chapter, “To eat” being one of the four essential element of living in Chinese culture, namely Clothing, Eating, Housing and Transportation, which contribute a lot to the fulfillment of quality of life, it is important to understand how Hong Kong people see “eating” as a cultural matter before we can explore on how to enrich the experience. Therefore cultural factor will be an additional factor next to the original SET factor, and becomes SECT factors

Product Opportunity Gaps (POGs)

Product Opportunity Gaps is a converging process. By listing out potential design areas serving the SECT factors, POGs are narrowed down to 6 directions.

Weighted Matrix

In considering the potential of various possible project directions, it is decided to focus on creating lifestyle products that play around with the human senses. The opportunity of the project will be:



01     Elderly are health conscious.

02     They are better educated and conscious about quality of life.

03     Deterioration of senses during ageing is always overlooked. They are not treated as illness, but they continuously affect the quality of living.

03     Existing products and services for the aged are usually medical or health related, seldom catering for emotional needs.

04     Elderly want to live with dignity and done want to be treated as disables.


Opportunity Statement

To improve the sensation of taste of the aged with innovative lifestyle products.

03> Understanding opportunity

Deterioration of sense of taste

Biological research may have found several possible causes to the taste deterioration in aging persons, but there is no effective treatment to reverse the problem. The number of taste buds begins to decrease at about age 40-50 in women and at 50-60 in men. Each remaining taste bud also begins to weaken. The sensitivity to the four taste sensations does not seem to decrease until after age 60.[5] If taste sensation is lost, usually salty and sweet tastes are lost first, with bitter and sour tastes lasting slightly longer.

Schiffman (1997) mentioned that there are no proven pharmacological methods to treat age-related chemosensory decrements. In order to make the taste of food more enjoyable, treating the tongue may not be the solution. One way to correct this problem is to use flavor amplifiers in foods. [6] This involves adding an extra ingredient to food such as bacon seasoning or serving it with a sauce such as cream gravy. But this may create even heavier pressure on the over-consumption of unnecessary ingredient, and eventually will jeopardize the health of the elderly.

However research also finds that the sense of smell may deteriorate after age 70, if at all. This may be related to loss of nerve endings in the nose. The 10+ years of time-lapse between deterioration of the two senses, taste and smell, could become a valuable opportunity of compensating the sense of taste in the most natural way. There may be ways of adding extra favors to the dishes, without adding unnecessary ingredient to the digestive system.

Appetite Stimulation – Sense of Smell is Key

The sense of smell is tied into taste. When someone loses their sense of smell they tend to lose their appetite and can become malnourished. [7] Our sense of smell is so tied into our sense of taste that most people don’t even realize how efficiently the two work together. When the elderly lose their sense of taste and smell, they often also experience a lack of appetite. Understanding the human sense of smell is an important step in appetite stimulation in the elderly. Taste and smell work together.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, taste is the “sensation caused in mouth by contact with a substance.” Meanwhile, flavor is “the mixed sensation of smell and taste.” In other words, taste plus smell equals flavor.

Taste + Smell = Flavor

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), over 200,000 people each year see their physician concerning taste and smell disorders, yet the number of people with this problem is believed to be much higher, just not reported. NIH reports that taste, which is part of a chemical sensing system, is mainly recognized through the sense of smell. If you hold your nose while eating, you will have a hard time identifying exactly what you are eating because you lack the odor associated with the food. This is the same reason why food seems tasteless when you have a cold or stuffy nose.

Having a sense of smell is essential for appetite stimulation.

There is evidence showing the effect of smell in the new fire alarm product using the smell of Wasabi as the alarm agent for visual impaired and people in sleep. It detects smoke and emits a jet of extract of wasabi, and the people are highly alerted. [8] This reveals the affects of smell, not only on sensory level but also on subconscious level.

Apart from smell, color of food also affects the perception of taste. Adding more red color to a drink increases its sweetness with darker colored solutions being rated 2–10% higher than lighter ones even though it had 1% less sucrose concentration.The effect of color is believed to be due to cognitive expectations.  [9]

Synthetic Aromas

Human being has a long history of producing or re-creating fragrance and smell, synthetically as well as naturally. Perfume is one obvious example, and air freshener is another. Remote perfume tester has been tested as a concept for perfume manufacturing company decade ago. Tester device can generate smell by combining different amount of chemicals to create different smells. With the tester device installed at home, users can experience the smell of different perfumes through perfume website.

Fragrance Generator for Medical Care is introduced by Keio University in Japan during DigInfo 2010 called Fragrance Jet II. It is an equipment to test the sensitivity towards smell of patients having olfactory problems. The Fragrance Jet II can provide pulse jets of fragrance. This enables the jets to be controlled very precisely, so they can be produced for a very short time. The technology is a breakthrough of smell generation, and the group wants to make the system more compact, and to reproduce as many fragrances as possible. They’ve already made a mobile version prototype that is small enough to be carried on the way. [10]

“Naturally, we think this system could be built into mobile phones. Using this technology, you could probably have several fragrances in a mobile phone. So you could even have “incoming call fragrances,” with different scents for different callers.”

