Turn right into the rabbit warren that is the Royal College of Art and you'll end up in a light and airy set of open-plan offices dedicated, slightly incongruously, to research.

This, however, is no ordinary research. It's the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, funded by a 17-year-old foundation ­ geared to promoting better design for older people ­ set up by a former RCA graduate of the same name.

The raison d'être of the Centre is to explore the practical design implications of key social developments. It is involved in a number of projects but one of them, its Associates Programme, unveiled the results of its design study in October.

On show were the findings of 14 RCA design graduates, who have worked with industry partners and the voluntary sector over the course of the year to develop real-life projects that are grounded in user research.

What is fascinating is that none of these students have any formal training in the research that they practice, although they are supported by outside experts brought in by Jeremy Myerson, professor of design studies and the Research Centre's co-director.

These include Dr Alma Erlich, a consultant to Unilever, Colette Nicolle, an ergonomist from the University of Loughborough, David Frohlich, a senior research scientist and user specialist with Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Bristol and AQR's very own Oliver Murphy, who offers insights into the use of qualitative research.

"We have become knowledgeable in qualitative research without understanding it as an academic discipline," says Myerson. "Some of our techniques are clunky or technically challenged, but they are a bridge to the design process."

The students carry out observation work, conduct expert interviews, use video observation techniques in people's homes, shadow people, run focus groups, hold discussions, the list goes on, but they are particularly good, says Myerson, at "fishing for the pearl", the essential piece of information that can make the difference between a good and an excellent product.

"When you look at social and demographic change and those excluded from the design process," he says, "our aim is to have a much more inclusive approach. We are very against specialised needs design: all products should be able to be used by everybody, and the only way to design that way is to invite users in to groups."

This year the work is clustered around four research narratives: The older consumer; the social workplace; the mobility challenge; and the living city.. One of the most interesting projects is a design study carried out by Edward Goodwin and Richard Hartshorn called 'Opening up: Food packaging that can be opened by everyone'.

Their research partner, in this instance, was Waitrose Supermarkets. The students set out to research and develop new forms of packaging for the grocery multiple's own-brand products that can be opened by anyone, irrespective of age or ability.

Opening packs can be a very big problem ­ stopping a significant number of people actually getting to food. It is estimated that nearly 20% of people over 55 have stopped buying certain products because they have experienced difficulties opening them. This equates to nearly three million people in the UK ­ a large market.

This project set out to improve the 'openability' of Waitrose's own-brand ranges, starting with a detailed audit of food product packaging and extensive user research among older readers.

What proved to be the most problematic pack types? You've guessed it, bacon packs, fresh soup pots, ring-pull tins, jam jars and sardine tins. Improvements for each of these have been proposed that can be introduced quickly at low cost with minimal disruption to machinery, in addition to giving Waitrose a 'research map' to address openability issues across its own-brand range in the future.

Such projects demonstrate the students' ability, says Myerson, not just to listen and learn, but also to be able to transform ideas and concepts into mock-ups swiftly and professionally. Last year a wheelchair bound office worker complained of not having the mobility that a typist's chair would provide. The designers took notes, returning for the next session with a 'Lazy Susan' that the wheelchair could perch on, giving the user much more freedom than before. In the real world, this process could take months.

Qual techniques have encouraged users to open up and reveal their desires, fears and frustrations. Would training have made a difference? Who knows, but it might be interesting to find out.