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5 Misperceptions of Tech, Aging and Business Innovation

Here's one misperception: the older user is always the same as the buyer


(This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.com.)

Two dynamic and driving forces are converging — technology and aging.

Advances in information technology, robotics, material sciences and other fields are producing opportunities to change how we will live, work, learn, care and play in older age. Global aging is slowly moving from a research topic relegated to gerontology journals to a place on the business pages garnering the attention of big and small enterprises. There is an unprecedented raw synergistic potential of these two forces — both to improve the quality of life of older people and their families and to drive entirely new industries in the fast-growing longevity economy.

Accessibility and usability are not design features — they are basic characteristics of any minimally acceptable product.

But as they pay serious attention to aging and technology, researchers, industry and investors may be making some critical errors based on recurring misperceptions about the aging marketplace.

Here are five misperceptions that, if not corrected, may hinder innovation and, worse, perpetuate a story of old age that limits the potential of the world’s fastest growing population:

Misperception No. 1: Old Age = Health

Technology powers the imagination. It enables life-saving innovations; it facilitates; it empowers; entertains; it connects; it moves us. Unfortunately, many researchers and new product developers only see aging as a medical problem to be solved rather than a life stage to be invented.

The Internet of Things or IoT is routinely being applied to check in on a parent, predict an event, or detect a fall. How many pill reminder systems are the subject of student theses and technology competitions? All of these are critical needs. They are not incorrect technology applications — but they are woefully incomplete.

Older people, especially the oldest among us, are more likely to suffer from multiple chronic conditions and require significant care. But while this may be the story for some older adults, illness and older age are not equivalents. And even elderly patients managing chronic disease want to do things that do not involve their ‘conditions’.

Technology can also be used to support activities higher on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. How might technology be used to enable social connectivity, creativity, volunteering, part-time work, learning, or simply laughter? How often is fun and play for older adults a theme in hack-a-thons?

A focus on health is often driven by the business imperative to be paid by government or private insurance. But innovation rarely comes by designing to the specifications of predetermined government policy or insurance underwriting. Real innovators identify needs not articulated and wants never considered.

Misperception No. 2: Universal Design Either Means Too Little or Too Much

Universal design (making buildings, products and environments accessible for all) has been a celebrated approach to designing for older adults and the disabled — and rightly so. But is the universal design ethos being used as an excuse to provide less experience and more boredom?

Accessibility and usability are not design features — they are basic characteristics of any minimally acceptable product. We do not think of a door or windows in a home as a feature, but as an expectation.

Some developers, unfortunately, have used universal design as an excuse to eliminate functionality. It is the job of the designer and engineer to provide easy and accessible capacity to the user, not dictate what the user can or cannot do effectively. Rather than cracking the code on how best to offer capacity and usability, many developers simply offer less-functional versions of products, creating a second- or third-tier user class.

Other developers use universal design as an excuse to offer more… a lot more.

Consider aesthetically unacceptable (read: ugly) products such as gigantic big-button television remotes, or countless devices that try to pass off beige and clinical blue as desirable color choices.

Real innovators and real designers do not merely respond to the user’s needs. They set out to excite and delight the consumer.

Interfaces that can be personalized make a product that is usable and cool to users of any age or capability. Colors that exude energy and verve are ageless. Carefully providing functions that stimulates the user’s imagination shows respect for the consumer and fosters a buyer-seller relationship that builds brands and loyalty.

Misperception No. 3: We Need Products Exclusively for Older People

The automobile industry has a frequently cited adage: “You can’t build an old man’s car. A young man will not buy it and neither will an older man” (and nor will an older woman, for that matter).

Few products made and marketed to older adults exclusively have been successful with older buyers. Devices and services that shout “old man walking” or “Hey, you, you’re a fall risk” are not icons people choose to sport in public or even in the privacy of their own home.

Personal emergency response systems or social alarms are rational, easy to use and relatively affordable. Yet their adoption and actual use has a checkered record. Some research suggests that market penetration is less than five percent for those who could benefit from such a service and only 12 percent in countries like the United Kingdom where such services are entirely reimbursed by the government.

Developers would be wise to appeal to ageless values. Products that are easy to use, convenient, purposeful and, yes, cool appeal to everyone. These characteristics enable technology developers to commercialize systems that may be sought by younger people for convenience, but as the user ages, the device becomes less about providing convenience and more about providing care — becoming assistive technology seemingly by stealth.

Consider the microwave oven. Few people would think of the contemporary kitchen fixture as assistive technology. However, an older person living alone who feels unmotivated to cook may find a quick press of the microwave’s buttons to be the difference between a nutritious hot meal or a bag of stale cookies in front of the television.

Misperception No. 4: The Older User is the Same as the Buyer

User-centered design is critical to a successful device or application. Human factors researchers have contributed much to our understanding of older user needs from a number of perspectives, e.g., accommodating diminished vision, arthritic hands and declining strength and learning ability.

However, the user is not always the buyer.

Nearly one in four American families include someone who has taken on the role of a caregiver. Most often that face is of a spouse or oldest daughter. She — and it is most often she — is the online researcher, shopper, trusted influencer and, in many instances, ultimate buyer of a product or service.

Differentiating between user and buyer has implications for technology product and service developers. Product design and performance must appeal equally to the older user and her caregiver buyer. A product may be best distributed where the buyer shops, not where the older user is often found.

For example, online sites that cater to fortysomethings and fiftysomethings, consumer electronics stores, home improvement centers and even employers who offer employee caregiver assistance programs may be more successful in moving ideas out of the laboratory and into the living room than relying on specialty online sites, stores or clinicians.

Misperception No. 5: Technology Is Innovation

In recent years, countless devices and technology-enabled services have been developed to address the needs of older adults. Researchers, start-ups and some industry laboratories appear to be trying to address aging one device at a time. But invention alone is not innovation. Innovation is putting practical ideas into use.

Understanding the true jobs of older adults or their family caregivers requires thinking well beyond a specific task — providing a technology or app is only part of the answer.

Innovators must consider the context in which a technology is being used. How will the device be purchased? Who will install it? When it malfunctions (and it will), who steps in to help the adult daughter respond to a panicked or aggravated call from her mother complaining that her smart pill reminder won’t stop beeping?

For nearly all technologies, even the simplest, there is a consumer journey that includes: research, shop, buy, install, teach, use, maintain, repeat. Understanding and anticipating the customer and user journey as well as the comprehensive context that a technology will be used is critical to providing value and ultimately to providing a solution, not just a device, that people will buy and use.

Technology offers the opportunity to invent a new life stage, if we use our imaginations, engage in multidisciplinary thinking, and make a commitment to excite and delight older people and their families. By moving beyond ingrained misperceptions of what older age means to us, we can empower, connect, engage and enable people to be productive across the lifespan, transforming aging from a problem to be solved into an opportunity to create new markets in today’s longevity economy.

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By Joseph F. Coughlin
Joseph F. Coughlin is director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab and a 2015 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging.

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