There is a common misconception that natural perfumes are safer and much more superior to synthetic aromas. However, synthetic chemicals have been used in perfumery for almost a century without the consumers being able to detect differences. In fact, synthetic chemicals are often less volatile than natural chemicals, which alter in smell over time. And often, a synthetic copy of a scent can be far less complex than the natural occurring chemical compound. For this reason, perfumers favor developing synthetic compounds that mimic natural scents.

Headspace’ technology now allows accurate analysis and synthetic reproduction of almost any smell.


Emotion and memory

Our sense of smell can produce a wonderful memory. One whiff of fresh baked bread, cookies, or a holiday meal can immediately take you back to being a child. The perception of smell consists not only of the sensation of the odors themselves but of the experiences and emotions associated with these sensations. Smells can evoke strong emotional reactions and memory.

Pleasant fragrances can improve our mood and sense of wellbeing. Although olfactory sensitivity generally declines with age, pleasant fragrances have been found to have positive effects on mood in all age groups. [11]

Thoughts about how Chinese eat

Eating is a serious matter in Chinese culture. Dining can be ritual activities showing respect to Mother Nature and senior members of the family. Unlike western culture, Chinese people used to sit around a round table in a meal or feast. People share food from dishes placed in the center of the table. It is rare to pre-divide the food for individuals in the table as it express a sense of discrimination.

Also the steps of making a dish are complicated and involve long procedures. Spices and ingredients are all mixed into the dishes when they are done. So imagine if someone in the table has a different requirement in taste, say when one is ill, the cook will have a headache. The normal way to do is to prepare some simple food for the special need, but obvious this means the one is detached from the main meal and sacrifices the quality of enjoyment.

China is the hometown of chopsticks. The culture of chopsticks has a long history in China.  The invention of chopsticks reflects the wisdom of Chinese ancient people. A pair of chopsticks, though they look simple, can nip, pick, rip and stir food. Chopsticks works seamlessly with spoon and bowl in Chinese food culture, and they can manage all Chinese cuisines.


Insights for opportunity:

01     Improving sense of taste of is an unopened market.

02     Time-lapse between deterioration of taste and smell could be a useful fact. Using sense of smell as compensation for taste allows the improvement of taste sensation in more natural way.

03     Synthetic aroma technology is available, and is moving to the direction of miniaturization.

They deserve something better when there is not much similar product around. So what they actually want, need and desire? Since there is no similar product in the market that caters for the betterment of sense of taste, existing products for elderly are used to compare with the new product, taste buddies. According to research on existing product and service, there are either health related product with heavy medical quality in it such as blood pressure, calcium (bone); or physical tools such as wheel chair, stick; they are either product that solve medical problems or products that tackle physical problems. But seldom caters for emotional needs of be elderly. This create a gap for our product which aims at improving the quality of living of our target, and focuses on sensation and enjoying their life.


Positioning Map

Positioning Map showing the position of taste buddies with value of emotion

Value Opportunity Analysis VOA

Product goals

Different value will lead to different goals for the product development. The following table shows the goals for my new product that establish the basic criteria of creating a successful product:


Project Statement

“To design lifestyle products with synthetic aroma functionality that enrich the sense of taste of elderly, and provide a source of good memories”


04> Conceptualizing opportunity


Design Objectives

01     Product interface should be easy to use with short learning curve

02      mechanism but can help users to enjoy eating again

03     Product style should be flexible for personalization and localization

04     Should carry attribute of leisure lifestyle

05     Product should be safe to use and environmental friendly.


Concept sketches

01     Taste Buddies is a collection of tableware that includes chopsticks, Odor recorder and connection cable to computer. A chopstick has 4 fragrance jets and one intensity adjustment button. Odor information is installed via mini USB to Odor recorder.

02     Odor recorder is used for recording odor information, indoor or outdoor, and as storage of odors.

03     Information collected can be backup in computer database, or transfer to Chopsticks for tasting.

04     Sketches showing possible structure of DOCK for chopstick and odor recorder.

05     The whole system composed of 4 parts.

  1. Chopsticks receive smell info from odor recorder and emit smell for taste reinforcement.
  2. Odor recorder records favorable smell and act as a hub of odor information. It can link to local computer for data management and updating.
  3. Computer extend the capability of data transfer, sharing and management.
  4. Taste Buddies official website is hub online for establishing community, sharing of information and knowledge, odors update, and trouble shooting, etc.



Adopting similar technology of synthetic aroma of the Fragrance Jet II, taste buddies can provide pulse jets of smells of food, with characteristics of four tastes namely sweet, salty, sour and bitter. By using the headspace technology, a database of Chinese cuisine will be collected and update continuously. Users can download the new “menu” of cuisine conveniently from the database. The jets can be controlled very precisely. By changing the duration of pulse jets, it is possible to adjust the combination of smell sources and produce a great variety of smells. Users can choose to emit either pure smell separately for flavor amplifiers or in combination to create the taste of individual dish.

