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Tech Needs to Take People 50+ More Seriously

This expert offers advice on designing better products for older consumers

(This article previously appeared on Tech50plus.com.)

A recent MIT Technology Review article talks about the expanding demographic of American workers who now stay on the job well into their 70s. The number is almost 6 percent now, but is expected to swell to 8.3 percent by 2022. Part of the reason for this is that many in the older set have heeded the need to stay healthier and, instead of outright retiring, some opt to stay working in their current profession or find new jobs to keep busy or occupied. Others simply don’t have the money to afford retirement.

But as work becomes more digital and the tech 50+ crowd can work from just about anywhere, their computing needs may change and the tech industry needs to pay more attention to things like color choices in software applications, screen width options, quick font scaling or even the sensitivity of a computer mouse.

Making Tech More Intuitive

Recently, AARP and JP Morgan Chase teamed up on a $40 million fund dedicated to inspiring the creation of applications and technologies designed for those over the age of 50. Some of that money is focused on winning over some of the older crowd that is still tech phobic, but it is also targeted at making technology more “intuitive.” According to their press materials, this includes things like sensor applications for safety, fitness apps, telemedicine and software for maintaining cognitive health. Smart technologists need to realize that there’s plenty of life after 50.  Even grandparents love taking selfies, reading books on tablets, and taking pictures of their family.

The tech industry needs to pay more attention to things like color choices in software applications, screen width options and quick font scaling.

In the US alone, approximately 70 million people are over 50 years old.  Despite the size, the tech industry has generally paid very little attention to the demographic. They also have the most disposable income of any age group and should be prime targets for tech. Yet, if you look at the majority of ads for tech, they are clearly aimed at a younger audience. I know that these ads also target the kids’ parents and try and make them usable and interesting for this demographic too, but too often these ads are not aimed at an older audience that also has a very high interest in tech, but has different needs.

In my work with most of the tech companies, I have brought up this subject and, while they see my point as viable, they say that advertising pressure keeps them focused on a demographic in the 18-45 range most of the time. When I mention that they need to pay more attention to creating products that have features, fonts, and UIs (user interfaces) more attuned to needs of an over 50 crowd, they say this is difficult since they create products that are more general and should appeal to all age groups. However, I will keep beating up on them until they listen, as I don’t believe they can ignore this audience if they want to keep PCs relevant to all age demographics  in the future.

A Smart Smartphone for Older Users

But there are exceptions. About five years ago, I had a meeting with Arlene Harris, the wife of Marty Cooper, who is known as the father of the cell phone. She showed me a smartphone designed just for an older set that had bug buttons and was very easy to use. It was called the Jitterbug and today this phone has come to define the kind of ease of use and simplicity that make them ideal for especially seniors.

When I met with Harris and her husband, they told me that as they got older, they began to see the need of creating technology for an older demographic. Since these two were instrumental in giving birth to the cellphone age, it made sense for them to lead the way again when it comes to creating a cell/smartphone for an older crowd.

Stuart Karten of Karten Design recently wrote in Re/Code about high tech design and aging. He makes great points about the role design needs to play when creating UIs and products for an older generation of boomers who are tech literate but have to deal with issues related to aging.

Here are some of his recommendations to those designing products for the 50+  audience:

Enable independence: Loss of independence is one of people’s biggest fears about aging, and products designed without attention to their needs can hasten the process of dependence. Older adults should be able to go about their life experiences independently. Innovators should look at usability broadly, considering the physical, cognitive and emotional needs of aging users.

Easy to see: More than five million American adults have vision loss so significant that they have trouble seeing even when wearing glasses or contact lenses. Millions more switch between multiple pairs of glasses for different viewing situations.

Easy to handle: Solutions should cater to the needs of aging hands, which can be subject to arthritis, tremors, diminished strength and limited tactility.

Contextual: Something used in the bedroom or bathroom will have different needs from something used in public spaces.

Simple: The aging brain may be challenged to retain new information, which makes it harder to memorize a long list of steps or interpret large volumes of information.

Enable control, not just care: Services like the online grocery shopping and delivery company Peapod and ride-sharing giant Uber help people live life as normal despite limited mobility. There is a vast opportunity to develop solutions that give older users more autonomy and control, enabling them to do more as they age.

Indulge vanity: Just because someone becomes physically disabled as they age doesn’t mean they become aesthetically handicapped. In fact, people exert extra effort to maintain their appearances as they age. A 2015 study revealed that boomers and older “matures” plan to spend more than $4 billion this year on anti-aging products and treatments. Many assistive products contradict these efforts. Solution providers who apply strict usability guidelines without imagination create products that condescend to their users and stick out like a sore thumb, labeling them as frail, old and in need of assistance.

Reframe health as a journey: Today’s assistive products for older people are reactionary. People must buy them in response to, or in fear of, negative physical changes. Traditionally, insurance has not covered these products, leaving users to pay out of pocket for something they don’t want. Product developers have employed bare-bones strategies to keep costs down, resulting in ugly, flimsy products that are not well thought out. Everything about this model is changing. Payers now recognize the value of prevention and keeping people out of the hospital. They are willing to invest in preserving their health. Today’s 50-and-over population has more wealth than previous generations, and is more willing to invest their money in quality products.

Help them stay productive: In the past decade, there has been a 67 percent jump in people working past 65. The Center on Aging & Work at Boston College predicts that workers 55 and older will comprise 25 percent of the workforce by 2019. With more people working longer, it’s important that people can succeed and contribute in the workplace regardless of age. Typically, this conversation revolves around physical accessibility. For example, BMW recently introduced ergonomic changes to its assembly line, including wooden floors, orthopedic shoes, and magnifying glasses to help older workers maintain productivity.

Create connections: Some 43 percent of older adults experience social isolation, putting them at greater risk for depression and mental and physical decline. Solutions that offer companionship and create communities will be sticky as they enrich users’ lives as well as their health.

Build on their values: As family and career obligations wind down for many older adults, it opens new opportunities for them to work toward social causes. Businesses are innovating new experiences that build on socially conscious boomers’ desire to affect their community and environment. The New York Times recently chronicled how the generation notorious for living on communes in their youth is now stimulating demand for “green” retirement communities, where residents work in community gardens and beehives, and operate recycling programs and water-saving initiatives.

These are words to the wise or, more specifically, the tech creators of today who must include the tech 50+ crowd in their thinking, planning, and designs, as this audience is just as important as any other audience they create products for and they have the money to spend on tech that really meet their needs.

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