“This system uses ink-jet printer technology. It produces very brief jets of fragrance, just 667 microseconds long, and it has 256 volume gradations, each of which can be produced for both a long time and a short time. So the system can emit fragrances with a huge dynamic range.” [10]

Above diagram sows the detail structure of Taste Hub and connection to Chopsticks.

05> Realizing opportunity

Naming of product

Brainstorming 聯想 Possible names Final product names
Taste 味覺 Taage 味。覺
Smell 玩味 Scent Makes Sense Senses Make Sense
Taste Bud 味慼 SMS
Taste for the Aged 味道 Taste Buddies Taste Buddies
SweetSaltySourBitter 思味 S3B Friend of Taste
Friend of taste 滋味 product4tastes 知。味


Final Name

“Taste Buddies” – a life-style product for the aged, aims at promoting the idea of living a quality life with dignity and fun.


“Taste buddies” will be marketed within “Senses Make Sense” product series, magnifying different senses of the aged, and regain the level of enjoyment. Ability of various sensory system recreating wonderful memories will be explored in the series.

Although the project started with the design of products that help the aged regain the good experience of enjoying food, the project can be extended to series of sensory products that improve the quality of living in daily life, covering health care, living style as well as entertainment for the aged.


Senses Make Sense, SMS

Promotional Strategy

06> Reflection

This is an interesting and valuable experience for me to learn about the design processes of innovative product and service development. The systematic process presents a clear and logical methodology that covers a wide spectrum of criteria, which may be missed otherwise.

The consolidation of design direction from SECT factor, and the consolidation of value opportunities to product goals are useful tools for analysis and development. Of course the process needs good coordination with thorough background research to make the development and outcome a realistic one. The project will be a better one if there is more time for product design and styling, and the brand development is yet to be perfect. However as what I have stated and developed in the previous chapters, I believe that this is a potential project that opens new unexplored market, and can do well for the target group.

Special Thanks to
Project Supervisor
Prof. XIN Xiang Yang
Ms. MA Jin

07> References


[2] Rowe JW, Kahn RL (1997). “Successful ageing”.Gerontologist 37 (4): 433–40.

[3] Cunningham, W.R. & Brookbank, J. W., (1988). Gerontology:The Psychology, Biology, and Sociology of Aging. New York: Harperand Row Publishers.

[4] Schiffman, S. (1997). Taste and smell loss in normal aging and disease. Journal of the American Medical Association, 278(16), 1357-1362.

[5] The Effect of Age on Taste, David Koepnic,

[6] Aging changes in the senses,

[7] Appetite Stimulation – Sense of Smell is Key,

[8] How the stimulating smell of wasabi can save lives,

[9]Johnson, J.; Clydesdale, F. (1982). “Perceived sweetness and redness in colored sucrose solutions”. Journal of Food Science 47: 747–752.

[10] Fragrance Generator for Medical Care:  DigInfo,,

[11] Emotion and memory,

Social Welfare Department,

The Hong Kong Council of Social Service,

Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department,

Hong Kong Society for the Aged,

Hong Kong Elderly Ministry,

Bloomberg Businessweek,


Perfume Glossary,

Inside Modern Perfume Labs,

Johnson, J.; Clydesdale, F. (1982). “Perceived sweetness and redness in colored sucrose solutions”. Journal of Food Science 47: 747–752.

Stevenson RJ, Oaten MJ. (2010). “Sweet odours and sweet tastes are conflated in memory”. Acta Psychol (Amst). 134 (1): 105–9.


08> Appendix

Possible applications of olfactory sensitivity:

01> Electronic nose

Can signal slight variation of smell that indicates the danger and harmful environment.

02> Diagnosis

High-tech sniffers may be used not just for breath smelling but also to detect other subtle changes in body odor that can indicate disease conditions. Warwick University scientists are researching the use of electronic noses to diagnose illness by smelling patients’ breath (Chinese doctors have been doing this themselves for centuries) by investigate the possibility of installing tiny electronic noses in phone receivers, so that patients can simply breathe into the phone and wait for a diagnosis.

A similar smell-transmission device may soon allow surfers on the Internet to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ quite literally.

Researchers are investigating the use of breath analysis to identify the stages of the female menstrual cycle: the ability of electronic noses to detect ovulation could benefit both fertility treatment and birth control.

03> Relationships enhancement

It may also be useful to reproduce smell for improving human-to-human relationship (phone call between lovers or enemies)

Olfactory sensitivity is an aids to allow robots to co-exist with human in harmony when they have similar sets of senses. (Vision, hear and touch is possible now, but sense of smell and taste is still under developed)

04> Personal identity

Personal identification (like PIN number, finger print)

05> Preserving smell of extinct species

To preserve the smell of extinct species (only visual and physical form of specimens can be preserved now with photos, videos, DNA info, etc.

Headspace’ technology now allows accurate analysis and synthetic reproduction of almost any smell.

06> Memory Preservation for the elderly

Combining smell and taste sensory modes to enhance and restore elderly’s memory.

Hypothesis: The combination of augmented taste and smell will create a more immersive experience.